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The Good Life: Fredi the Pizzaman Lives Out His Pizza Dreams

Providing support for children with autism has also helped Fredi Bello build outsized brand awareness for his five-table pizza restaurant.



 

 

 

Bello is, above all, a family man. In this picture, he poses with his wife, Romina, and (from left) daughters Allesandra, 9, and Adriana, 5, and son Antonio, 6

Fredi Bello is an unpretentious man with a pocket-sized pizzeria, but he’s anything but small-time in his home state of Michigan. TV producers in Detroit call him for food segments on their morning news shows. Schools around the state call him to help students with autism. And customers, of course, call him for a New York-style slice or a big bowl of goulash.

And when they call, Bello always answers. It’s not like he can pass them off to someone else anyway—he is, in his own words, “a one-man machine,” the proprietor and sole pizza maker at Fredi the Pizzaman, a five-table operation that has thrived for 13 years in the little town of Melvindale.

“I know you hear the stories about Dom DeMarco and Di Fara Pizza in New York,” Bello says. “I’m a younger version of him. I prep everything. I cook everything. I have a waitress and a busser, that’s it. I’m the only one that touches the food.”

The big-hearted Bello touches a lot of lives, too. As the father of a son with autism, he founded the Fredi the Pizzaman Foundation, a nonprofit that equips schools with sensory rooms that help children calm and focus themselves. Between his pizza brand and his nonprofit—each of which builds on and strengthens the other—Bello’s name is known far and wide, from the Motor City region to Ohio and Indiana.

But Melvindale is where he wants to be, firing up pies and raising awareness about an increasingly common—and oft-misunderstood—disorder. “I love talking to my customers, shaking their hands, asking, ‘How’s your family and kids?’” he says. “It’s amazing. I couldn’t be happier. And you don’t hear that too often in the restaurant business.”

Fredi Bello personally preps and makes every pizza and pasta dish on the menu, including his famous goulash.

 

“You Have to Be Yourself”

Bello was 11 when he started working in his dad’s pizzeria, Bello’s, in Inkster, Michigan. “My father opened his first pizzeria in 1976 and owned it for 30 years,” he recalls. “I learned everything from my dad. Not just making pizza—I learned about hard work and doing the right thing, how to treat people, how to handle tough things and good things. He was my hero.”

After his father opened two more Bello’s locations, Bello, then 20, purchased one of the stores from him. He ran the operation, largely a delivery joint, for 15 years, but the long hours wore him down. Eager to start a family and for more face time with his customers, he sold Bello’s and founded Fredi the Pizzaman as a lunch-only, sit-down operation catering to a business clientele.

This race car sports the Fredi the Pizzaman logo in racing events around the area.

 

He chose Melvindale because it’s situated in the heart of Ford country. “I’m a few minutes from Ford Motor Company’s headquarters in Dearborn,” Bello says. “Most of my customers that come in for lunch don’t live in Melvindale. They live all over the state of Michigan, in Ohio and Indiana. They come here to work because of the big factories, so Fredi the Pizzaman’s name spreads very, very far. My community is huge.”

It’s a community of working folks, and Bello’s brand is blue collar through and through. There’s nothing slick or flashy about his website; in fact, it’s a bit jumbled, a patchwork of links, videos and graphics touting both his menu and his foundation (mostly the latter). But Bello understands digital marketing better than many operators of his generation. He has 6,000-plus followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—not too shabby for a five-table store in a town of 10,000. “My most effective marketing tool is social media, no doubt about it,” he says.

The beauty of Bello’s digital marketing is that he seldom tries to sell you anything. He tweets more about sports and autism awareness than pizza. Photos of his wife and three kids fill his Instagram account, along with shots of famous Detroit athletes. So when he slips in a video from his kitchen now and then, the response is strong.

Sporting his #insidethepizzaoven hashtag, these short videos show Bello opening his 1960 Blodgett oven and peeling out tasty-looking pies with nicely charred bottoms. One recent video, posted in late March, showcased a pan of goulash—his out-of-the-box specialty—and a pepperoni pie with bubbling cheese baking on the stone. It logged more than 6,500 views. Two days later, another video, depicting a veggie pizza, drew nearly 1,800 views.

Bello also finds YouTube videos of classic Detroit sporting events—such as the 1984 World Series, won by the hometown Tigers—and plays them on his widescreen TV. “People come here because they know I show stuff like that,” he says. “They get a kick out of it and talk about it.”

