In the midst of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, as Catholics and Protestants waged a low-level war that often didn’t feel low-level at all, Ciaran Kelly was just a kid who dreamed of peace—and pizza.
“Pizza was probably my first love,” says Kelly, who now owns the three-store Pizza Guyz chain in Belfast. His earliest memories of pizza delights came when his brother took him to one of Belfast’s few pizza restaurants more than 35 years ago. He was fascinated by the hustle and bustle and can still distinctly remember the scent of charred dough and Italian seasonings. He was hooked.
Fast-forward seven years: Kelly was 18 and decided to buy a pizza oven and plug it into his mom’s garage. He taught himself the intricacies of the craft—no easy feat when there was no internet and no YouTube. Instead, he relied on pizza magazines, including PMQ, and tips and tricks from across the water, mainly the U.S. and Italy. “Tom Lehmann, the Dough Doctor, was a huge inspiration,” Kelly says. “He was always on hand to help out whenever needed.”
“I drummed up quite a bit of local business from neighbors and passersby,” Kelly recalls, “but my mum gave me an ultimatum: Find a shop or I had to move out of the house, as she was getting a lot of complaints from some not-so-supportive neighbors.”
And that’s when Kelly founded his first pizza shop, called Kel Pizza, in the heart of a war-torn part of the country.
Bombs, Bullets and Pies
Belfast was a hot zone during the Troubles, a deeply divided city that faced the threat of sudden violence every single day. Kelly was just a naïve teenager, but he hoped that his pizza shop could bring both sides of the community together—the Protestant unionists (loyalists) and the Roman Catholic nationalists (republicans). To many in Belfast, that was a ludicrous proposition: distrust and hatred between the two groups had been festering for decades.
But the Good Friday Agreement, ratified by voters in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, had just been signed, and Kelly, being an optimist, thought his plan could work. Unfortunately, the 1998 peace agreement didn’t stop the violence right away.
“It did not start off well as my shop got petrol-bombed and raided a number of times,” Kelly remembers. “Our delivery drivers’ cars were getting burnt at checkpoints, and, on one occasion, one of our drivers got shot at. But we persevered. We brought leaders of both sides of the conflict together at community meetings over a few pizzas, and I was just amazed at how pizza could bring even people with such conflicting attitudes together.”
“From these constructive meetings,” he says, “we were able to deliver our pizza products to all sides of the city with no danger for our staff or drivers, and since then, there never has been [any danger].”
Kelly says he and his team also helped pave the way for other eateries and businesses to work hand-in-hand across the city. Fast-forward another 25 years, and he is now the proud founder of the multi-award-winning Pizza Guyz.
Pizza Guyz, which opened in Belfast in 2017, was honored last year with the Northern Ireland Takeaway Awards for best pizza and best overall takeaway as well as the Yes Chef Award for the best pizza of the year.
In turn, Kelly shows his appreciation for his customers by giving back to the community. According to an article on the Belfast Live website, Pizza Guyz had donated more than 1,000 meals to the homeless as of August 27 last year and provided 500 pizza kits to various schools that serve young people with special needs.
The pizza kits were introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic and turned out to be a major success, Kelly says. In just 12 weeks, Kelly sold 27,000 pizza kits, and he turned customers’ kitchens into pizza workshops through live Zoom calls on Friday evenings, bringing families together to make and enjoy the world’s greatest food during the crisis.
Pizza Guyz also currently offers pizza workshops at local schools. “Disadvantaged kids can come and learn the art of making pizza for free,” Kelly notes.
Kelly’s employees have even been known to leave the shop during slow periods and pick up litter on the streets and sidewalks.
For the Love of Pizza
Kelly’s pizza menu reflects some well-known American themes, such as the Texan BBQ (chicken, barbecue sauce, bacon and onions); The New Yorker (pepperoni, ham, bacon and mushrooms); and the Cajun Chicken Delight (chicken marinated in Cajun spices, peppers, mushrooms and jalapenos). There’s even a triple-pepperoni and extra-cheese pie called America’s Favourite.
And reminiscent of that quintessential American chain, Domino’s, in the 1980s, Pizza Guyz promises that every pizza will be delivered piping-hot to the customer’s door within 30 minutes, or the customer doesn’t have to pay. “That’s our unique selling proposition,” Kelly says. “It’s a broad mission statement, but I hold my staff to a very high level of standards, and we deliver on this promise week in and week out.”
And Pizza Guyz keeps evolving with the changing times. Regulars can enjoy special deals, exclusive offers and surprise gifts through the company’s loyalty program, the Pizza Guyz Club. “We are now launching a take-and-bake pizza offering, where the customer will be in full control of getting their amazing pizza from Pizza Guyz, but they can cook it whenever and wherever they want,” Kelly adds. “We have also launched the largest pizza in Ireland and the UK, as we find that, for parties and get-togethers, massive pizzas seem to be the in-trend thing now. The kids love taking these videos and posting them to TikTok and Instagram.”
Kelly says Ireland’s pizza culture continues to evolve as well. “It’s amazing to see the vibrant variety and different types of pizza spots now popping up in city centers and even more rural locations, down to hipster-style pizza trucks that just float from car park to car park,” he says. “Pizza in Ireland has now become the No. 1 fast food, and I think it’s down to the passion and love that most of the operators have for the craft of making pizzas. It’s not your average fast food, and it’s the best food for bringing the whole family together.”
Pizza Guyz currently has three locations, with a fourth one coming to Lisburn, but Kelly doesn’t plan to stop there. “There’s interest in another three locations across Northern Ireland,” he says. “We want to grow our brand slow and steady and build from within, giving all of our employees the opportunity to progress their pizza career further and, ideally, for them to own and operate their own Pizza Guyz in a different part of Ireland,” he says. “We feel this is the best way to grow our brand, as it will be done with love, care and respect for the craft of making pizza.”