Kent State alumnus, student rise into gluten free pizza crust market with startup

The gluten free pizza mix packaging.

Taylor Patterson

 Restaurant signs flicker in Florence’s Historic District as evening consumes the city. Kent State entrepreneurial student Jonathan Kontur entered the small store front draped with flowers at Ciro and Sons Pizzeria.

At the time, he didn’t know how fortuitous his visit to Italy would be. Now, he distributes the restaurant’s gluten-free pizza crust mix across the United States.

Kontur, now a Kent State alum, is the previous distributor of Pizza Boss, Ciro and Sons’ gluten-free, allergen-friendly pizza crust dry mix in the United States. He took a risk after returning from his studies in Florence, Italy, and purchased 1,500 units of the mix from the small company and gained full distribution rights in the United States.

“I saw an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up,” Kontur said. “I knew firsthand that there was, and still is, a huge need for great tasting, convenient and healthy gluten-free options in the United States, and that need isn’t being adequately met.”

Multiple members of Kontur’s family have Celiac disease, including his sister, which inspired him to provide a cheap, gluten-free pizza option.

“I have a better understanding than most people about how important good food is for a happy and healthy life and how hard it can be emotionally, mentally and physically to not enjoy food in the way that most people do,” he said.

Kontur knew from the beginning he needed a partner, so he called on his former classmate Mark Styles. He met Styles during his freshman year at Kent, and Kontur thought he’d be an ideal business partner because of his sales skills.  

“Once things were set up, I spent most of my time maintaining the company and I didn’t have time to go out and get sales. I knew Mark was better with people and with selling than I was so I figured it would be a good fit,” Kontur said.

Kontur sold the company and distribution rights to Styles in August 2017, which the pair had discussed and planned since starting up. Pizza Boss distributes through their online website and at a handful of local grocery stores and Italian restaurants. The start-up cost for the business was around $4,000, but, with help from Kontur’s family, the two were able to build Pizza Boss into a sustainable venture.

“It sounded fun,” Styles said. “I wanted to own a business, and it was a foot in the door.”  

Styles, a senior entrepreneurship major, grew the business with Kontur in their Entrepreneurial Experience Capstone Course with professor Craig Zamary. During the semester, students create a business and learn how to build it from the ground up. The course pushed them to try to take it to the next level and make it a “real business,” Kontur said.

“As for Jonathan, Mark and our current and past entrepreneurship students, I never underestimate what they are capable of doing,” Zamary said. “We set the bar very high. Jonathan sold his business to Mark, and this is just one of the many examples of how our current and past students work together, support each other and network.”

The company has a steady flow of revenue with Facebook advertising and media promotion. In January, Cleveland.com wrote an article on Pizza Boss, which created a surge in sales. Despite their recent success, the road to sustainability didn’t come easily.

“Trying to keep a high standard can be difficult, there’s a lot of people with deadlines,” Styles said.

Styles runs the company from his home, and he occasionally receives help from Kontur. The two have grown as entrepreneurs from building Pizza Boss, they said.

“I think a lot of students don’t realize how hard starting a business is and how much time it takes,” Kontur said. “What many people, myself included, don’t realize is that, especially during the beginning stages, the business is your boss and the business chooses your hours. You don’t get paid for it at the start. But, it should really be looked at as an investment and like any investment, it takes time to see the payoff.”

Taylor Patterson is a business and downtown reporter. Contact her at [email protected]