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Family Business

Toppers owner up to her elbows in dough, sauce—and kids


Jennifer Friends

Jennifer Friends, center back wearing purple, and her husband, Barry, third from left, signed a five-unit development deal with Toppers. They’re pictured with seven kids plus one fiance.

Jennifer Friends always wanted enough kids so she’d never have to do yardwork. Now, she’s enlisting some of the crew to roll out five Toppers stores. If they don’t want to stay? “I’ll disown them,” she says (jokingly, we think). 

FT: You’ve signed a five-unit deal with Toppers, in the Minneapolis suburbs. Why?

Friends: This is a new thing. My husband’s been in food service for maybe 35 years. I’m a teacher, for a university in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and I had an interior decorating business. When your husband’s in food service he always has an idea. 

My husband, Barry, he gets so excited about chain businesses. And he also wanted to have a franchise that sold my banana bread. It seems that I always got the short end of the stick in his franchise schemes, because I had to do the cooking. He wanted to have a roadside stand and he said, all the kids could work there. Then we moved to LaCrosse, and I thought this Toppers Pizza place is fun. Eventually we called the four older kids up, and they’re out of college, and said what do you think about this idea? Five of the seven have some interest.

FT: Tell me about that family.

Friends: We have two batches of kids, older and younger. We have four birth children and I wanted more kids. We ended up adopting three kids out of the foster system.

Our youngest (of the older kids) has worked as a hostess, a server, a bartender, she’s done weddings, she’s done everything. And she was a studio arts major, so she felt she wasn’t going to get a job. We said, Honey, we have an idea! How would you like to go into management with your mom and dad? And we asked her boyfriend, now her fiancé, to do it. They’re already working at a Toppers in Minneapolis.

FT: Why did you go for five units?

Friends: We ended up thinking, how many kids do we have interested? And if we have five out of seven interested, it kind of went from there. As a college level educator, I see these kids not being able to do what kids in my generation did, which is to go to college and know you’ll get a job. With the change in statistics, I guess we’re going back to my husband’s idea of the hotdog stand on the side of the road and employing all the kids.

FT: So how will you make this work, as new franchisees?

Friends: We’re just gutsy. We’re not going into it blindly. We’ve been in the industry for a long time. My husband has seen many restaurants start and fail. He’s got a vast store of knowledge. Part of it is delivering the goods. Not every Toppers is as successful as the next, so ensuring we have a good location, well-trained employees.

This company is fun. They’ve got an irreverent sense of humor that matches well with mine, so it will be nice to work with people who I don’t offend. Their demographic is 18 to 35, and I’m older than that but I think of myself as that age. 

FT: How did you set up the company?

Friends: Barry and I are the owners. We did it that way because, well, the youngest one doesn’t have any money. The other older kids already have jobs, so they need to take a step and make sure it’s what they want to do. I will be the general manager. It will be interesting: teaching, interior decorating, teaching, pizza. What the heck? I think it makes sense.  

I love to cook. I’ll have the biggest oven of my life. I love making breads, and I’ve never been able to make pizza dough. I will learn to make really great pizza dough.

FT: It’s going to come in handy to have so many children, I expect.

Friends: When we lived in New York, we had our third child, and that summer when he was a baby the neighbors across the street had four children. They were having a wedding and their kids were out in the yard beautifying it like nobody’s business. I thought, this is the way to do it. You have enough kids to do your own yardwork.

FT: What happens if your kids don’t want to continue in the business?

Friends: We’ll disown them. By then they’ll have children, and we’ll hold them hostage, that’s our plan [laughs]. I don’t know. I do see it as a family-friendly business, and that’s important. We recognize we’re not going to be able to go on vacations until things are up and running. We see it that we’ll be up to our elbows in dough and sauce, and so you might as well get used to it.

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