Hungry Howie's franchisee O.J. Flowers was one of those pizza lovers who left the outside crust when he ate a slice. Those "bones" often ended up back in the pizza box, destined for the trash.
That is, the Lilburn, Ga., resident says, until a 2007 visit to his wife's family in Ohio. There, while watching a football game the weekend after Thanksgiving, someone ordered a Hungry Howie's pizza.
"I had the garlic herb crust and fell in love," Flowers said. "That is how I was introduced to Hungry Howie's."
So when Flowers and his wife were both laid off last year from their jobs in the mortgage industry, they recalled the pizza they had enjoyed that Thanksgiving weekend and thought other Atlanta residents might enjoy it as well. Flowers opened his first Hungry Howie's location in February, and has his eye on opening 12 to 15 units over the next five years.
"I loved the product, I loved the diversity of the menu and I saw a wide open market here in Atlanta," he said. "There are a lot of transplants here who know Hungry Howie's."
John Kaliszewski, owner of two Hungry Howie's Pizza restaurants in Erie, Pa., encountered a similar phenomenon when he opened his first restaurant. The company has a strong presence in Florida and Michigan, and transplants from those states sought Kaliszewski's restaurant out when it first opened.
"It was very surprising to see people come in who had experienced Hungry Howie's in Florida," he said. "We had one guy from 40 miles away who would come in once a week and to this day still comes in."
Unflavored crust a vanishing breed
Hungry Howie's, based in Madison Heights, Mich., has built its reputation on the type of flavored crust offerings that caught Flowers' attention. The chain, which currently operates 575 locations in 23 states, offers eight crust varieties ranging from original to butter cheese.
The company got its start in 1973 when Jim Hearn converted a 1,000-square-foot former hamburger shop in Taylor, Mich. into a pizzeria. The company's current CEO, Steve Jackson, worked as a delivery driver for Hearn.
Eventually, the two became partners. In 1983, Jackson and Hearn awarded their first Hungry Howie's franchise.
Not long after, Hungry Howie's began eyeing the potential of flavored crusts.
"The concept was brought to our attention by a franchisee," Jackson told Pizza Marketplace in a 2007 interview. "What they did was put sesame seeds on their crusts and butter it, and they let some customers try it."
Intrigued by the idea, the company began an evaluation process and started testing flavored crusts in a few stores. The idea caught on with customers, Jackson said.
"We sat down and identified eight crust flavors that we thought would have general appeal," he said. "In 1985, we made the decision that this would be our signature niche."
Today, Hungry Howie's Flavored Crust Pizzas are available in original, buttered-cheese, garlic herb, ranch, Cajun, butter, onion and sesame.
Garlic and buttered-cheese are some of the most popular flavors with customers, Jackson said, while flavors such as rye and poppy seed have dropped off the list.
While a certain number of people still order unflavored crusts, Jackson said that percentage is decreasing.
"Nearly everybody has a clear favorite," he said.
The company's Friday afternoon test-kitchen tastings have even been documented on the Food Network show "Pizzarama," which first aired in 2007. The segment, which still airs periodically, has helped cement the company's reputation as the "flavored crust company."
"From a franchise sales perspective, if we didn't know it was running we find out within a day or two," said Brian Ognian, VP of franchise development. "The last time it ran I saw an influx that day, so it helps dramatically."
Growth to ramp up next year
Although Hungry Howie's sales have been relatively unaffected by the state of the economy, franchise growth did slow a bit during the early part of the year, Ognian said. Officials took advantage of the lull to streamline aspects of store design in order to improve efficiency.
The company is also working to fit the complete store-opening package on one truck in an effort to save on transportation costs.
Current growth plans still call for opening 30-40 stores in 2009 and ramping up growth to as many as 100 stores next year. It typically costs an operator about $250,000 to open a Hungry Howie's location.
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Hungry Howie's has also been eyeing non-traditional locations as avenues for growth.
"From a non-traditional standpoint there are two areas we plan to tap into; the airport market and colleges and universities. In order to do that we will have to partner with some foodservice people," Ognian said. "We have had some preliminary conversations, so we hope to see some expansion in that area."
The company also has full-menu locations in several grocery stores in Michigan.
Despite the popularity of the company'ss flavored crusts, Jeff Rinke, vice president of marketing and product development, hasn't seen any of the company's competitors make a serious effort to introduce their own versions.
"I have watched several of our competitors try to copy it, and it has been difficult for them," he said.
"In our system, it is so ingrained and we have been doing it for such a long time that it is an automatic for our employees," he said. "Plus, we don't charge for it. I think our competitors find their employees don't try very hard to push the product because they aren't making any money on it."