WEBSTER, N.Y. (WROC-TV) — Sam “Soccer Sam” Fantauzzo’s life has been outlined by luck – the good kind and the bad kind – but it’s his spirit that has filled it in with joy.
The owner of Salvatore’s Pizzeria and The Rochester Lancers sat down with Adam Chodak to talk about the memories he made and how they were all stripped away.
Adam Chodak: We’ll start off with the big thing in your life here: soccer. How did that start?
Sam Fantauzzo: In 1970, my Uncle Al took me to my first Lancers game and probably about 2 days prior to that these 2 Italian brothers in the neighborhood had a soccer ball so while most guys were playing basketball, baseball and football I struggled to juggle a soccer ball. Then my uncle takes me to this game where I see these guys make 30 yard passes off their chest and I’m thinking this is really hard and was obsessed with learning how to play soccer and ever since then it’s my baby, I love soccer.
AC: The 90s were the pinnacle and you were part of that, soccer in Rochester, what was it like to be a part of that?
SF: It was so great. The Rhinos were the talk of the town, everyone got behind them, ’96, Frontier Field sold out every game, 14,000 fans, some of the greatest soccer players and teams ever to be around and while that was happening I did one of the first ever cable access TV shows so I was able to get all these players and get to know them and I started a radio show and I that’s where the whole Soccer Sam character came in, I was trying to help the sport I love so much and the rest is just history. It was the greatest time of my life being part of the Rhinos in ’96 through 2009.
AC: What happened? We’re still a soccer town in many ways and yet the Rhinos struggled… it’s hard to watch…
SF: The struggle you have is Frontier Field is the most beautiful baseball park in America, small baseball park, and when the moved to the new stadium, they forgot about the new details of it, if you move your same restaurant, you think about the details, the same chef, the same waitresses, the same dining room feeling, it was totally different, different players, different coach, the facility had different food. The 14,000 fans that loved Frontier Field, probably about 7,000 of them love Frontier Field and not necessarily soccer, but then they fell in love with the Rhinos, when they went to the new stadium it was different. I mean, Abby Wambach, they brought Abby Wambach on, that didn’t work and it’s a challenge now and now the Bills have taken off to a different level, the Sabres have taken off to a different level, major league sports has taken off to a different level so it’s going to be tough for any minor league team to ever reach where the Rhinos were, but if you get 2,000, 3,000 fans a game and 100 kids fall in love with soccer, that’s what we try to do every game.
AC: And you didn’t do this for money. Minor league notoriously is not a money-making business. What made you stick with it?
SF: My wife and I joke about that. That’s my fancy yacht, or my golf, my fishing, I don’t have any other hobbies. What I think is that at every game there’s that 10-year-old kid like me that is undecided about what they love as a sport or a hobby and if I could turn them into a soccer fan then we hit a home run and we do it every game. Every game somebody will come up to me and stay my grandson or granddaughter loved and we’re going to come back to the next game and then years later I see these kids in Section V finals, Section V All-Star games, the kid who came to that first Lancer game.
AC: You were able to keep the Lancers name and history alive, it went from outside in ’78 to what you have now, where does it go from here?
SF: The Lancers folded whenever they folded in 1980 and in the 90s I was registering a name for Salvatore’s Pizza, I don’t know what it was, Super Slice or something, and I asked if the Lancer’s name and logo were available and it was available and I just I’d own it for my collection so I had it hanging with all my pictures in my office and then years later when the Rhino thing didn’t go the way I wanted it and we brought indoor soccer back, I decided to bring the Lancers back indoor and I’m a huge, huge indoor fan. I love indoor soccer, that’s my true passion, indoor soccer. And I think indoor soccer is going to be around for many more years to come. The Lady Lancers are doing great. The men’s Lancers are doing great and hopefully someday the Rhinos come back.
AC: I think that in order to build a business empire like you have you have to be able to understand the community especially in the business that your in so what is your understanding of Rochester, what allowed you to make the inroads that you found.
SF: I tell people we probably wouldn’t be as successful as we are in any other city. Rochester believes in people from their town. The whole Wegmans story is a great example of it. People love to support local and we were this local little pizzeria and I got lucky because my first location on Main St. we were supplying a lot of factories in the area, well a lot of those places at the factories, they live all over the place, Honeoye Falls, in Victor and Penfield so as we started growing they were used to eating Salvatore’s pizza for lunch every day. So we instantly became successful in all these little rural towns from Macedon to Walworth what have you so we just got lucky. It wasn’t anything planned. That first location, we hit a home run. All those offices that are around your studio, those are all the offices we delivered to and all those people lived everywhere.
AC: But it took a lot of time on your part over the years to open restaurants.
