When Jim Reichle claims his wife "can tear a motor down as fast as I can," he's not finishing a "You might be a redneck" joke. He's heaping praise on Ann, his spouse of 12 years and partner in Angelina's Pizza in Olmstead Falls, Ohio.
Before life as a pizzeria owner, Ann, a five-foot-two 50-year-old fireball, worked as a mechanic "cranking wrenches" for Hertz Rent-A-Car when she was 35. She even built her own street-strip drag car in 1981, and raced it for five years. At the controls of her 1972 "Little Hemi" Dodge Dart, she made a fool of many a male who wrongly assumed the lady in the next lane couldn't handle the horsepower below her right heel.
"They'd give you that look that says, 'You're a girl,' " said Ann Reichle. "The high school boys were especially easy. They never figured out that the goal is to get off the line without rubber squealing."
Much of the rest of Ann's life, however, hasn't been so easy, said her husband. Nearly every time she made a career move, she met resistance from a male superior who believed women weren't fit for the jobs she wanted.
"I think she's hit every glass ceiling there is," said Jim, 44. "She would get a little frustrated about it because she was always capable. But I never saw her get discouraged. I always saw her get stronger."
Just out of high school, she did long-distance driving duty for Hertz, picking up and delivering cars to rental sites. A few years later she applied for a job fueling and washing them instead, and the manager told her the company had never "had a woman doing that." Undeterred, she asked his boss about the job.
"I went over his head to a city manager, and he hired me," said Ann. "The good thing was that I didn't have to worry about getting speeding tickets like I did in the other job. I kind of had a lead foot."
After becoming the only woman tow-truck driver in Hertz's worldwide organization, she enrolled in the company's auto mechanics' school to learn how repair and tune its cars when she was 35. But after only a year, the company laid off multiple low-seniority employees, including Ann.
Only days later, she applied for work at a Firestone tire store, where she met Jim.
"He hired me as salesperson because I knew cars inside and out," she said. But soon she learned that the company's attitude toward hiring women wasn't as progressive as she'd hoped. "They'd hire you, but they didn't want to promote you."
Despite a record of solid sales -- and a reputation for busting the store's mechanics for making unnecessary repairs to customers' cars ("I wouldn't let them slide things past, because I knew their jobs, too,") the company wouldn't move her up. And even when a lawyer told her she had solid grounds for a discrimination suit, he warned her that the battle might not be worth the bruises.
"I knew who I was and what was important to me, so I left," said Ann.
Her Firestone experience wasn't a total loss, however. While working there, she and Jim, both divorced parents, married and blended their families. After leaving the tire company, she raised their combined six children, and Jim worked to pick up the financial slack delivering pizza for a high school friend.
In 1995, the friend asked Jim if he'd become a partner and open a new store. Seizing the opportunity to work for themselves, Jim and Ann scraped together all the funds they could to get started -- and then the opportunity seized them.
"I think she's hit every glass ceiling there is. She would get a little frustrated about it because she was always capable. But I never saw her get discouraged. I always saw her get stronger."
"At the last minute (the partner) didn't have any money," said Ann. "We knew nothing about running a pizzeria. I didn't learn how to make a pizza until the day we opened the store!"
The partner assured them that it wasn't difficult, and that he'd be around to help and guide them. He lied on both accounts.
After six months of infrequent appearances, he was gone, and the Reichles faced a sink-or-swim proposition: Learn everything about running a pizzeria pronto, or give up and go home.
Gene Zannoni, president of Zannoni Italian Foods, a distributor in nearby Cleveland, recalled Ann's rapid rise from amateur to expert.
"We gave her a little insight as to what the rest of our customers were doing, suggested how she could promote and manage the business," said Zannoni. "She took out the best of what we said and implemented it into her business. She's an excellent operator."
Eager to learn more, Ann asked for advice from anyone she thought could help Angelina's. The Reichles became members of the Ohio Restaurant Association, got involved in Olmstead Falls' Chamber of Commerce, attended foodservice expos of every stripe, and bent the ears of non-competing pizzeria restaurateurs.
"When every dollar you have in life is depending upon you learning, you learn pretty quick," she said. "That was a huge learning experience, but it was very worthwhile."
After three years, their operation was humming, and a second Angelina's was opened.
And then one year later, Donatos Pizza came to town. The venerable Columbus, Ohio, chain had a strong following, and the Reichles knew the competition would be stiff. What they didn't know was that it would be so cocky.
"They took direct aim at us, shopping our stores, sitting in our parking lot and watching our customers," said Ann. "They even went to local chamber of commerce meetings and said they were going to take over the town. That was very scary."
Scary enough to make Angelina's keenly competitive. The stores began accepting all competitors' coupons and advertising its victories in four Ohio pizza contests. Angelina's advertising slogan became, "Do you prefer best on the block, or the best in the state? It's your choice." Another clever tagline focused on its contributions to the local community: "Our roots are here, not our branches."
Ann credits operator-turned-pizza-consultant Dave Ostrander with training her and Jim for the battle.
"Through helping us regroup and get focused on ourselves instead of them, we got stronger and better," she said. "Honest to Pete, Dave saved our business. He'd been through that before, and he'd beat the competition."
And so did Angelina's. After one year, the Donatos franchisee sold the store back to the corporation.
"He said he couldn't crack our market," Ann said. "They were assuming they would roll over us, but they didn't."
Zannoni, who has seen plenty of his clients go belly up under such pressure, said he knew Ann had the will to survive despite it.
"Ann's extremely aggressive and gets out and gets the business," Zannoni said. "But she's a good people person, too. She's good with customers and employees, and she and her husband give a lot back to their community."
Is the Man of the House Around?
As well known as she is in Olmstead Falls, a town of about 8,000, Ann said people still occasionally walk in the door, look straight at her and ask to speak to the owner, assuming it's a male. The oversight is more entertaining than offensive, she said, because she's proven to herself and others that she's worthy of the owner title.
Zannoni said he's "been impressed with her since day one," and that only fools assume men automatically are better in business. "To tell you the truth, females do a better job than males do in this business, I think. They're more attentive to detail; they always have to be one step ahead."
Like Zannoni, Jim calls his wife a tremendous competitor, but one whose struggles have wizened and softened her rather than embittered her.
"She's got this tremendous compassion I don't see in others, and that softens the business edge," said Jim, who oversees all human resource, accounting and legal duties, while Ann manages food and operations. "She sees both sides of a story. She's very slow to judge and doesn't take things personally. She's tough, but it's not a hard shell that covers her. Her compassion makes her strong."