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VOL. 44 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 23, 2020

Hard Knox sheds year of hard knocks

Loyal employees help owner Sponcia adapt to survive

By Nancy Henderson

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In mid-March, while Alexa Sponcia was still in the hospital after giving birth to her son, COVID-19 essentially shut down the nation, forcing her to close the dining rooms of her two Hard Knox Pizza eateries.

“It was really scary at first,” she says. “Nobody really knew what was going on, but I just felt like I needed to do it for the safety of my employees and because I had just had a baby.”

Sponcia chokes up as she talks about what happened next. “We were slammed. People just kept coming and kept coming and ordering pizza [for carryout],” she recalls. “We didn’t know what we were doing. We’d never done curbside. I just remember every day, I’d call my team and I’d be like, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to add. Let’s try this.’

“We kept having to figure out how to stay alive.”

The thought of that fervent community support makes her teary-eyed. So does the loyalty of her employees. “It’s been six months, and I’m still crying about it. They truly had my back.”

For the 35-year-old CEO of Hard Knox locations in Bearden and Hardin Valley, cherishing her staff is just as important as serving great pizza. “The heart of who I am is actually about people. It’s not really about food,” she acknowledges. “I use pizza as a platform to be able to develop and empower and raise up leaders.

“I want to give dignity in an industry that typically doesn’t create dignity for everybody: dishwasher, cashier, cook. It doesn’t matter who you are,” she adds. “What I feel like I’ve built for six years now is a place for growth and to just love people well, whatever that looks like. And that may be firing them. I really wanted to create a place where, when people come in here – customers and employees – they just feel at home.”

Sponcia’s entrepreneurial tendencies surfaced when, as a child, she charged family members to watch her sing and dance in their basement in Jacksonville. “I wanted to make money, so I’d make programs, set a fee, and my family would have to pay. I was always kind of a mini-entrepreneur. I can’t do the same thing every day.”

Alexa Sponcia, owner of Hard Knox Pizza, poses in her Hardin Valley location in Knoxville. Sponcia purchased Hard Knox Pizza in 2014 and added this location in 2018.

-- Photo By Michael Patrick | The Ledger

Disinterested in her studies and highly social in school, she went to work as a cashier at a successful local barbecue joint at 15 and “immediately fell in love with the restaurant world.” Within a year, she was training cashiers and helping Woody’s Bar-B-Q open new locations across the state.

“They gave me opportunities that I think nobody else would have and they believed in me,” Sponcia says, noting that she still eats at the female-owned restaurant in her hometown every chance she gets. “It was a dream job for a single young person. If I didn’t have that experience, I probably would not own Hard Knox Pizza.”

She is forthright about the fact that she only attended college for a year and enrolled primarily because it seemed like the thing to do. “I wanted to do what everybody else was doing,” she admits. “I did not finish. I do not have any degrees. I’m just not a school person. Never have been. I always say I’m not book smart, but I’m really street-smart and savvy.”

Sponcia loved her work at Woody’s and thought it might be fun to one day open her own restaurant. After an off-and-on decade with the company, in 2009 she moved to Knoxville at the urging of a friend because, she says, “I wanted a break.”

She knew nothing about the Earth Fare franchise, but the day after she arrived in her new city, she got a job at the Turkey Creek location and was soon managing the bakery there. She tried an office job once, she says, as an administrative assistant to Paul Sponcia in his information technology company.

“I was the worst assistant anybody could ever ask for,” she says. “I went crazy. I can’t do it. I am really good in controlled chaos. I get very bored. I love a lot of things happening at once.”

Alexa Sponcia, center, talks to customers Jared Raby, left, and Derek Griz as she serves their pizza at her Hardin Valley location. Sponcia, owner of Hard Knox Pizza, says she loves working the line in her pizza shops.`

-- Photo By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

When she and her boss developed an interest in each other, she left to start her own wedding and corporate event planning business, which she operated for three years. They had their first date, incidentally, at what was then the only Hard Knox location, a small store in Bearden, sharing an Iron Mike white pie with sausage, two beers and a half salad. They ordered the same thing every time after that.

The couple married in 2013, and the next year learned that Hard Knox owners Dean and Jill Bastian were looking for franchisees. Out of curiosity, Sponcia emailed them with her work history, and they immediately responded with an invitation to meet. After discussing the opportunity with the Bastians, Sponcia woke up the next morning with a new goal – to buy the company.

