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From Rehab to Restaurateur: Joey Karvelas’s Story

A restaurateur’s path is never linear. 

Joey Karvelas’s path started with a felony charge for drug possession.

This led to three years in prison followed by another year and a half in rehab.

Yet today Karvelas Pizza Company is a beloved neighborhood pizza shop, with locations all over Georgia.

Clearly, his story is not a straight line, so let’s start from the beginning to find out how Joey Karvelas went from multiple arrests to multiple restaurants.

Man with a beard standing with arms crossed
Joey Karvelas | Photo Credit: Karvelas Pizza Co.

Going Down the Wrong Path

There are several places Joey could call home.

He was born in Houston and spent a few early years in Las Vegas but he settled in Georgia at age six when his dad’s FedEx career brought their family of eight to Hogansville (the Karvelas genes run strong: the current generation tallies 28 total kids, including five of Joey’s own).

As he grew up, he wasn’t exactly a model student but was deeply creative and exceptionally gifted at football and (especially) baseball. Due to his poor grades, however, he lost those opportunities and eventually dropped out of high school. He got his GED but didn’t have any use for it and certainly wasn’t applying himself to find one. He ended up with too much free time for his own good, hanging out with the wrong people, explaining: “I partied, I took ecstasy, cocaine, all kinds of drugs.” Unsurprisingly, Joey ended up getting arrested for drug possession at 18 years old.

Because he was so young, he had the opportunity to serve his five-year probation sentence and have his charges expunged. Instead, he got involved with methamphetamine for nearly a year before being arrested once again and sentenced to three years in prison. After doing his time, he was released but once again got caught up in the drug cycle and once again was arrested. “I was sitting in jail thinking that my life was over,” he says.  “I remember believing, ‘there’s no coming back from this’.” His parole officer told him about a Christian rehab facility in Athens, Georgia, where he spent the next year and a half of his life. “And that’s where God changed my story,” he says. 

Today he is 18 years drug-free. 

A New Start

Now that he was clean and out of prison, he was “ready to take on the world.” But he got some tough love from his dad back then that steered him down the entrepreneurial track, telling him “Joey, you’ve got a criminal record, if you want to be successful now you have to go open a restaurant for yourself. But you need to go work for some really smart people and figure out how to do this stuff.” He moved to Knoxville with his brothers, Manny and Charlie, and started working in a pizza shop called Dazzo’s Pizzeria under Gavin Loyer, who became his pizza mentor. He learned about Long Island-style pizza as well as the pizza history/culture of the Northeast, but more importantly, he learned how to run a pizza place. He began to absorb percentages of profitability, labor costs, and all the hard numbers, but his hands-on business education was always anchored by his fascination with the art of making pizza. He recognizes the irony of a Greek guy with a name like Karvelas getting into the pizza game, saying “you’d think I’d be making gyros or something.” 

A collage of multiple slices of pizza on a silver tray
Pizza | Karvelas Pizza Co.

From there, Joey moved back home to Georgia and managed a restaurant called Sage Cafe for the next five years. During that time he married Emily (whom he met working at Dazzo’s), had his first child, and bought his first house. Even with that stability, Joey couldn’t shake the sense (and his father’s advice) that he wanted to open his very own pizza shop. He left Sage Cafe to start his own shop, but that first attempt didn’t pan out. Unfortunately, Sage Cafe had closed, which left him without options. “I had no job and I was borrowing money from my in-laws. I had nothing,” he recalls.

Already familiar with the feeling of being at rock bottom, Joey faced his predicament with clear vision and was ready to push all his chips onto the table for one more chance to open up the pizza shop of his dreams.

Karvelas Pizza Company

Joey could tell things were going to be different as he drove in on his first day at his new restaurant in Hogansville, Georgia. “I had this refreshing feeling that everything was going to work out,” he says. “I was crying, man. I was so thankful for God’s plan and I was going to work so hard and put everything I had into this place.”

The results didn’t happen right away. Joey estimates the first week of sales were about $2,000. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t starting to figure things out; He focused on making pizza exactly the way he envisioned, experimenting with different temperatures and rise times (thanks to the unexpected advantages of Georgia’s humidity along with a consistently finicky fridge). Joey eventually pinpointed the ideal conditions to create his one of a kind dough recipe. With the pizza formula in place, the DNA of Karvelas Pizza Company (KP Co.) slowly began to form. 

One of those fundamental elements is the iconic butcher paper that stages someone’s food, rather than a plate. Originally KP Co. was exclusively a takeout and delivery only concept, but a customer came in asking to eat in the restaurant. Joey didn’t have any dishes to offer, so he just ripped off a piece of checkered butcher paper. With the dine-in barrier now broken, Joey added picnic tables in the parking lot and a few seats to the bar and soon the restaurant started booming.