Additionally, Bello uses social media to forge more intimate connections with his followers. While authenticity might be a marketing buzzword these days, it’s a way of life for Bello. “My restaurant is who I am,” he says. “I’m not going to put something on social media or on the menu that’s not me. But I try to find out who’s watching me on social media. I will post a picture of Dan Marino or a favorite show from the ’70s to spark a conversation and see who replies. If they respond, I know it’s probably someone my age. Getting more personal and letting customers know a little bit about you—that’s a big tool a lot of people miss out on. I believe in being different, being unique, but, above all, you have to be yourself.”

As the father of a child with autism, Fredi Bello has become a hero to area schools by equipping sensory rooms where kids can calm and focus themselves when they’ve become overstimulated or stressed.

 

“A Beautiful Little Boy”

Because he wears his heart on his sleeve, emotion sometimes overtakes Bello when he speaks of his family, especially his six-year-old son, Antonio, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. “Our lives completely changed,” he says. “But we decided this was what God wanted for us and we were gonna make the best of it and go with it.”

Like many children with autism, Antonio struggles to communicate his thoughts and feelings and to comprehend the noisy, hectic world around him. But he’s making progress—he attends kindergarten with non-autistic children now and talks more around the house with his parents. “He loves coming to the pizzeria with me on Saturdays,” Bello says. “I believe that’s good for him. I think he needs to be around older people. He needs to see customers and see me working. He loves to help me scoop flour and stretch out dough. Now he’ll see customers, walk out front and say hi. They might have to say hi to him first, but he’ll say hi back. He has a great smile. I couldn’t ask for a better boy, autism or not. He’s a beautiful little boy.”

After Antonio’s diagnosis, Bello started using his reputation as a pizzaiolo to raise awareness about the disorder. He began in 2016 by organizing a golf outing fundraiser that drew 30 competitors. “The next year, it blew up, and I had 130 golfers,” he recalls. “I thought, if I can do this, I can do more.”

Bello’s #popthattab campaign for autism awareness brings in tabs from across the country. The tabs are sold as scrap metal, with proceeds supporting the foundation.

He launched the Fredi the Pizzaman Foundation and started equipping schools with sensory rooms designed for kids with special needs. Sensory rooms use a variety of objects to calm or stimulate a child through the five senses. “If they’re having a bad moment from stress or not being able to communicate or to do something that’s asked of them, a sensory room gives them a safe place to decompress, redirect and work off some of their energy,” Bello explains. “Ten or 20 minutes in a sensory room can redirect them right back to being happy, and then they’re willing to listen and learn again.”

As a recurring guest chef on Detroit’s Fox 2 TV station, he has frequent opportunities to spread the word about the service he provides. “Whenever I go on the news or do a radio interview, I talk about the foundation,” he says. School officials then contact him about their needs, and Bello makes a site visit to meet the teachers and administrators in person and later delivers the equipment himself.

In February, he equipped a sensory room at Alice M. Birney Elementary School in Southfield, Michigan, to the tune of $2,268. “That one was very personal to me—they were looking for help for so long, and no one would help them. It touched me because it touched them. When the local TV news station showed up, I had to stop [the interview] because I was about to cry on camera. Everything I’ve wanted to do to help others is coming true because of the pizzeria—and I don’t have the words for it sometimes.”

Bello learned the pizza trade from his late father, who operated several pizzerias. His son, Antonio, loves to help his father in the shop, scooping flour and stretching dough. 

 

Bello’s well-publicized advocacy for autism awareness and his good deeds for the schools have, in turn, created top-of-mind awareness of his pizza brand. “It is good for business, although that’s not why I do it,” he says. “Teachers and administrators will tag me and thank me on social media, and that creates a lot of buzz. I don’t need or want the attention, but as the Fredi the Pizzaman brand has grown, the charity grows, too. I see many more people coming into the restaurant, talking about my story and buying a T-shirt.”

And his foundation, like his pizzeria, is a one-man show. “It’s hard for me to hand off the work to other people,” he says. “Pizza means so much to me. The foundation means so much to me. I have so much love for it, I have to do it myself.”

That means franchising Fredi the Pizzaman is not in the cards. “I admire people who can open five or six restaurants and do well,” Bello says. “But I’ve come to the realization that this is what I love. This is where I belong. Growing up, Dan Marino was my favorite football player. He made people happy by throwing touchdown passes. I belong in front of a pizza oven, making pizza and making people happy.”  

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.

 

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