“Once you franchise, the product and the quality can always sway with other owners,” she says. “If I’m going to do a great job with it, and then someone else buys a franchise of Hard Knox and gets frozen dough, well then my brand goes down.”

On Halloween Day in 2014, six months after she started negotiating with the original owners, Sponcia took over Hard Knox. She quickly transformed its operations, staff roster and décor while keeping intact the boxing theme and the one thing that had drawn her to the pizzeria in the first place: the food.

Early on, she swapped the type of tomatoes used in the red sauce and was so nervous about the tweak that she brought the previous owner in to test-taste it. (He gave a thumbs up.) “I just wanted to honor him and what he created,” she says.

In 2018, she signed the lease on a second location in Hardin Valley. “I’m a grower,” says Sponcia, who hopes to open several more pizza parlors. “My brain works [in a] visionary [way]. I have all these plans and ideas and concepts. And I knew West Knoxville needed really amazing wood-fired pizza.”

Two weeks later, she found out she was pregnant with her daughter. Determined to follow through with the new business deal, she oversaw the buildout of the restaurant, stealing moments of cool air in front of an industrial fan and laboring in the sweltering August heat until a few days before she gave birth.

Hard Knox Pizza owner Alexa Sponcia says she opened this second location in Hardin Valley in 2018 adding to the Bearden location which she bought in 2014.

-- Photos By Michael Patrick |The Ledger

Altogether, the Sponcias have five children between them, from six months to 18 years old. In her free time – and there isn’t much of that these days – she enjoys running, kicking back on the boat and relaxing with her family. “There’s nothing better than having all five of the kids there, and my husband and I, just being together,” she says.

Her role at the restaurant is now more operational, less in-the-trenches, although she loves to dive in and help out at the Bearden locale, the one closest to her house, on a busy weekend. “I love the Friday nights,” she says excitedly. “You can never get bored.”

As part of an entrepreneurial venture she and her husband started at two Knoxville high schools, in 2015 Sponcia launched The School of Hard Knox, a culinary program that pairs students with local chefs and teaches the kids how to prepare a variety of foods.

“It was for them to be able to know a) there are other things out there besides college and b) there are other things out there in Knoxville than just where you live, and people want you (to work for them),” she points out.

Quan Evans was a senior in high school when he participated in the first culinary class, watching the chefs prepare their own signature dishes and listening as Sponcia talked about food safety and shared her personal stories about the ups and downs of the restaurant business.

“I never really had a big passion for cooking food,” he admits. “My passion was always to detail cars because that’s all I ever knew how to do.”

Over the winter break, Sponcia offered Evans a job as a server. “Within the first day of working there, I realized that it wasn’t just a pizza restaurant. It was more,” he says. “This company truly cares about each individual and the community around it. … My heart is to help others, and being able to do that while teaching and learning new skills is a blessing.

“Working with Alexa is so fun,” he adds. “Everyone enjoys her. She is a part of our great culture at Hard Knox. It’s always fun to see her running around the restaurant on a Friday night checking on guests and topping pizzas.”

Evans is now district kitchen manager of both Hard Knox locations.

Says Sponcia of her protégé, “He just does a stellar job. I look at him and I’m like, ‘This is exactly why I do what I do.’”

Sponcia and Evans are now trying to figure out how to revamp the culinary program with coronavirus precautions in place. Both Hard Knox dining rooms currently seat customers at half-capacity.

Collaborating with her employees to push through the crisis, she says, was “a really cool moment of perseverance and being resilient. … I’m really just fortunate with the team I have. And Knoxville’s been really, really amazing with us small businesses.”

She is also eager to resume her hands-on volunteer work, including a partnership with Emerald Youth, a local faith-based organization that readies young leaders. Sponcia welcomes the kids into her restaurant to see the food line up close, hosts “pizza school” for them, and helps them practice for job interviews. “Rather than me buy a banner [to raise funds], I’d rather be with the kids and teach them something,” she says.

The most important lesson she’s learned as a business owner, she says, is that “it takes a village. There’s no way I could’ve done this without a team of amazing people. I don’t know everything. I can’t do everything. And God, I’ve learned a lot about who I am. I’m not a quitter. I’m not a failure. I’m more resilient than I thought I was. I knew I could do it but especially with this COVID stuff, I realized I can get through anything.”

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