How This Father Took a Failing Franchise Restaurant and Doubled Its Revenue: 'People Were Walking Up to Me and Handing Me Money'
After covering his son's shift at a Pie Five Pizza, Steve Roberts decided to run it himself.
Steve Roberts didn't usually cover his son's shift at the local Pie Five Pizza, but the situation was dire. His son, Joel, had a medical emergency, and the shop was so understaffed that nobody else was available.
But when Roberts arrived at the pizza shop in Ankeny, Iowa, he was appalled by what he saw. The place was dirty and in disarray. It lacked enough food product, and the machinery was broken. Who would want to work there, let alone eat there?
"Oh, man, what a mess," Roberts said to his son. "Give me your boss's phone number right now."
When Roberts called the franchise owner to complain, the owner surprised him with an offer: Would Roberts want to buy the franchise?
Roberts had no business experience; he'd spent two decades as a railroad foreman. But he thought he could turn the place around. So in 2018, he signed the ownership papers and became a very unexpected Pie Five Pizza owner.
One year later, he earned the Rookie of the Year and Turnaround Store of the Year awards at Pie Five Pizza's corporate summit. His success has only grown from there.
How did he do it? He used his lack of business experience as an asset — because it meant he was willing to try anything to succeed.
Before Roberts bought the Pie Five location, he wanted to identify all the store's problems. Research wasn't difficult to do.
"I was talking to employees like, "What do you guys see? What is the good and the bad about this place?' " Roberts says. "Of course, they're telling me 'cause they know I'm Joel's dad, and they had no idea I was buying it."
Roberts divided the problems he learned about into two categories: There were internal problems and external problems.
The biggest internal problems were the restaurant's culture and employees. The former owner said that the staff was terrible and recommended that Roberts fire everyone. Roberts, however, learned a more complex story. The old owner was based in Illinois and rarely at the store, and that absence created a leadership vacuum.
The place wasn't just understaffed — it was also unable to motivate employees to care about the company. Nobody felt accountable to anyone. Some employees gave away products for free, consumed the company's food throughout the day, and even stole from the pizzeria.
Then there were the external problems. The store's reputation was awful, which Roberts knew well—he'd ordered from there prior to owning it. An online web search confirmed the place's bad standing: Reviewers rated it 2.3 stars on Google, with complaints ranging from bad service to a dirty storefront.
To solve all these problems, Roberts and his son knew they'd have to do the opposite of what the old owner did. Instead of being absentee bosses, they'd need to employ a hands-on solution.
To earn his employees' loyalty and get them invested in their work, Roberts showed them what they'd never seen before: He gave them stark transparency about the business.
"I showed them the numbers. I showed them that this box of cheese costs $200, and when they continue to make products the way they're doing it, it's going to cost me an extra $30,000 a year," he says.
To motivate them further, he used a strategy he learned while working the rail yard: He offered small prizes as a reward for hard work. At the pizza shop, he gave gift cards to employees if they finished their training and familiarized themselves with Pie Five Pizza's resources.
To fix the franchise's reputation in the community, Roberts employed a version of the same strategy: Everything rested upon transparency, personal engagement, and generosity.
Roberts is a third-generation Ankeny resident with deep ties in the community. He is even a former local Little League board member. After announcing that he'd taken over the Pie Five Pizza on social media, he started connecting with local groups—and because he didn't have money to give community members sponsorships, he instead gave out free pizza coupons and fed churches, animal rescues, nursing homes, and other community groups.
He also started making amends for all the bad experiences people had. He offered discounts to customers so they would give Pie Five another chance, and even started telling them how much money he made at the restaurant.
"All these other restaurants are saying to me, "Hey, man, you're pretty ballsy telling people how much you make in a day,' " Roberts says. "These people are what makes us, so why shouldn't they know what we're making?"
Roberts also leaned on the Pie Five Pizza corporate team, which provided him with guidance and support throughout the transition.
"Having that franchise and all that legwork done for you already — all you have to do is call somebody or look it up in a book," Roberts says. "Pie Five has been amazing to me. They've let me go out of the box more than they probably should have."
When the store implemented these changes, Roberts says, the positive results were immediate. With Roberts running the restaurant and his son as manager, the restaurant doubled its weekly revenue — from $5,000 to $10,000. It ended 2019 full of awards from Pie Five Pizza…but Roberts' hardest challenge was still yet to come.
Just as Roberts was celebrating his early success, the pandemic took hold and ravaged the restaurant industry. Roberts' Pie Five Pizza was no exception; sales dropped, and he barely had the capital to stay afloat.
At one point, Roberts realized that if he didn't raise $8,000 in one weekend, he might have to close the store. So he did the only thing he could think of. He took to social media and pleaded for help from the local community he'd spent the past two years working to support.
The community responded in kind. The store earned $28,000 in three days, which enabled it to survive. A local blogger compared the response to the movie It's a Wonderful Life.
"People were walking up to me and handing me money, not even eating at the restaurant because our line was so long," Roberts says. "It just makes you cry."
It's hard to imagine the community rallying behind their Pie Five Pizza just a few years earlier, when the store was barely bringing in customers. But the response felt like validation for Roberts, whose guiding principle has always been simple: This business had to prioritize family and togetherness.
After all, he got into the pizza business because he wanted to be there for his son. Then it became a family business.
"You really learn what family is and what family needs when it comes to owning something and running something and being successful. You all have to be in it together, or else it won't be successful," Roberts says. "I'm blessed with my family, and I'm blessed to have such a huge following and support."
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