Pizza for good cause Kits: Pizza kits, used as fund-raisers in schools, are a family business for Joe Corbi. But family has also provided competition to the entrepreneur.

November 02, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

The school year is in full swing and that means fund raising is in full swing. Kids are hitting the streets trying to raise money for band, sports teams and sometimes just better school equipment. They come offering gift wrap, jumbo candy bars and, of course, pizza kits.

Around here, pizza kits are a family business -- but the families are in competition.

The most well-known pizza kit comes from Joe Corbi, who started selling crusts at his father's Dundalk bakery when he was 14 and has turned the kit business into a multi-million-dollar enterprise. But two of his cousins who used to work for him have gone off on their own to start Baltimore-area pizza kit companies -- Gianni's Gourmet Pizza Kit Fund Raising and Pizza Kit Outlet Inc.

Joe Corbi and his cousin, Frank Corbi of the Pizza Kit Outlet, worked together as teen-agers at the Baltimore Pizza Crust Co. in West Baltimore that their fathers founded in 1958.

"When I was growing up, millions of people had never heard of a pizza -- can you imagine?" Joe Corbi said. "People called them tomato pies. That was the beginning of selling pizza in the U.S."

Joe Corbi became plant manager at 28 and remained at that job for 10 years. But at age 38 he was stricken with an illness that was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis and had to quit his job. He spent a year and a half living with friends in a Pennsylvania farmhouse, soaking up some rest and relaxation. But the R & R turned into R & D as he and his friends experimented with different pizza sauces.

Corbi's illness went into remission and, in 1983, he opened Joe Corbi's Wholesale Pizza Inc. in Columbia. The business originally sold pizza kits in its retail shop and provided area school cafeterias with crusts. School officials began coming to his store to get and sell the kits to raise money, he said, and business snowballed.

"One school bought some and another bought some and it just got bigger and bigger," said Joe Corbi, 53.

He closed the Columbia shop in 1990 and moved to his current location on DeSoto Road in Southwest Baltimore. Now, with more than 300 employees and annual revenue in the neighborhood of $25 million, he deals solely in fund-raising pizza kits. He has distribution offices in South Carolina, Georgia, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The kits come with three pre-made crusts, sauce and cheese and sell for between $14 and $16 depending on the type. Groups that sell up to 299 kits make a $5.50 profit on each, with the maximum profit being $7 if 2,000 or more are sold.

Diane Nye, a computer resource teacher at Red House Run Elementary School in Rosedale, said that over the past three years students there have sold enough pizzas to raise more than $40,000. They used the money to buy 30 new computers and link themselves to the Internet. If they had waited for Baltimore County to pay for it, she said, the students wouldn't be online until 2005 at the earliest.

"If there is any complaint, it would be that Joe Corbi's has flooded the market," she said. "They let anyone sell any time."

Joe Fischer, director of bands at Calvert Hall College high school, said he has the same complaint. For years band members have been selling Corbi's pizza, he said, but lately they're harder to unload because so many kids are selling them.

The company has been "wonderful to deal with," Fischer said, but next year they'll probably look to another funding source -- possibly a concert series -- to raise money.

While Corbi has a stronghold in this area, his cousins are also fighting for a piece of the pie.

Gianni's is owned by Corbi's first cousin, Ed Kelly, and Kelly's son John and daughter Lynn Case. Ed and John Kelly joined Corbi's company about eight years ago -- Ed in marketing and John in operations. As Corbi's physical condition deteriorated -- he now uses a wheelchair and sometimes is too weak to talk -- they put in more and more time at work.

Between them, they had about a 25 percent share in the privately held company, and in June 1993 approached Corbi about receiving more, feeling they had helped in the company's success.

When Corbi refused, they left to form their own company. Corbi filed a lawsuit, hoping to stop the new business. It was settled out of court, with the Kellys selling Corbi their share of his business and going ahead with Gianni's, which opened in Linthicum that fall.

Lynn Case, Ed Kelly's daughter, briefly worked for Corbi and now owns a third of Gianni's. She said the company did $5.5 million in business last year, up from $4.8 million the year before.

Gianni's recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, but she said she is "confident we'll come out of it."

Frank Corbi also briefly worked for his cousin until 1996, when he opened his own business in Timonium, which sells Uncle Frank's Gourmet Pizza Kits. He doesn't see himself in direct competition with Joe Corbi and said there's no bad blood between the two.

"I was in the restaurant business, too, and there are restaurants on every corner," he said. "People go to different ones; there's nothing wrong with competition as long as it's good -- not like Glendening and Sauerbrey."

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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