How Steve Jackson Grew a Mom-and-Pop Pizzeria to a 550-Plus Location Franchise
How Steve Jackson Grew a Mom-and-Pop Pizzeria to a 550-Plus Location Franchise

After celebrating 28 consecutive quarters of same-stores sales growth, it’s clear that CEO Steve Jackson has found the recipe for success for Hungry Howie’s.

Steve Jackson got his start in the pizza industry at a young age.

In 1973, Jim Hearn decided to convert a 1,000 square foot hamburger shop in Taylor, Michigan into a successful pizzeria. Eager to make some extra cash, Jackson took on a part-time job as a pizza delivery driver. And it was there that he first met Hearn—who, over the course of the next four decades, would play an important role in Jackson’s life.

Jackson would later leave that job to attend college at Eastern Michigan University. He studied to become a teacher while also working shifts at the local Ford Motor Company. But all the while, he kept in touch with Hearn—for Jackson, this was an entrepreneur who long had represented success, and as a kid, he dreamed of one day being just like him. So, when Jackson struggled to find his footing as a school teacher, he decided to leave his studies behind. That’s when he approached Hearn—based on the success of the first pizzeria, Jackson wanted to form a partnership and help spearhead the second location. At the age of 21, Jackson became the young owner of a new restaurant. Over the years, the partnership between Jackson and Hearn continued to evolve. This was the beginning of what is now known as Hungry Howie’s.

“Growing up as a kid, we were all starry-eyed by how successful Jim was with his local business. He had this huge home and new cars, and we all wanted to be like him. We nicknamed him Howie, because, at the time, Howard Hughes was very popular. So one day, when I was sitting with Jim, we started brainstorming ideas for what this new chain of pizzerias would be. Hungry Howie’s was the first thing to come to mind,” Jackson said. “It’s a crazy thing to think about today. Jim was this guy that I had always looked up to as a kid. Then, as young adult in my early 20s, I was suddenly sitting across from him brainstorming this new business venture. It was an exciting time in my life.”

By the early ‘80s, Hungry Howie’s had become a regional hit, and at Jackson’s suggestion, the two business partners met with a lawyer to discuss the possibility of franchising. This was in 1982, and by 1983, they had awarded their first franchise.

Within the next three years, 65 pizza franchises were opened within the Hungry Howie’s system. The company ended the 1980s with over 160 units, and opened its 300th location in 1995, and 400th in 1999. In 2004, Hungry Howie’s was awarded “Chain of the Year” by Pizza Today magazine. Today, the brand boasts more than 550 units throughout the country. And most recently, Hungry Howie’s celebrated its 28th consecutive quarter of same-stores sales growth—a feat that few brands have achieved.

“For a very long time, we were very much a mom and pop company. We were selling franchises out of the back of the first Hungry Howie’s restaurant. We slowly pieced together our franchise system—having the patience to learn what worked and what didn’t work along the way,” Jackson said. “We may have known very little about franchising at the time, but we did have an unrelenting drive. I realized that it truly takes a fierce desire to succeed in one of the most competitive food segments.”

Now, as the president and CEO of Hungry Howie’s, Jackson continues to find new and innovative ways to keep Hungry Howie’s not just at the top of the competitive pizza segment, but at the top of the list for prospective franchisees, too. To do this, he believes establishing a corporate culture that people genuinely want to be a part of is paramount.

“Ask any of our franchisees, employees, or executives, and they’ll all be able to name Hungry Howie’s core values: treat everyone like family; have integrity; do what you say; be hungry for growth; and have positive energy. That’s because, today, it’s a requirement that every single person in the Hungry Howie’s system embody those values. And I believe that that’s helped us to get where we are today,” Jackson said. “I recently spoke with a franchisee who had completed a 20-year franchise agreement—and he renewed. That says a lot. We’ve created something that people want to be a part of.”

The corporate culture that Jackson helped foster is evident in just about everything Hungry Howie’s does. When asked to name one of his proudest moments with the brand, he’s quick to call out their annual “Love, Hope and Pizza” campaign. Every October, every pizza box in every store throughout the country is printed in pink. For each pizza sold, Hungry Howie’s makes a donation to breast cancer awareness charities. To date, they’ve raised close to $2 million.

“We rounded up our troops to a point where our whole organization became part of this cause. Everyone from corporate and franchisees, to store managers and team members were all excited to align with the program. Seeing that kind of system-wide participation is incredibly heartwarming,” Jackson added.

But even more than creating a company that people are proud to work for, Jackson has found that leading Hungry Howie’s from two locations to 550 has come down to one important trait—and that’s patience.

“It took us decades to get to where we are today—and I’m OK with that. Running a successful business requires patience. You can’t rush growth—you have to be steady and thoughtful in your decisions. And you have to recognize when someone isn’t the right fit—and to not be afraid to do something about it,” Jackson said. “In my lifetime, I’ve watched this company go from a true grassroots pizza place to the national franchise chain that it is today. And as long as we never lose sight of these important values, I believe there’s even more on the horizon for Hungry Howie’s.”