I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Jackson of Hungry Howie’s Pizza.
The Hungry Howie’s story began in 1973 when founder James Hearn converted a 1,000 square foot hamburger shop in Taylor, Michigan into a successful carry-out and delivery pizzeria. Hungry Howie’s is now a national pizza franchise that is loyal to its tradition of providing delicious, high-quality and original Flavored Crust® pizzas including eight flavors: butter, butter cheese, Cajun, garlic herb, onion, ranch, sesame and Asiago cheese.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
The pizza business has been my life since high school, when I delivered pizzas for a local pizza shop. My friends and I worked for Jim Hearn, the founder of Hungry Howie’s, when he owned a couple of pizzas shop prior to starting the chain. After high school, I went to Eastern Michigan University with the goal of becoming a schoolteacher. To put myself through college, I worked full time on the line, building cars for Ford Motor Company. I had kept in touch with Jim Hearn while at college. Jim sold the two pizza shops and had purchased a hamburger shop. In 1973, he decided to convert the hamburger shop to a pizzeria and open the first Hungry Howie’s Pizza in Taylor, Michigan. As I approached my senior year at Eastern in 1976, I came to the realization that there were no jobs available in education and I knew that working for Ford wasn’t my future. With the support of my wife Sarah, I decided to quit college going into my senior year, quit Ford Motor company, which at that time was a good paying job, and partner with Jim to open the second Hungry Howie’s. It wasn’t the most popular decision among my parents and in-laws, but I felt it was worth the chance due to not being able to go into education. We opened about a dozen stores in the late 70’s partnering with friends and relatives and decided to franchise the concept. We awarded our first franchise in 1983. Today, the brand has grown to almost 550 locations in 20 states across the U.S. and emerged as a major competitor in the pizza marketplace and consistently ranks in the top 10 of the nation’s largest pizza franchises.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We are responsible for the decisions we make. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn, grow and make better decisions in the future. It’s up to you to take charge to make your life happen. No one else will do it for you.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I have never been a book reader but have always read multiple newspapers, industry magazines, and subscribe to sites that are related to business.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My original purpose was to have a job that I liked and could be happy doing every day. Honestly, the pizza business was a default career and a plan B. I quickly enjoyed being my own boss and being in the position to create my own income and success. I have always been the type of person to set realistic goals that could be attainable. In the beginning, I never dreamed Hungry Howie’s would become a national brand. I think by setting those goals, accomplishing them and setting new ones made our growth process rewarding every day.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
At Hungry Howie’s, we make every effort to uphold our core values throughout our business. They have become the company culture of our franchisees and corporate staff.
These five values are:
- Treat everyone like family
- Have integrity
- Do what you say
- Be hungry for growth
- Have positive energy.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My wife and I are fortunate to spend much of the winter in Florida. I return to Michigan every couple of weeks throughout the winter. I returned to Florida on March 6. The schools in Michigan were shut down March 10, so my children and grandchildren decided to come to Florida not knowing the shelter in place was going to happen the next week. They ended up staying with us for over five weeks before returning to Michigan. It is always hard to stay with others, but we made the best of it and really had a positive time together. Sure, we had our challenges, but it was a memorable time for our family. I was forced to run the company remotely, for over twelve weeks. I never thought that could happen but must say, we learned many new processes, that will affect the future of operating our business.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
These are unprecedented times and we had to restructure our business model for the safety of our employees and customers. In the beginning, our leadership team held meetings every morning to discuss operations and changes needed to operate this new business model. We had to offer contactless delivery to customers, increase sanitation procedures, install counter shields and social distancing floor stickers in all stores, develop procedures on how to deal with infected employees at locations, forced to reduce store hours due to lack of staffing, along with countless other challenges.
