From the October 1999 issue of Startups

Recall the anticipation . . . anxiously awaiting the delivery of tantalizing tomato sauce and thick, oozing cheese atop a soft, chewy crust of happiness. Whether it serves as fuel for an all-night cram session or an inexpensive attempt to satisfy a troop of voracious Girl Scouts, the wonderment known as pizza has provided instant happiness to cafeteria-weary college students and cash-strapped slumber-party facilitators for years.

An inexpensive favorite, usually sufficing for both dinner and the following day's breakfast, pizza represents all the necessary food groups and offers extreme edible ease (i.e., no need for those annoying utensils and plates). According to Doskocil Food Service Co. LLC, a leading U.S. supplier of branded and private-label pepperoni and pizza toppings for the food-service industry, pizza has gained title as America's best-loved food, outnumbering the country's ordering of both hamburgers and chicken. And according to the Gallup Organization, pizza ranks as the preferred food among kids ages 3 to 11. So if you're starting to get hungry--and simultaneously contemplating entrepreneurship--one route to consider is to turn this American favorite into a profit center by getting into the pizza business. Starting out 1,000 years ago as herbed foccaccia bread, today's pizza evolved from dough created by a baker in Naples, Italy. Since its migration to America after World War II, pizza has grown to account for 24 percent of U.S. entree consumption, according to Doskocil--surpassing the growth rate of all other food-service items.

"For a menu item that is popular, profitable and easy," says Kevin Kreutner, marketing manager for Hutchinson, Kansas-based Doskocil Food Service.

There are three reasons pizza is profitable, says Kreutner: demand, low cost and simplicity. With Americans eating 100 acres of pizza each day--that's 350 slices per second, or a total of $30 billion worth per year, according to Pizza Today magazine--the demand is clear. The food costs involved in pizza are generally 5 to 10 percent lower than just about any other menu item, says Kreutner. Finally, since pizza requires very basic assembly, you don't need experienced labor.

Today's pizza isn't limited to the flat, circular type anymore. With deep-dish, stuffed crust, pizza-on-a-stick, pizza pockets and pizza strudel, the structure, sauces and toppings are endless and only limited by your own inventiveness. With dozens of niches and endless pizza opportunities nationwide, potential entrepreneurs have a variety of businesses to choose from. And with a variety of pizza outlets offering franchise programs, it's usually unnecessary to have previous experience in the field, making excellent people skills and love for the product the key ingredients for success.

That's Amore

One growing trend across the country is the take-and-bake pizza, a niche market that's proving profitable for franchises like Figaro's Italian Pizza Inc. Offering a "We Bake or You Bake" option, Figaro's has been franchising since 1986. "We know the [take-and- bake] niche is there, and we are educating and servicing the public," says Max Bennet, franchise recruitment director for the Salem, Oregon, company, which serves both prepared and take-and-bake pizzas, lasagnas and calzones, and is the only company catering to both markets.

Ryan McIntire, 26, started working at a Cottage Grove, Oregon, Figaro's franchise at age 16 until he was able to buy his own. "Through my old boss' mentorship [franchisee Don Suklis] and through realizing this was the type of service industry I enjoyed," says McIntire, "I felt that if I ever got the opportunity to do this as a career, I'd really enjoy myself."

After getting his degree in business management, McIntire went back to the Cottage Grove store to look into partnering with Suklis and other options. After talking with the franchise director, he was given the opportunity to run his own Figaro's in rural La Pine, Oregon. Using a loan from a family member, McIntire opened his store in 1995 at the ripe old age of 22.

"My goal from the start has been to enjoy what I do and [become successful enough] to not have to eat Top Ramen for breakfast, lunch and dinner anymore," says McIntire. His devotion to the business paid off: After renting an apartment for two years, McIntire was able to build his own home and buy a Subway franchise to be located in the same strip mall. He increased the Subway store's sales by 30 percent while simultaneously running his pizza operation. Last year, however, he decided to devote his 65-hour work week solely to Figaro's. With 1998 gross sales of $400,000, suffice it to say McIntire hasn't tasted Top Ramen in a while.

Where It's At

Staying on top of trends and reinventing yourself are things successful pizza franchisors must do on a daily basis. The fact that pizza appeals to almost everyone and offers practicality, variety and a good value isn't all that makes the dish work. Whether you serve pizza-in-a-cup or garnish your gourmet wood-burning-oven crusts with dandelions and herb-encrusted potatoes, the key is not just ingenuity, but also quality.

