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He Opened a Pizza Restaurant to Serve the Native American Community. It Was So Successful He's Opening 20 More. Dennis Johnson thought that Bemidji, Minnesota needed a place for the surrounding tribes to work, and hang out. He was right.

By Carl Stoffers Edited by Frances Dodds

This story appears in the November 2023 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Pizza Ranch

Many things make Bemidji, Minnesota, a special place. Among them: It's the central city for three Native American reservations, it's the northernmost city connected to the Mississippi River, and it's where the folklore figure Paul Bunyan was supposedly born. But according to an entrepreneur in the area, it was sorely lacking something important: Pizza Ranch, a buffet restaurant that's thriving in the Midwest.

"I live in South Dakota, so we're in Pizza Ranch country," says Dennis Johnson, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, who'd been working in commercial real estate. When he visited Bemidji in 2020, he was surprised not to find one there. That's too bad, he thought; Pizza Ranch could be a gathering place and a steady employer for local tribes. He asked around and met local entrepreneur Bob Bush, who'd had the same thought. "I said I would invest and help him find the real estate," Johnson says. "A partnership was born." Johnson and Bush opened their first location in Bemidji in January, and then a second in Kearney, Nebraska, in September.

Related: The Secret to a Successful Franchise? A 'Community'-Based Business

Here, Johnson talks about what the Pizza Ranch brand can offer his Native American community.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Pizza Ranch

Did you know anything about operating pizza restaurants when you started this journey?

No, and I said, "Pizza Ranch is fabulous, but I don't want to be the guy running it." Bob said he had someone to run it. So three of the five members of our management team came with that partnership. I've always said I wouldn't want to own a restaurant, but of all the times to start one, this idea was born in June 2020, in the middle of COVID. Not just a restaurant, but a buffet restaurant on top of that. It seems kind of crazy, doesn't it?

You must have really believed in the opportunity.

100% conviction. Pizza Ranch is really a warm and inviting atmosphere. "Gathering place" is really the best term for it. You'll have multiple generations at the tables: kids and grandkids. And we've got arcades attached to some of our restaurants. That doesn't provide huge revenue, but it takes a lot less human capital to run since you're leveraging games and technology.

Related: Making Your Community The Secret Weapon in Rapid Franchise Expansion

Do you feel like Native American areas are often underserved with franchises?

I do. I think that's one of our success factors in Bemidji. We opened in January and, fast-forward to this coming January, my prediction is that we'll have exceeded our forecasted revenues by about 15%. And I attribute a lot of that to the Native American communities. We also have mostly tribal people working for us. We've even had some people that said the only reason they applied to work here was they heard it was a tribal-owned business. I love that.

Have there been any challenges for you as a Native American business owner?

No. Historically that's been a problem, but there does seem to be a changing tide. The city of Bemidji has reached out to at least one of those three tribes and met with them in the last year to say, "Hey, we'd love it if you guys did more business in Bemidji. We'd love to have more tribal representation here." I don't know if that would have been the case 20 years ago.

Do you have a plan for expansion?

I've got a plan to do another 10 locations over the next five years, and we'd like to expand to 20 in a seven-to-10-year period. And if all goes as we anticipate, we can even accelerate that a little bit.

Related: How Immigrating From Argentina to the Bronx at 11 Prepared Her For Life as a Franchisee

Carl Stoffers

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Business Editor

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