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Jax Daily Record Friday, Dec. 3, 202105:00 AM EST

Restaurateur Al Mansur shares his inspiration, strategy — and his No. 1 problem

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He started in 1988 with the first Al’s Pizza and also operates the Flying Iguana Taqueria & Tequila Bar, Coop 303, Mezza Luna Ristorante and Iguana on Park.

For more than 30 years, Al Mansur has been opening and operating restaurants in Jacksonville. 

He started in 1988 with the first Al’s Pizza at Beach Boulevard and San Pablo Road and now has five locations around Northeast Florida.

He opened the Flying Iguana Taqueria & Tequila Bar in Neptune Beach in 2013 and he built the Coop 303 classic contemporary food and cocktails restaurant in 2018 at a former Al’s Pizza location in Atlantic Beach. 

Near that he bought the Mezza Luna Ristorante in Neptune Beach and in August he opened Iguana on Park in Avondale, near Downtown. 

Mansur, 56, and his parents and siblings moved to the U.S. in 1978 from Turkey. They soon relocated from New York to Jacksonville.

He lives in Atlantic Beach with his wife, Suela Lekaj-Mansur, a Watson Realty Corp. real estate agent who also was the 1992 Miss Shkodra, a city and cultural center in northern Albania.

They have three daughters and a son.

Their oldest daughter graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, with an MBA. She plans to stay in Los Angeles to pursue a career in investment banking.

Al Mansur at Iguana on Park, his newest restaurant at 3638 Park St. Mansur said he likes locations in neighborhoods where customers can walk up to them. (Photo by Dede Smith)

Their second daughter is in her second year of medical school.

Their son is finishing the Episcopal School of Jacksonville this year, and their youngest daughter is at The Discovery School.

Mansur would like to interest his son in eventually joining the real estate part of his business.

Mansur was interviewed for the October edition of First Coast Success on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross on Jacksonville Daily Record and Jacksonville Record & Observer news partner WJCT 89.9.

What inspired you to start Al’s Pizza 33 years ago?

I was 17 years old and I moved to Jacksonville in 1983 when I was in high school and decided to open a restaurant. I was in the restaurant business all my life; I worked in pizza places in New York and New Jersey. 

When I opened up my restaurant, I was 22, in 1988.

I started looking for a location for a small pizza place and I read that a new concept, a big box store, was coming to Jacksonville that was going to be bigger than Sears, which was called Walmart. There was a location opening up on Beach Boulevard and San Pablo. 

I decided to go in there and that was that. We took a little small space – my mom, brothers, sister – and we opened up a little restaurant, the American dream.

What brought you to town?

I came to town from the New York, New Jersey area. I had friends moving here and I came here just to see them and I really fell in love with it.

Even at 17, I was like, “I could do something here in the future where I can own my own restaurant.” I really was thinking about that in high school.

I was always in the restaurant industry with my family and wanted to do that.

You’ve branched into other concepts and brands since then. How do you develop those?

Mostly travels. Also, we had a second home in South Florida, in Miami. My wife and I and the kids travel. We get inspired by other cities, with seeing other major restaurants, and we wanted to bring restaurant concepts to Jacksonville, and have a better local restaurant scene. That’s how we started doing other concepts and the first one was Flying Iguana.

Talk about expanding Flying Iguana into Avondale.

We just recently opened up next to our great neighbors, Restaurant Orsay, and we have taken the space that previously was the South Kitchen. It’s been doing great. It’s been well received, what a great neighborhood, and we were lucky to get incredible staff in that location.

What is your strategy in this market? What do you find that consumers like here?

The Jacksonville market is growing so rapidly and we look around, see what’s missing in a certain area. We really enjoy being in a neighborhood scene where people can walk up to it, like the Atlantic-Neptune Beach Town Center. I felt the same about Avondale and that’s why we went into that location. There were a lot of Mexican concepts around the neighborhood, but there was nothing like us with a full-service restaurant, so I was very happy to have that space.

What do you find is your biggest challenge in the market?

No. 1 is staffing right now, especially this time and age with COVID, not only in the restaurant business, but especially in the restaurant business. All my colleagues who own local restaurants, we all talk all the time and the No. 1 subject is how we can find more staffing. Literally we are spending thousands of dollars a month just advertising to get more staff into the restaurants.

Do you have strategies for that you can share?

We use our social media as well as third-party companies like Indeed, Craigslist, and just try it all. Getting staff in and then also keeping them has been very difficult. I think we have lost some of our people to other industries. Maybe we are competing against Amazon. We are competing against Lyft and Uber and losing staff to all different industries. 

Al Mansur says he now hires high school students because of the challenge in finding enough workers. (Photo by Dede Smith)

We are looking for new people who want to be in the restaurant industry and the service industry. That is going to be the younger generation. Until recently we didn’t even hire below 18 years old, but now we have reached out to high school kids and we are advertising for certain positions, hosts and things like that, for the younger generation and hopefully they’ll fall in love with the industry and stay in it.

At the same time business is doing well, so you need the staff.

Business is doing great. It’s amazing that people are coming in. Our slow months have still been very busy months for us and talking to other restaurateurs, it’s the same. People are going out and spending money and enjoying being out with friends and family. It’s been a while.

Have you tried any concepts that didn’t quite work out?

I did try one concept. I wanted to bring in more of a Neapolitan-style pizza to Jacksonville, and I opened up a concept called Craft Pizza Company. That was in a location when I closed an Al’s Pizza and it wasn’t received very well. People wanted the Al’s Pizza because I had been there for 25 years in Atlantic Beach and closed it and then opened up a different concept. I got a lot of requests to open up an Al’s Pizza again. So we changed the concept to Al’s Pizza at that location.

So you see what’s happening and you change.

Absolutely. You have to change quickly as well. You have to change with the times. You try something and, if it doesn’t work, you have other ideas, put it in place. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ll never regret what you try.

You spend a lot of time in your properties?

I do. I spend a lot of time, especially in the beginning. I like to make sure my staff knows that I’m there for them and, like I said, retaining employees has been the big part of this business. I believe that’s what makes you successful, having great food and having the right people serving it and having the right people in your kitchen.

Have you considered franchising?

I have in the past, franchising the pizza concept locally here, and that’s an idea I still kick around. If the right group of people approached me and wanted to grow Al’s Pizza, I’d be open to that.

I have a lot going on. I’m in other businesses as well. With my business partner for the last 20 years, we have developed commercial property, which I really enjoy building and doing unique properties. I am hoping to concentrate on that a little more in the future. 

What would you do differently?

If I only knew what I know right now, I think Al’s Pizza could have been franchised out and I would have done other concepts earlier in my career, but overall I’m very happy with where I am. Jacksonville has been a great town. It’s been so good to me. The local restaurants are supported by lots of people and the population has grown.

What’s next?

Right now, I really love owning the real estate that my restaurants are in. So to do more restaurants, I would love to own the real estate. That’s what I’m looking at. But mostly I want to concentrate on developing more properties and (be ready when) something great comes along for a new concept or duplicating one of my concepts that could be in that area. 

What else would you like to share?

I just love the idea of Jacksonville supporting all the local restaurants and my friends who have put so much work in their businesses and their life savings, so I really like to tell people to keep going to the local businesses.

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