Growing up in the industrial city of Gujrat in Pakistan, Khawar Ghafoor played cricket but knew little about American football.
But in recent weeks Ghafoor, the owner of a Towson pizzeria, has been captivated by the Baltimore Ravens' run to the Super Bowl. He was yelling along with many of his 18 employees as they prepared delivery orders and watched Baltimore beat the New England Patriots two weeks ago. He knows the Super Bowl means booming business in pizza and wings at Michaelangelo's, and he has become a fan.
"I lost my voice," he said. "We were all screaming here, it was an exciting game. Business was one thing, but we were excited to have the Ravens."
The next day, his voice mostly returned, Ghafoor began preparing for Super Bowl Sunday. He ordered extras of everything, loading up on wings, mozzarella cheese and pizza dough.
For the Super Bowl, "people go with pizza and wings, and they go nuts with it," said Ghafoor. Pizza is something "everyone can share and everyone can agree on. We are expecting to be very busy and getting ready whatever we can."
Super Bowl Sunday is already the second-biggest sales day of the year for the pizza industry — New Year's Day is slightly bigger — according to Pizza Today magazine. With the hometown Ravens taking on the San Francisco 49ers this year, Sunday promises to be huge for eateries such as Ghafoor's 2-year-old restaurant on York Road.
Hordes of hungry football fans and even casual sports fans will clamor for deliveries of spicy wings and pepperoni pizza from Michaelangelo's, Ghafoor said. And should the Ravens win, the parties — and his business — will stretch well past midnight, the usual closing time.
Ghafoor expects to sell about 200 pizzas Sunday, more than twice as many as usual, and up to 800 pounds of chicken wings. He is looking for sales to double to about $8,000. And most orders won't even come in until about an hour before the game starts.
National chains that rely on carryout and delivery sales of pizza and chicken wings will get a huge boost in sales as well. Domino's expects to sell more than 11 million pizza slices Sunday, 80 percent more than a typical Sunday, while Wingstop says more than 6 million wings will fly out its doors.
This year, the big pizza chains are competing heavily with digital marketing and online ordering, said Mark Brandau, an associate editor at Nation's Restaurant News. Papa John's, in a website promotion with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, is allowing customers to go online through Saturday and vote heads or tails on the game-opening coin toss to win a large pizza.
The average pizzeria can expect a 35 percent to 45 percent bump in sales on Super Bowl Sunday, compared with a typical Sunday, said Jeremy White, Pizza Today's editor in chief. Other big pizza days are Halloween, Thanksgiving eve and New Year's Eve, the trade magazine reported.
"If you're in and around the Baltimore area and can make a good showing of support for the Ravens, you can get a lot of business on Sunday," Bandau said. "You just can't get together for [the] Super Bowl without food."
Matthew's Pizza in Highlandtown is preparing for extra business in the hours leading up to the game. The restaurant, which does not deliver, shuts down early every Super Bowl Sunday because eat-in business all but evaporates at game time. Still, pre-game business is brisk in "half-baked" pizzas that customers pick up and finish off in their own ovens, said co-owner Chris Maler.
"It's a good day for us," Maler said. "And with the Ravens being in the Super Bowl, more Baltimore people will be watching than not care. It has an impact."
All the excitement has nearly transformed Ghafoor into a full-fledged fan of American football.
As a college student in Pakistan studying economics, Ghafoor played cricket for one season. Occasionally, he saw TV highlights of football in the U.S.
"It was exciting for us, but we never knew what was going on," he said. The game seemed to pause unexpectedly, and "there was no explanation."
Last year, Ghafoor's teenage son, now a senior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, tried to explain the game to him. "My [9-year-old] daughter knows more than me," he said.
That began to change this season as the Ravens kept winning. Two of his employees, a cook and a driver, are die-hard fans. With a crew watching from the shop as the Ravens' playoff game against the Denver Broncos went into double overtime, Ghafoor found that his driver "knows every single rule of football. I was amazed. I've learned from him."
Ghafoor, who came to the U.S. in 1999 at age 24, has taken a circuitous path to owning a business. Seeing little opportunity in his hometown, he first went to Bahrain, where he worked for a document management company and met his wife, Josephine, a native of the Philippines working as a nurse. When his uncle helped land him a job on a construction site in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ghafoor immigrated on his own, planning to save enough money to bring his family to America.
In New York, the construction company owner moved him into an office job. But once his wife and their young son joined him a year later, he decided not to raise his family in New York. He contacted a former neighbor from Pakistan about moving to the friend's adopted city, Baltimore.
In Baltimore, Ghafoor found a job at a gas station, working 15-hour days and relying on public transportation to get to work. A co-worker who had moved on to a pizza restaurant told him the owner was looking for drivers, and he began delivering pizzas.
The owner of that restaurant, also called Michaelangelo's, became a close friend and eventually offered Ghafoor a partnership in the business. He began running a location in Parkville but found himself unprepared. He sold his interest and took a job as a manager of Pompeii Pizza on Northern Parkway.
After several years, he longed for the chance to run his own business again. He borrowed money from several friends who were business owners, and spotted a promising location: a closed sushi restaurant in a strip shopping center with a nail salon, a mini-market and other small restaurants just north of Towson's business district.
He and his wife, who have two children and live in Parkville, poured $120,000 into renovations, installed two pizza ovens, four french fry fryers and a grill. For the first six months, the couple worked on their own, with the help of just one driver, then a second, to establish the business and learn the neighborhood delivery routes.
Ghafoor's wife, Josephine, still works with him at the restaurant, mostly a carryout and delivery operation, but with four tables for eat-in customers in the front of the light-filled shop. While pizza, pasta and other Italian dishes are the mainstays, the eatery makes Indian/Pakistani food on special order, such as chicken biryani.
To prepare for Super Bowl sales, Ghafoor made sure to place his chicken wing orders early enough so as not to face a shortage during this high-demand period, ordering 15 extra 40-pound cases of wings from supplier Sysco. He also ordered 25 of the 30-pound boxes of mozzarella cheese — up from his regular order of 15.
Ghafoor said he started getting inquiries about catering parties of 25 to 30 people more than a week ago. The deliveries for food he expects to sell Sunday started arriving Tuesday, and his workers were to begin marinating and seasoning the chicken wings on Saturday. He planned another big delivery Friday and extra pizza dough Saturday.
On Sunday, he plans to bring a big-screen TV from home so customers and workers can watch the game. His drivers all wanted to work because it's a big day. They will be sporting team colors and displaying Ravens flags on their cars.
Now, he's just hoping the Ravens do their part. If the game doesn't go Baltimore's way, it could put a damper on all the partying. And that would affect business.
Overall, he says, "my business is doing good."
When asked recently by a friend back in Pakistan how life was going in the U.S., Ghafoor told him it was like having an open road ahead of him. "It's up to you how far you go," he told his friend.