SF: That little Pac-Man machine behind me, that’s there to remind me, my wife tells the story that from ’78 to ’83, how I made money, nobody came in, I didn’t understand marketing, I didn’t understand promotions, I had a Pac-Man machine in the lobby and I would play kids in the neighborhood. They would put the quarter in and if they beat me I’d give them a slice of pizza well nobody could beat me and at the end of the week a guy would come and we would split the money and that’s how I kept Salvatore’s alive in the early days with my Pac-Man machine, my video game and then later on I learned about radio and obviously TV advertising with you guys and the rest is history, it took me 4 to 5 years to really understand that marketing is how you have to grow this business and back then pizzerias didn’t spend money on radio and TV so we started, we figured out a way to pay them eventually and then we got busy and luckily my wife had just told me we were expecting our first child in ’83 and the whole marketing thing came together and the rest is history.
AC: Did you always have this grandiose persona or did that develop over the years with the radio show?
SF: Back in the 80s I was a professional wrestler called Dr. Love and the whole Soccer Sam character and the energy of Dr. Love became Soccer Same to help the sport of soccer. You know, I’m really a quiet and shy in public, but my character in public when I do the commercials I’m that Soccer Sam guy, a 12 year old loving soccer, just having fun and that’s what I try to bring to it all, but I love what I do right now, I have the best job in the world, I have best franchisee owners in the world and people in the stores who run the stores to make this work, and I just kind of do the marketing part of it and that’s the part I love the most.
AC: And you bumped up against and overcame an obstacle several years ago, a medical obstacle in which you lost your memory (after a stroke). How are you now with that?
SF: I lost 200 pounds, but I lost all my memory from the time prior. I’m 100% better. I struggle when I meet people I should know from my childhood or the early days of Salvatore’s and that certainly bothers me a little bit, maybe a lot, but other than that I think I’m 100% healed, I have a great support system around me, my wife and kids and family and obviously my staff members are truly amazing and they cover for me in areas where I’m weak. I think parts of my brain shut down, but I think other parts are brighter and I try to focus on those brighter parts and I keep on doing my thing with the soccer and Salvatore’s. I throw ideas at them 24/7, they come to me at like 3 in the morning and that’s where I go with it.
AC: So you didn’t lose the passion.
SF: I thought at one point, when I went to a soccer game and I was like, “I don’t even like soccer. I mean, how am I Soccer Sam?” And then I went to my first indoor game in Baltimore, my friend Chris said you have to go to an indoor game, you used to love indoor soccer. I went and all of the sudden this thing just clicked in my brain how much I loved indoor soccer and slowly I fell back in love with indoor soccer but indoor soccer that passion just came back and in the restaurant business, my passion isn’t flinging pizzas or dropping wings in the fryer, I love the marketing part of it, I love the competitive part of it. We’re competing with national chains big supermarket chains, big convenience store chains, I love that energy like on the soccer field, we’ve got to compete, I love the competition part of it.
AC: I go to these events and Salvatore’s is there donating pizza and you’re doing stuff with the Golisano Children’s Hospital, that part has seemed to have lasted as well.
SF: I love that part as well from Camp Good Days and Special Times to Breast Cancer Coalition with our pink pizza boxes, I just love that we can give back, I mean, it would have been great, people say you could have done this with the money, you could have done that with the money, you could have Super Bowl ads, you could do this and that, but I would rather give that money and help charities that work so hard to raise money that help kids, that help adults to and that’s the part I love the most and my staff and I, that’s a big part of our day figuring out how we can continue to help Rochester charities. We focus on Rochester charities that are in our town and our city, just like I want customers to support local, we want to support local charities and we do that every day.
AC: Given the highs and lows, your take on life so far?
SF: I’m a blessed guy, I’m doing something I really love, I love the soccer business, I love having a team, I love the indoor team, I love our outdoor team, I love that Salvatore’s, we do any average of 3,000 customers a day and we satisfy a lot of people’s food needs and lot of our owners start off with us as young guys either making boxes, delivering pizzas and now they have their own families, they’re very successful at it and I think we’ve created a great path for a lot of people.
AC: It does seem like you and Doug Miller have really had a symbiotic relationship over the years.
SF: Doug has been loyal to me. A lot of people have asked me and he’s been loyal to me and I’m loyal to him. I mean, soccer is a weird business and people will leave a team and go but Doug from the early days when I first met him, I brought Doug here he was playing for the Cleveland Crunch, indoor player and I was an indoor nut and I would whisper in the coach’s ear and the GM’s ear about these guys in Cleveland who were great indoor players, they all came here, they were respectful of the fact that I brought them here because they knew me from the indoor game, my TV show back then covered indoor soccer because there was no Rhinos so they knew me as the soccer guy covering soccer on my cable access show so when I brought them here I opened up a lot of doors and Doug has always been respectful of that, appreciative of that and he came back and played for us, didn’t want a dollar, coached for us and I don’t have to worry about his division, I don’t worry about what he does, I don’t worry about the team part of it at all and he’s a great guy.