With over 500 units and 45 years under its belt, Hungry Howie’s legacy helps the brand build toward the future.
When Hungry Howie’s CEO Steve Jackson was 17 years old, the richest man in the world was Howard Hughes. The richest man in his life, however, was Jim Hearn, a Detroit-area businessman that Jackson delivered pizza for as a high school student.
After graduation and throughout college, Jackson continued working for Hearn, who had sold his pizza franchise in favor of opening a hamburger stand.
“Jim was my mentor,” Jackson said. “He’d just built a brand new house in a nice suburb and to me, he was rich as hell. My friends and I gave him the nickname 'Howie' after Howard Hughes. And in 1973, when Jim decided to forgo his hamburger stand to get back into the pizza business, the nickname became the brand and Hungry Howie’s was born.”
Jackson’s relationship with Hearn eventually led the two to become business partners. Jackson opened the second Hungry Howie’s restaurant location in 1974, and the brand continued developing organically through friends and relatives in the following years. After establishing about a dozen stores throughout the Detroit area, Jackson convinced Hearn to franchise the brand in 1982.
Franchisee Steve Peterson is one of the brand’s many home-grown business owners. Peterson has worked for Hungry Howie’s since he was 13 years old, first for Hearn’s brother, Jeff, at the brand’s Livonia, Michigan, location until he opened his own Hungry Howie’s in Waterford, Michigan, in 1984.
“Growing up with the brand, Jeff Hearn became a sort of father figure to me,” Peterson said. “Because of that, I grew to love Hungry Howie’s more and more each day. It was a no-brainer when I decided to buy a franchise because I knew I would be doing what I loved and providing the community with great-tasting products.”
To this day, Jackson reflects on Hungry Howie’s decision to franchise as a decisive moment for the brand.
“Deciding to franchise meant developing ideas and teaching people to enact a specific set of processes,” Jackson said. “It meant building strong training programs, which we still work on to this day. It’s a continual process.”
This commitment to refining and innovating its business model has helped Hungry Howie’s achieve legacy status, evident through its growth to more than 500 units in its 45-year history. Jackson credits the brand’s upbringing in close proximity to competitors like Little Caesars and Domino’s as the impetus for the development of its signature distinguishing characteristic: flavor-crust pizza.
“In the early ’80s, we found our niche with flavor-crust pizza,” Jackson said. “We developed eight flavors, tested them in the Detroit market, then the Florida market where Jim Hearn was based. These tests were successful, so we made the decision to hang our hat on flavor-crust pizza, which quickly became an incredibly important thing to identify and separate ourselves with.”
Arriving at a distinctive product, while pivotal, was only part of the equation that took Hungry Howie’s to legacy status. Jackson explained a number of strategic choices the brand made propelled it to its current heights, though not all of them were easy. He cited the 2008 collapse of the auto industry in the brand’s home state of Michigan as the driving force for a full-scale brand reinvention that took Hungry Howie’s to the next level.
“When your brand has grown over time, there are a lot of established practices that make change difficult,” Jackson said. “The first credit I’d give is to our dedicated franchisees because, at a time when business wasn't increasing, we were asking them to invest in change. We tested everything and proved its value at company-owned stores, and they invested and saw the long-term benefit, which was scary at that time.”
For Peterson and others who have spent decades in the system, the Hungry Howie’s brand is family thanks to the collaborative effort and working relationship between franchisor and its franchisees.
“There are so many caring people in all levels of the organization, and it really makes everyone who joins the brand feel welcome,” he said. “Whenever I have a question about anything regarding my business, I know I can pick up the phone and call anyone at Hungry Howie’s. They are always there for positive interactions and provide me with all the necessary feedback or advice.”
Other important steps along Hungry Howie’s journey from regional to national brand include the decision to partner with a charity aimed at eradicating breast cancer to which the brand has donated over $2.5 million, a large and ongoing investment into technology that Jackson called a “huge game-changer” for the brand, especially the software involved in its POS system that conveys valuable data about customer purchasing behaviors, and a constantly evolving digital and social presence built on vertically-integrated campaigns.
Jackson said the biggest piece of advice he can give about growing a brand to legacy level is that leadership teams have to concentrate on what matters most at that given time and do so with positive energy.
“With any brand, older ones especially, there are long lists of priorities and challenges,” he said. “If you're able to rank and concentrate on those priorities, you'll have more success. For us, we worked with a leadership coach who helped us determine our core brand focus and values. We asked ourselves what got us here, and we determined our core focus was to provide people with the opportunity to enrich their lives through their community. By identifying these driving factors at the heart of our business, we’ve been able to find better ways to embed them through our system.”
“The brand’s legacy and commitment to unifying everyone involved have had a huge impact on my experience as a franchisee,” Peterson said. “As my family becomes more involved and we continue to open more stores, Hungry Howie’s continues to act as a source of support and guidance. They have always been very passionate about their employees and franchisees and because of this, my experience as an owner of my own Hungry Howie’s store has been nothing short of amazing."