Pizza philanthropy — that’s what Nelson Hockert-Lotz has been practicing since he arrived in New Bedford as a newly minted Domino’s franchisee in 1984.
It’s estimated that every day, Americans eat about 8.2 million pizzas — 100 acres’ worth of dough, sauce, and cheese. That’s more than 3 billion pies annually. To some who have benefited from Hockert-Lotz’s largesse, it must seem that he has donated at least that many during his career, rewarding blood donors, gun owners who turn in their weapons, and residents who drop off hazardous household waste at city collections, to name just a few efforts.
The community will surely miss Hockert-Lotz, who sold his two successful Domino’s stores on Rockdale Avenue, although he’s not calling it a retirement.
The pizza entrepreneur got his start at Domino’s as a teenager in Burlington, Vt., and became a manager while working his way through college at the University of Vermont. After earning his English degree, he was offered an opportunity to establish his own Domino’s franchise — no money down. Hockert-Lotz chose to set up shop in New Bedford, and within months was throwing himself into causes such as public safety, literacy, and the Neediest Families Fund.
He credits his late mother, Barbara Hockert, with inspiring his passion for community involvement: She was active in the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and served 5 1/2 years as a representative in the Vermont General Assembly. Hockert-Lotz’s brother Seth, who was his business partner in the early days, and owned a Fall River franchise, has played a similar supportive role in that city. He, too, retired last year.
Civic-minded people traditionally are honored with a key to a city. It’s not everyone who gets a plaque proclaiming them “mayor of pizza” as Hockert-Lotz did Jan. 12 at a reception at the Zeiterion that was hosted by the performing arts center and AHA! New Bedford. Among his numerous contributions to the cultural life of New Bedford are the many years he served on the steering committee and as treasurer of AHA!
There are other accolades through the years: Hockert-Lotz received a Patron of the Arts award in 2017 from New Bedford Art Museum and AHA! In 2006, he was honored by the Greater New Bedford Workforce Investment Board with an Unsung Hero Award for his strong advocacy and support for youth programs and the development of new workforce initiatives.
Hockert-Lotz sold his two Rockdale Avenue stores to Rob Rivard, another veteran franchisee, but not before getting assurances that the new owner would continue his tradition of community support.
Formerly of New Bedford, Hockert-Lotz and his wife Susan Goldsmith, director of Lighthouse Animal Shelter, now live in Mattapoisett.
Here, Hockert-Lotz tells The Light about what inspired his efforts; his post-Domino’s plans; and yes, pizza.
Hockert-Lotz calls a quote from Abraham Lincoln “words to live by”: “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.”
This man certainly has.
New Bedford Light: What do you think is the most important life lesson that you imparted to your team members?
Nelson Hockert-Lotz: I don’t know that there’s one life lesson, but we had a big banner up on the wall for 30 years that said “Relentlessly positive, positively relentless” and we kind of lived by that very simple motto that you get up in the morning, keep a positive, cheerful attitude, and look for what needs to be done. Right?
That’s the way we ran the business. That was the ethic: Look for what needs to be done and do it cheerfully. … What made us different, I think, in some ways from some businesses is that we really took that to heart … have fun every day, work hard, and look for a way to be useful. There’s a lot to be done in the world. And that simple formula is probably a great way to live your life. It’s been good for me.
Sign up for our free newsletter
NBL: Did your contributions to city causes begin as just good business practice?
NHL: That’s a good question. I don’t think it was ever around business in the traditional business sense. The first thing we did, and it was months after we opened, was to do a major fundraiser for the Neediest Families Fund. … This was kind of fulfilling a family promise that we had been recipients of so much — I hate to call it charity — but so much assistance from the community in the rough days [following his parents’ divorce]. I saw this as an opportunity to really make a statement about giving back, but more about as a family that, “Hey, we’re now on the other side of this: We can give.” That was a great liberation to be able, having come so recently from nothing, the ability to help others was a gift. …
I think that we came along at a point where this really affirmative belief in a kind of beat-up city was something that became our brand … When I got here, people were like, “You came from Burlington, Vermont? Why did you come here?”
I felt I had discovered a diamond in the rough. And when I got here, there were a very slim number of true believers — the John Bullards, the Ben Bakers, these were people who changed the world, right? It’s not like there was nobody, but in the broader community there was [the question] “Why did you come here? There has to be something more to the story than that you saw opportunity.” So I think our celebration of the city from the very earliest days was a quiet answer to a question that got asked a lot, right? And that became our local brand, that we believed in the city and its best prospects. I think in a lot of ways — not that it was us — but time and a lot of effort by a lot of people has fulfilled that prophecy in a way.