The biggest challenge was staffing stores. The large part of or store staffs are people 16–22 years old. Mom quickly made the decision that these employees were not working during this time, leaving stores with just management staffs to run them. We were very blessed to have the pizza business considered as an essential business. Thousands of restaurants that were forced to close, but the pizza industry saw a significant increase in carry-out and delivery orders. It’s an opportunity for us to be an easy choice for meals. We made a hiring announcement looking for 2,000 delivery drivers across the United States to fulfill these orders. I am very proud of our store operators for their generosity in supplying hospitals and first responders with free pizza during this challenging times.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Many people were very fearful of the virus and that is understandable. I think it is important for everyone to use common sense when dealing with any situation. I encouraged everyone to make the best decisions to protect themselves from exposure. Coronavirus had many similarities to the H1N1 Flu that has taken the lives of over 30,000 people every year. There are simple things that we can do to prevent any flu starting with washing your hands regularly, not touching your face and limiting exposure to others. Some friends felt it was necessary to be on a constant lockdown and were critical of those that didn’t agree. Everyone had to do what was right for themselves.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The unemployment situation and call for essential workers during COVID-19 have compelled many to pursue a career where they control their own destinies. Many will be looking into opportunities that are pandamic and recession-proof, that can provide stability in the future. With a redefined focus on franchisee value, an opportunity exists for the franchise industry, specifically the pizza category, to expand the base of available future franchisees.
At Hungry Howie’s, we provide the time tested opportunity of education, resources and tools needed to succeed in the pizza business with 47 years of experience. We are excited to see the new franchise development world and help others explore the world of franchising.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
It’s hard to say what will be the “new normal” but once the economy reopens, health and safety will continue to be a top priority across all businesses. Strict regulations and practices will be added to the health department’s guidelines and mandatory for the safety and well-being of customers and employees. Customers want to feel safe and would be more willing to return to a business that keeps their health and safety in practice.
We’ll also see a change in operations as social distancing will continue to be implemented with a lowered occupancy capacity, fewer dine-in seating, more space between tables, a greater mix of delivery and carryout sales, and contactless delivery option. The 6-feet distance rule from others will be a bit more flexible and marked with standing markers to ensure customers are keeping a safe distance. People will be more cognizant of their personal space and limit body contact. For example, handshakes which are ingrained habits and the de facto greeting will probably be a thing of the past. Restaurants that can prove to their customers that they are doing everything to protect them will be the most successful in the future.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
The coronavirus pandemic has forced more people to utilize food delivery apps as they stay home, and restaurants close dine-in options. Due to the surge of online orders, there’s has been a need to hire more workers, especially deliver drivers due to double digit sales increases. Hungry Howie’s handles the majority of their own deliveries which means we control the customer experience. When businesses reopen, the world will continue to be cautious and rely on user-friendly mobile apps as convenient ways to support their local restaurants.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I highly encourage other businesses to be proactive to customers wants and needs. As cities reopen across the country, it’s crucial to have an action plan ready in advance. Plan ahead for the reopening and relaunch of your operations. In the process, community engagement will be a huge component. The local customer base supports your business so it’s prudent to engage and inform the community now. Once we identify the new normal, your regular customers, along with first time customers will remember your service during the pandemic and remain loyal customers. It is important for restaurants to gain an understanding of their current customers’ needs and find a channel to re-engage them post COVID-19.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t let life happen, you have to make life happen.” — If I hadn’t taken the chance, when I decided to quit college and my well-paying job at Ford Motor company and partner with Jim to open the second Hungry Howie’s, I would not be where I am today. I chose to take control over my own future and not just let life happen. The reality was there were no available jobs in education, so I had to make a life changing decision. I saw the potential with Hungry Howie’s by watching Jim Hearn’s success. This quote applies to today more than ever. We are living in unprecedented times and instead of waiting for something to happen, look for potential opportunities that could change your life. Create a goal, make a plan, and don’t let anything stop you. Could you start a business and be your own boss? Could you learn a new skill? Sure you can! You are the only person that can make these decisions, so make your life happen.
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