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Sami Ladeki and his San Diego-based Sammy’s chain is still going strong after 32 years. Here’s the secret to his success

Kung pao chicken, one of the new Asian dishes on the menu at Sammy's Restaurant & Bar in Chula vista.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

During the pandemic, owner/founder Sami Ladeki opened a Chula Vista location and remodeled his La Mesa restaurant

The average lifespan of a restaurant in America is only about five years, but Sami Ladeki says there’s a secret to why his San Diego-based Sammy’s Restaurant chain celebrated its 32nd birthday in June.

The 78-year-old La Jolla resident said he has never stopped reinventing the menu for his chain, which started out as a single Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza location in June 1989 and has since expanded to include two different restaurant concepts at 16 locations in California and Nevada, including at two airports and two card rooms.

In August, Ladeki reopened his La Mesa location after a $1 million renovation and expansion, and he also unveiled his newest venue, a 165-seat location at the Seven Mile Casino card room in Chula Vista. To accommodate the needs and tastes of of Seven Mile’s customers, the Chula Vista Sammy’s is open 24 hours a day, has a full bar and it serves several Asian dishes. During the pandemic, Ladeki also made updates to all of his Sammy’s locations.

“The pandemic has been hard for so many restaurants, and small businesses alike, but if the pandemic has offered us anything, it has been a chance for owners to revamp our restaurants and bars in look and feel,” he said.

Ladeki’s restaurants are his passion, so he spends all day, every day, visiting his restaurant locations to regularly taste the food for consistency, meet with management and staff and get feedback from customers. Recently he made numerous visits to the Chula Vista location just to make sure the overhead lights in its glass-walled, greenhouse-style dining room glowed just right at night. He and his wife also spend six months of each year in Nevada, where he operates four Sammy’s locations, including one in the city’s airport and two with gaming licenses.

Sami Ladeki seated in his new greenhouse-style Sammy's Restaurant & Bar location in Chula Vista.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When Ladeki started out, Sammy’s offered a small menu of pastas, salad and wood-fired pizzas, including its enduring No. 1 pie, the LaDou’s Barbecue Chicken pizza, created by consulting chef Ed LaDou, who helped launch the gourmet California-style pizza trend in the early 1980s at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills. Over the years, Ladeki has constantly tinkered with the Sammy’s menu to accommodate changing regional tastes. Today there are fewer pizzas at Sammy’s and more shareable plates.

The La Mesa location at 8555 Fletcher Parkway, which reopened Aug. 30, has been expanded by 2,000 square feet. Ladeki used that reopening to introduce his latest Sammy’s menu, which he says is his favorite collection of dishes ever. It emphasizes more sandwiches, pitas, tacos and fresh fish entrees, as well as a new hummus section, with four different flavors. But some items have stuck around since day one, including the chain’s No. 1-selling dish, the balsamic grilled chicken salad.

Beef pho, a Vietnamese noodle dish on the menu at the new Sammy's Restaurant & Bar location in Chula Vista.
(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The new Chula Vista location at 285 Bay Blvd. is the result of Ladeki’s 33-year friendship with fellow La Jollan Rod Stone, and his son Ryan Stone. The Stones took over management of Seven Mile in 2017 after its former operator was ousted in a 2015 money-laundering scandal. Ladeki opened a 250-seat Sammy’s at the Stones’ card room in the Sacramento-area town of Citrus Heights a few years ago. The Chula Vista Sammy’s began offering food service to Seven Mile patrons under an outdoor tent in April. Its dining room opened last month.

Just as Ladeki brought in LaDou for pizza consultation three decades ago, he hired a Japanese chef in Sacramento to create the Asian-inspired items that are only available at the Sammy’s card room locations. They include kung pao chicken, salt and pepper shrimp, roast duck wonton noodle soup, beef pho, grilled short rib and grilled pork chop. Because the card room locations are open 24 hours a day, they serve select breakfast items from Ladeki’s other restaurant concept, Toast Gastrobrunch in Carlsbad. On weekends, the full Toast menu is offered at the Chula Vista location.

For information on Sammy’s restaurants, visit sammyspizza.com.


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