Pizza artist joins franchise, hopes to make more dough

Siler Chapman, the area's pizza dough-tossing celebrity, is becoming less of an artist and more of an entrepreneur.

Chapman, a 24-year-old pizza champion who has won dozens of contests and made appearances on the Food Network and the Ellen DeGeneres Show, recently closed his Si's Pizzeria in Rock Hill's Millwood Plantation and will reopen it in May as part of the Donatos pizza and subs franchise. He'll soon make the same transition for his two restaurants in Indian Land, near Ballantyne, and in Indian Trail, N.C. He hopes to open 20 franchises in South Carolina in the next five years.

"I was an artist-entrepreneur, but I could only take it so far," Chapman said this week about balancing dough-tossing and managing three stores. "I truly wanted to own 20 stores someday. This is what I really wanted in life, and this is the right way to do it, by bringing in a national brand."

Donatos is a Columbus, Ohio-based franchise with a strong presence in Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky. But moving into the Carolinas is the next step in expansion for the 200-unit pizzeria, Chapman said. It already has locations in Charlotte's SouthPark area, Waxhaw, N.C., and Huntersville, N.C. The company specializes in pizza, subs and salads in a casual dining atmosphere.

Chapman's journey from a teenage pie-tosser with a first restaurant in Indian Trail to budding young franchisee has been marked with colorful steps.

In 2005, Chapman won a downtown Rock Hill pizza contest and the rights to negotiate a deal for a Main Street pizza parlor. He unveiled ambitious plans to invigorate the former Corner Newsstand with a 24-hour pizza buffet, but a disagreement with the property owner derailed the idea. Instead, Chapman opened Si's, a more traditional pizza parlor, on Herlong Avenue in 2006.

Adding to his résumé as a talented dough-tosser, Chapman won a gold medal in 2006 and 2007 at the Pizza Olympics in Italy, which garnered appearances on national television.

But success in show business was met with struggles at his Rock Hill restaurant. After opening Si's in late 2006, Chapman's management team wasn't meeting his expectations, and it was hurting business, he said. So he stepped back into the kitchen to rebuild the restaurant's reputation.

"I learned a lot during that transition," Chapman said this week. "I was able to turn it around, and Si's was doing really good."

No more 'management hiccup'

But Chapman said the experience led him to consider Donatos when he was approached by Bojangles' franchise guru Joe Drury last year about franchising. Drury, a Charlotte businessman, was investing in Donatos locations in North Carolina and wanted Chapman to partner with him on the other side of the state line.

"I was really skeptical at first. I thought, 'I'm doing my own thing, and we're doing really good,'" Chapman said.

Not wanting to say no too fast, he decided to visit the franchise headquarters and listen to the options. He immediately latched onto the concept, and when he learned the management teams were trained at existing stores before taking over new locations, Chapman was sold.

"I don't ever have to worry about the management hiccup ever again," he said.

Hopes for fast start at Millwood

While Chapman expects immediate success when he opens Donatos, others at Millwood have had mixed reactions at the growing plaza.

Supper Sensations, a meal preparation business that catered to busy families, recently closed its store next to Chapman's restaurant. Owner Bill Hays, who owns another location in Fort Mill's Baxter Village, said there wasn't enough demand for two stores.

"There just wasn't enough business to go around," Hays said this week, noting he'll remain open in Fort Mill and will consider another shot at expanding if business improves. "I just wasn't ready to expand. It was a little slow for me."

Wayne Wingate, owner of neighboring Durango Bagel and chairman of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, said a national-branded pizza parlor will likely increase traffic to the plaza.

"It might give folks another reason to come this way," he said. "The more the merrier. I wouldn't mind seeing even another restaurant over here."

Wingate moved Durango to Millwood last year from Charlotte Avenue, and said so far, business has been OK. He's hoping customer traffic will increase.

"It looks like a good future," he said, noting surrounding residential growth, "if we can get this economy back on track."

Chapman said he hasn't had second thoughts about locating at Millwood and expects a fast start when Donatos opens in May.

"I made the right choice moving over here," he said. "We're gonna kill it."