The pizza guru dishes on the franchise brand’s history and the secret to its success.
Hungry Howie’s CEO, Steve Jackson, grew up in the business.
Jackson was just a teenager when he worked for Hungry Howie’s founder James Hearn, who at the time owned a number of independent pizzerias in the Detroit suburbs. Jackson stayed in touch with Hearn while attending Eastern Michigan University, where he studied to become a teacher. When Hearn decided to to launch a new pizza concept called Hungry Howie’s, Jackson saw an opportunity he decided was more exciting than teaching, so he dropped out of school to work for Hearn and his new enterprise.
The Hungry Howie’s name came from a nickname Jackson and his pizza coworkers had given to Hearn.
“We nicknamed him Howie after Howard Hughes because we thought he was the most successful person that we knew,” Jackson said. “We suggested [the name Hungry Howie’s] to him based on his nickname, and that’s the name he chose to use.”
Jackson opened up the second Hungry Howie’s location, and over the next few years, he watched as the company grew to about a dozen stores.
“I really think we can franchise this concept,” Jackson eventually suggested to Hearn.
Hearn wasn’t too thrilled with the idea due to past negative franchising experiences, but he was eventually convinced, and in 1983 Hungry Howie’s awarded its first franchise. By the mid-’90s, the franchise reached the 200-unit mark.
Franchising took Hungry Howie’s to the next level, but Jackson says even today, the brand is still refining its operations.
“Back in that 1983 time-frame, we started building a training program to determine food costs and how to train somebody to be successful in the business, and you know what? We’re still working on that training program because it never ends,” he said. “It’s a constant evolution. It’s been a great business model that I’ve had the opportunity to grow with.”
About 10 years ago, Jackson received a lifetime achievement award from his would-be alma mater, Eastern Michigan University. When he accepted it, he noted that his original goal had been to become a teacher, and proposed that his dream had in fact come true, “because we’ve taught hundreds of people how to be in business and how to be successful.”
One of the top things that tends to be a big challenge for most franchises, Jackson said, is dealing with the Federal Trade Commission and the different laws and franchise rules in each state. Jackson would like to see a switch to a national platform “to where it would be run by the government, just all of the same rules because it changes state to state,” he said.
One thing that has changed over the years is the technology the franchise uses at its stores.
“The most important change that really evolved over the last 20 years has been technology,” Jackson said. “Technology and the way that we market the business, it’s changed so drastically.”
Jackson still remembers the old ways Hungry Howie’s would track and present numbers for franchisees.
“It was such a large task, and now I could literally look on my smartphone and I can tell you what any store in the country is doing in real-time business,” he said.
Hungry Howie’s has been successful in leveraging technology to strengthen its customer base. Jackson points out that the brand has the names of customers, where they live, what they prefer to eat and how often they prefer to eat it.
“We’ve invested very heavily in technology, and it’s just paid us great dividends, and we’ve taken that information even further to use it for lead generation, loyalty programs and the way that we market to our customers,” Jackson said.
When it comes to attracting franchisees, Jackson emphasizes the brand’s core focus.
“Provide people the opportunity to enrich their lives and their communities,” Jackson said. “That’s it. That’s all we really try to do, is teach people how to be in business. This applies to our employees, our franchisees and everyone in the field.”
The next level of core values are to treat everyone like family, have integrity, do what you say, be hungry for growth and have positive energy, he said.
“When we look at franchisees, we really focus on trying to work with people who align with our core values, who believe those values and understand how important they are to our brand,” Jackson said. “That’s the first and foremost thing that we look at when we’re selecting franchisees.”
Jackson notes that potential franchisees spend up to eight hours at the franchise’s discovery day meeting vice presidents, directors and other leaders to learn about the brand.
“The item that works best for us is our first core value: treat everybody like family,” Jackson said. “And they see and feel that culture in that eight hours when they’re here because that’s what we feel we’ve always been about, and the bigger we get the harder we’re going to work to maintain that type of value.”
Jackson is proud of how far Hungry Howie’s has come, especially over the past seven or eight years. Changes the brand has made include remodeling stores, acquiring new uniforms for staff members, new product innovation and doing marketing and technology investments.
“We’ve completed 33 quarters of same-store sales increases and we’re definitely going to get 34, because as of right now, with just a few weeks left, we’re at six percent. So I’m very proud of that fact,” he said.
Jackson says Hungry Howie’s 2019 goals are all about growth.
“We hope to open maybe 50 stores next year,” he said. “That would be a nice, aggressive number for us, and my goal personally is to just maintain the pace and the positive energy that we’ve had for these last few years. It’s our goal to keep that pace moving, to keep everyone in our organization excited about growth and making our brand as good as we can make it.”