From delivery boy to Hungry Howie’s chief exec
Hungry Howie’s original founder converted this hamburger shop into a pizza concept.
It’s an oft-stated goal for employees to work their way up the ranks, pocket some cash and, one day, open their own franchise. Few have illustrated franchising’s upward mobility in action so vividly as Steven Jackson, president and CEO of Hungry Howie’s—a 550-unit pizza chain based in Michigan.
After he started delivering pizza for the brand’s founder in the early 1970s, Jackson undertook a long journey that led to becoming the president and CEO of this mid-sized pizza brand that has reinvented itself in hopes of giving the category’s big dogs a respectable run for their money.
Compared with larger pizza players that have thousands of locations and comparatively massive marketing and IT budgets, or private equity-backed fast-casual pizza upstarts with high-speed ovens and exotic ingredients, Hungry Howie’s is in a unique space with a restaurant portfolio that’s far larger than many regional brands, but not quite on a national-ad-buy level—at least not yet.
After 36 years of leading the brand, Jackson is reinventing Hungry Howie’s with a high-tech plan for the company’s next phase centered on dramatic unit growth. Taking a few pages from industry leaders like Domino’s, he opened up the company’s checkbook to improve customer- and franchisee-facing technology, boost its already-impressive online ordering rate, focus its marketing might on digital channels and its unique flavored-crust pizza dough, redesign stores and create consistent brand imaging and menus from its home state of Michigan down to Florida, the brand’s second biggest state.
While Hungry Howie’s could be written off as “just another regional pizza chain,” it has put down an impressive 28 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth and is staffing up for dramatic unit-count expansion powered by its network of existing franchisees—75 percent of whom own more than one location—and new multi-unit franchisees it’s working to attract from other food-based concepts.
A humble tone
Unlike some CEOs who portray an image of perpetual success, Jackson casts a humble tone as he reflects on his roots and how they’ve shaped the core values that continue guiding the business he’s led since 1981: operating with integrity, keeping promises, staying hungry for growth and exuding positive energy.
Growing up in the Detroit metro area, Jackson befriended Jim Hearn who originally founded the brand when he converted a 1,000-square-foot hamburger shop into a carryout and delivery pizza concept.
Living in the same town, Jackson became one of Hearn’s first delivery boys. He looked up to his first boss as a mentor who had found incredible success from the perspective of a blue-collar teenager. Hearn had a new 1,800-square-foot house, two brand-new cars in the driveway, and was the richest person Jackson and his friends knew.
Steven Jackson, CEO
Once his delivery days were done, Jackson left for college where he majored in education. Because of a dearth of teaching jobs in Michigan at the time, he soon found himself working the line at Ford Motor Co. after graduation. Having kept up with his mentor, he was tempted by expansion ideas for the business.
Against the wishes of his family, he quit his job at Ford, considered a “job for life” at the time, borrowed some money from his father-in-law and partnered with Hearn to open a second pizza restaurant.
“I entered the pizza business by default, because it was plan B,” Jackson said of the dramatic career shift. “I was only 21 at that time, so I was pretty naive and green, but I was like a sponge and doing everything I could to learn and, obviously, we had to make it work—there wasn’t a plan C at that point.”
Jackson had already left his mark on the business before he had actual skin in the game. During one of his back-home visits during college, he and Hearn were hanging out at a bar and restaurant called Hungry Charlie’s. When the topic of renaming his own restaurant came up, Jackson suggested Hungry Howie’s. The moniker was a riff on Jackson’s nickname for him—Howard Hughes—a reference to his success as a fledgling restaurant entrepreneur.
“We grew up in a very competitive marketplace,” Jackson said of major pizza chains founded in Michigan during that era. “Three of the major chains all opened their first stores within 25 miles of each other.”
In the shadow of Domino’s and Little Caesars, Hungry Howie’s quickly expanded its footprint in and around its home market, and also seized an opportunity to expand to Florida when Hearn later retired to the Sunshine State. By the middle of the 1980s, distribution centers were built in Florida and Michigan, enabling the expansion into private-labeled products. Its signature flavored crust pizza was rolled out to the entire system, giving the brand a key differentiator that appears in it signage and marketing.
Reinventing the concept
After crossing the 500-store threshold in the early 2000s, the recession slowed Hungry Howie’s growth—especially in small towns that were singularly fueled by auto manufacturers and suppliers.
The brand saw several store closings before 2010 when Jackson grabbed the wheel and began a major brand reinvention, which included new employees in the headquarters, bringing in a leadership coach, and challenging the status quo he had helped establish since the early 1980s. Jackson hired a new marketing agency and unified the brand’s messaging that had been muddied with hundreds of operators creating their own marketing, promotions and signage.
Creating so much change at once required franchisee buy-in that wasn’t an easy sell for operators. Using a few stores as pilot projects, Jackson was able to present positive same-store sales increases that eventually brought most of the system’s remaining owners on board.
At the time, the company also made significant investments in new in-house technology enabling franchisees to run their businesses with smartphones, as well as a customer loyalty program that led to sizable traffic gains. Jackson says online orders now exceed 35 percent of the chain’s total orders, eclipsing some of the largest players in the pizza game.
Its in-house data shows online customers spend 25 percent more than those who come in over the phone, which has been a major part of the brand’s seven-year stretch of sales growth. Jackson is shooting for a goal of 42 percent of all orders coming from online sources by the end of the year.
Some of the changes have been less dramatic, but still impactful, including pushing all franchisees to open their restaurants for lunch and pushing its catering business and launching more aggressive meal deals to build the lunchtime day part. Hungry Howie’s has also expanded its flavored crust options to include butter parmesan, cajun, onion, ranch, garlic herb, sesame, butter and Asiago cheese.
For its next phase, Jackson has invested in big data to turn the company’s already abundant customer information—name, location, phone number, ordering preferences—to more specifically tailor promotions and marketing on digital channels.
It’s all part of his hopes to mimic pizza’s biggest players as the brand shifts back toward adding new units. Hungry Howie’s hopes to add 20 new locations by the end of 2017, with a wider goal of hitting 800 U.S. units by 2020.