CHICAGO—Thirty years in the pizza business has taught Bob Mazziotti much about wannabe-franchisees. Standing in the Little Caesars booth at the 2004 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Show, Mazziotti, vice president of U.S. franchise development for the pizza chain, can predict just about everything attendees will say when they approach the orange-and-yellow booth.

"You can tell them by the way they look at you, the questions they ask, the way they take information from you—they're tire kickers," said Mazziotti, on May 22, the show's busy opening day. "In a huge show like this, people will come by and say, 'I want a franchise.'"

But Mazziotti believes few of them really know what they want, other than a change of career. Few understand the commitment of time and capital required for a pizza franchise, and even fewer understand the inherent risks.

"They've got to be able to give up the regular paycheck to become an entrepreneur," he said. "They've also got to be ones that want to do pizza. If they want to be home by 5 in the evening, they need to see the bagel guy. We're dinner hour."

John Campbell, Papa John's vice president of U.S. franchising, agreed that at large shows like the NRA, where attendance climbs to 75,000, more prospects are weeded out than contracts signed.

"We're just here to build brand awareness, not close any deals," said Campbell. "Still, the people we talk to

A view from above the show floor of one of three exhibit halls consumed by the NRA Show.

now might be a solid candidate later."

A solid candidate—the ideal franchisee—is an experienced restaurateur, he said.

"The people here, they have run full-serve restaurants, they understand what it's all about," he said. "They've run multiple and individual concepts. They know what's required."

A few fish in a large, crowded pond

In its 85th year, not only is NRA show attendance unparalleled in the foodservice industry, it draws 2,000 exhibiting companies--four times the number found at the largest pizza industry show. Does that increase the chance that the NRA show's five pizza franchise exhibitors can get lost among the myriad offerings?

"Sure. I mean, whoever heard of Buck's Pizza?" said Lance Benton, poking some fun at his brand. As president of the 85-unit DuBois, Pa.-based chain, he knows his booth won't draw the traffic of his competitors. "You've heard of Little Caesars and Papa John's, but what kind of name is Buck's Pizza anyhow?"

But like Papa John's Campbell, Benton sees some benefit in building brand awareness, though he's unsure whether he'll return to the NRA show next year.

"I just got back from a franchise opportunity show in Texas, where there were only 39 exhibitors. And that was the best show I've ever been to," he said. "If I could get the number of leads here that I did there, I'd be back. If I don't, I'll probably not."

Pizza Inn franchise development vice president Michael Iglesias said this was the company's inaugural visit to the NRA show as an exhibitor. Seeing what's happening in the broad restaurant industry was part of the draw, he said, but he also hopes to find some good franchisees while there.

"Pizza's always been a competitive market, so you've got to be where everybody's at," Iglesias said, gesturing toward Little Caesars' and Papa John's booths.

Like his competitors casting in the same waters, he said he'd love to net some experienced operators to help grow the 410-unit chain, but he said more often than not, new franchisees need guidance. "The ones who are educated about what's going on in the pizza business, they're certainly going to know about the price of cheese and other problems in pizza. But we take guys even if they don't have restaurant experience and teach him how to run a business."

Mazziotti said helping newcomers to the industry decide whether a pizza franchise is right for them is part of the fun of his job. By turning the tables and asking them what they really want from a pizza franchise—as opposed to any other business opportunity—helps them consider the notion from another perspective.

"A lot of what goes on is just trying to

Franchising information in the Little Caesars booth.

help people sort through what they need to sort through to make a good decision," he said. "For a lot of them, figuring that out is probably a one-year to two-year process, and that's fine."

But what's best, and what makes his job the most exciting, he said, is finding that hot prospect who's ready to commit on the spot.

"The quickest decision makers are those who already own (some restaurants), and they come to you and say, 'I want to do pizza in my area. Is it available?' " he said. "That guy says, 'Here's my card, call me Monday.' There are very, very few of that kind people."

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