That's what entrepreneur John Schnatter knew when he created Papa John's International Inc.. Straight out of college with a degree in business, Schnatter began delivering pizza at age 23 out of the broom closet of his father's Jeffersonville, Indiana, tavern in 1985. With sledgehammer in hand he tore down a wall, installed a pizza oven and went into business. Just two years later, Schnatter started franchising, with a focus on high-quality toppings, a basic menu and streamlined restaurant operations. Today, Papa John's has more than 2,000 locations worldwide (1,538 franchises and 519 company-owned locations).

"[My co-owners and I] love and believe in Papa John's," says franchisee Alison Patton, 37. "We've raised the standard of what is expected by the pizza consumer." In 1991, Patton and then-husband Michael sold their home and cashed in her previous job's profit shares, forking over about $46,200 toward a partnership in a territory in South Bend, Indiana, near the University of Notre Dame.

"The day we opened, my husband and I had less than $100 in the bank," recalls Patton. "Everything we had was in Papa John's." With little or no restaurant experience, a brand-new baby and the knowledge that they would be working 60-plus hours a week, you might wonder why the Pattons took such a gamble.

"We knew we would be able to provide great pizza and great service at a great price," says Patton with pride. "We really jump-started the market." By their tenth week of operation, the store was making $15,000 a week, "which back then was phenomenal," says Patton. Now the two own 55 percent of four Papa John's franchises, with projected 1999 sales of $4 million.

Pizza Politics

Wondering if the pizza business is right for you? The most important question to ask yourself is if you enjoy people, says Chicago's Pizza franchisee Becky O'Neal, 33. "I'm a very social person and I enjoy making people happy," says O'Neal, whose friendly Greenfield, Indiana, pizza restaurant boasts a crowd of regular customers.

With so many pizza establishments to choose from, quality customer service is what distinguishes one restaurant from another. "The warmth and sincerity of dedicated employees, a good product and exceptional personal service are what make us stand out," says O'Neal. "I love the work, the people and the fact that I see the same customers over and over again."

This community focus is also valued by franchises such as Figaro's, which specifically targets development in smaller towns and nonmetropolitan areas. "Our franchisees must be interwoven into the fabric of the community," says Bennet at Figaro's. To put the focus on attitude, he notes, "Our system is so simplified you don't need a food-service background--you just need people skills."

It seems friendliness and pizza go hand in hand, which makes sense since pizza has always been associated with good times. (I mean, who goes out for pizza after a funeral?)

With excellent customer service and a popular product, pizza entrepreneurs may find the world eating out of their hands. "The product speaks for itself," says Tim Lucas, vice president of sales and marketing for St. Joseph, Missouri-based franchisor Breadeaux Pizza. "If you're thinking about putting together a restaurant concept, quite naturally you'd choose the most popular one." And with October being National Pizza month, what better incentive do you need to get started?

Pizza Picks

The following companies offer pizza opportunities:

Listing compiled by Liza Potter

Ameci Pizza & Pasta, (818) 712-0110, http://www.amecipizza.com

Breadeaux Pisa Inc., (816) 364-1088, http://www.breadeauxpizza.com

Buck's Pizza, (800) 310-8848, http://www.buckspizza.com

Chicago's Pizza Franchises, (317) 462-9878, e-mail: pwspizza@aol.com

Mom's Bake At Home Pizza, (215) 482-1044

Mountain Mike's Pizza, (916) 929-3946

Mr. Jims Pizza, (972) 267-5467, http://www.mrjimspizza.net

Nancy's Pizzeria, (708) 535-2222, http://www.nancyspizza.com

Papa Murphy's, (360) 260-7272, http://www.papamurphys.com

Pizza Factory Inc., (800) 654-4840/(559) 683-3377, http://www.pizzafactoryinc.com

Pizza Man - He Delivers, (818) 766-4395

Pizza Pit, (608) 221-6777, http://www.pizzapit.com

Pizza Pizza Ltd., (800) 263-5556/(416) 967-1010

The Pizza Ranch, (800) 321-3401/(712) 439-1150, http://www.pizza-ranch.com

Pizzas of Eight (add-on to existing location only), (800) 422-2901/(314) 432-8290, http://www.pizzasofeight.com

Snappy Tomato Pizza, (606) 525-4680, http://www.snappytomato.com

Straw Hat Pizza, (925) 829-1500, http://www.strawhatpizza.com

Stuft Pizza, (949) 361-2522, e-mail: jbertstuft@aol.com

Contact Sources

Breadeaux Pisa Inc., (816) 364-1088, ext. 232, info@breadeauxpizza.com

Doskocil Food Service Co. LLC, (800) 648-7801

Figaro's Italian Pizza Inc. (headquarters), (503) 371-9318, ext. 208, http://www.figaros.com

Papa John's International Inc. (headquarters),http://www.papajohns.com

Papa John's, (219) 271-7272, pzzalvr31@aol.com

Pizza Today,ballar@protechpub.com