In order to handle the new surge in revenue and operations, Joey recruited his older brother Manny from Memphis, where he was working as a senior manager at FedEx at the time. Joey says, “He was making a lot of money out there and was on his way up, but we talked so much about how we could have our own thing and grow it.” Soon after, Manny called him and said he was ready to jump all in. He cashed out his retirement savings, moved to Georgia, and quickly left his mark.  Already forced to move the restaurant to a bigger location, the brothers decided to now open seven days a week for both lunch and dinner; a decision that would soon triple the business and put them in a position to expand . A year later, they opened their second store in LaGrange, which found success on day one. After the third location started taking shape, a third brother, Charlie joined the Karvelas partnership. Thanks to the trio’s tireless efforts, there are now five KP Co. locations: Hogansville, LaGrange, Newnan, West Point, and Peachtree City, with a sixth underway in Senoia.

The Karvelas Difference

What makes Karvelas Pizza Company different from any other pizza shop? The answer is so simple that the team rocks it on their shirts and cups: “Not real glamorous but dang sure delicious.”

Black cup saying "Karvelas Pizza Co. Not real glamorous but dang sure delicious"
“Not real glamorous, but dang sure delicious” | Karvelas Pizza Co.

The menu is small and no-frills, with only a few appetizers and salads, along with wings and pizza. Each one is well-composed and comforting. I asked Joey what a first-time KP Co. visitor needs to order. His first recommendation is the pepperoni pizza. He explains, “The dough is incredible, we let it rise for three days.” He continues, “Our tomatoes are from Italy, we use a really good Italian cheese, and we balance all of those things together. Just getting a cheese or pepperoni pie is beautiful, you can really taste what we’re doing.”

Pizza with white mozzarella, green basil, and red sauce. A slice is being pulled from the pie
Margherita Pizza | Karvelas Pizza Co.

If you’re feeling a little funkier, Joey recommends the Flying Buffalo Pie. The bleu cheese dressing is made in-house, with plenty of garlic and not much bleu cheese. The pie is topped with creamy mozzarella and juicy chunks of fried chicken tossed in a homemade buffalo sauce. 

Buffalo chicken pizza on a silver tray on a brown table
Flying Buffalo Pie | Karvelas Pizza Co.

There’s also the Georgia Pie AKA the Grandma Pie, a Brooklyn-style pizza with a garlicky tomato sauce, mozzarella, and roasted mushrooms. Or the Boneless Bites, crispy and juicy and tossed in one of their thirteen housemade sauces. This might be the only place in the world where Atlanta Eats would actually say you should get boneless wings over bone-in. Joey recommends getting them with either Copperhead Road (their tangy Carolina Mustard sauce combined with the spicy and garlicky Slayer Sauce) or Hot Parm. You also can’t go wrong with the Garlic Bread, topped with cheese and served with housemade marinara sauce.

Fried pieces of chicken and french fries on a checkered paper with a cup of ranch in the middle
Boneless Bites & Fries | Karvelas Pizza Co

Joey Looks Ahead

With such a complicated past, Joey Karvelas is eager to write his next chapter.

For the pizza shops, the current plan is to grow to at least ten stores on their own and then look into a regional expansion plan before exploring franchising and private investment options. Joey’s goal is to prevent the restaurants from stagnating. “I don’t want to be Blockbuster,” he says. “I want to change and offer the things people want.”

It may seem jarring to see somebody driven by such grand plans after spending years in prison and rehab, but Joey knew “it was always part of God’s plan.” While his family was packing boxes during a move, his wife found a piece of paper where a younger Joey had written, in detail, the things he wanted to make happen in the next ten years. “I wanted to own multiple successful pizza shops. I wanted to work a certain number of hours over a certain number of years in the pizza shop. I wanted to have my family come on board and work with me. I wanted to make a certain amount of money. I wanted to build a house.” To Joey’s surprise, everything on that list had come true.

It’s no surprise, however, that such a dramatic experience of highs and lows can lead to a reflective state of being. Joey doesn’t look back with anger: “I’m thankful I went down that path. I don’t hold judgment on people from any walk of life…I view you as someone who has potential. Someone who is a human you can love. And I think that gave me a really good perspective in life.” When he considers a worst-case scenario, he doesn’t worry. “I’ve already been there. I ain’t worried about it.”

Joey hardly believes that he’s a special case or that he did anything better than anybody else. He believes, “Even if you screw up you can still turn your life around.” But it won’t happen on its own, you have to seize the opportunity when it’s presented.  He continues, “If you want to do something, go do it. Don’t think about it. There’s never a perfect time to do it.”

When it comes to starting a new business, turning your life around, learning the pizza game, or whatever else you find your purpose to be, Joey recommends you abide by the principle he’s used to guide his entire perspective on life, inside and outside of the restaurant.

“Just have fun.”


To see more of Joey Karvelas, check out his exclusive Atlanta Eats series “Restaurant Secrets” here.

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