NBL: Which of your efforts over all the years would you say made the most impact?
NHL: I would have to say that working with the young people in the business in the long term had a greater impact than anything I’ve done in the community. To have the opportunity to just be a good boss and to give young people direction and help them on the way to their dreams. … We’ve had a lot of really terrific people go through the business, and I’m really proud of that.
In the public sphere, I think that in the early days, some of the work we did involving whole neighborhoods in public safety made a huge difference in the city. I think the things that we did with literacy — certainly we didn’t do them alone — but in our book drives and all the ways we supported the public schools and still do to this day. I think that supporting our public schools and challenging them every day, every year, to be better, I think that’s critical. …
But in some ways, the AHA! Project will probably be my signature public project, because we set out in supporting AHA! to do nothing less than to provide an audience and a public setting for positive things to happen. And for the people of this city to have a place to show their best work and to reclaim a center city for its youth, for its middle class, for the everyday people of New Bedford, and to provide an inspiring face to the outside world.
Sign up for our free newsletter
NBL: Do you still eat pizza? Or have you reached your lifetime quota?
NHL: I love pizza with a passion. My first pizzas were Chef Boyardee pizzas that came out of a little kit. There was no pizza in rural Ohio in my youngest days, and to be able to actually play with the dough as a 5-, 6-, 7-year-old, and to cook with my father, these were some of the greatest experiences of my life. … [As a teen] pizza was just a job to help my mother buy a house and get me into college. But it’s a uniquely fun food and a uniquely celebratory food.
I will never get enough pizza. I still love Domino’s. We still eat Domino’s, but I don’t think that there’s a good pizza inside of 500 miles that I haven’t tried. When I go to Chicago, I eat Chicago deep dish, when I go to New York I eat New York pizza, when I go to New Haven, I eat New Haven pizza, and everywhere I love it. So I think pizza is something I’ll enjoy for the rest of my life.
NBL: What toppings do you favor?
NHL: I’ve been a lifelong vegetarian, so that rules out a lot of traditional pizza toppings. I still think that often the best pizza, and the truest test of a great pizza, is simply a plain cheese pizza or a margherita pizza … it’s a very simple formula. That being said, am I going to turn away marinated artichoke hearts and feta with spinach and onions? Probably not. That would be pretty sweet. I love pizza with thinly sliced potatoes and caramelized onions, and if you haven’t tried it, it’s a great pizza.
NBL: Think of the teacher who most influenced you. Tell me their name, and what would be the message you would give them today if you could?
NHL: I had the great good fortune to be in the generation of some of the greatest teachers of our time, because we had young people coming into teaching from the ’70s, and we had a whole generation that were truly professional teachers. I was really very fortunate.
But I would have to say that the greatest teacher of my lifetime was my mother, who took me to the local library from the time before I started school. And in midlife, after she had children and had to leave college, when I got accepted at the University of Vermont, she re-enrolled, and we graduated in the same year. And the things I loved — the things I learned from my mother — about the value of education, her love of reading, her belief that education was a lifelong process, and to graduate together … she had an indomitable spirit, and taught me to never, ever, ever give up. … That was the teaching experience of a lifetime.
NBL: What does your next chapter look like?
NHL: I [was] an English major. I’m a journalist by training. Writing is one of the loves of my life and I think there were times when I helped the city find its voice [writing for The Standard-Times] which was a … great opportunity. I brought the same passion to trying to celebrate the best of the city … that I brought to everything else that I did. I’m not sure I know how to do anything halfway. But yes, I think the next chapter is going to involve a lot of writing.
NBL: So the next chapter is yet to be written.
NHL: That is absolutely right.
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Such a great human being, Nelson Hockert-Lotz. Unassumingly living an exemplary life while making a huge difference in the lives of countless others.
I am certain that retirement will not slow him down, though he deserves a bit of rest.
Thank you for the informative interview.
Nelson, Kudos for your service and dedication to the community! It’s been a pleasure collaborating on numerous projects and I look forward to the next chapter!
Nelson, Thank you for all the times you supported the students from Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech that volunteered year after year for the Friendly Son’s Greater New Bedford Half Marathon’s Road Race. My students were Mile 8 on the peninsula of the south end West Beach Bath House. You would donate pizzas to the Voc-Tech students because it was freezing(which is an understatement), only one way in or out of the race course, kept their minds busy and filled their bellies – besides freezing as very young volunteers. We will always be appreciative and thankful to you. May your next endeavor be the very best life can offer you…once again. Respectfully, Evelyn Bouley, GNBRVTHS, Mile 8 – Waterstop
Leave a comment