On a recent trip through the Midwest, the number of abandoned barns, silos and houses I could see from the highway made me realize how tough it is for family-owned businesses to survive in some industries. Those cattle and dairy farms I saw were born and built on the backs of men, women and children who probably ran them well, but not well enough to avoid the pressure from powerful corporations and co-ops. The same fate has befallen independent grocery stores and gas stations.
The pizza industry, however, runs stubbornly counter to that trend. Despite the efficiency and market coverage of well-oiled chains, there's always room for a newcomer with a dream, be it an independent or a franchisee. Jeff and Jodie Aufdencamp's company, Mama Mimi's Take 'n Bake Pizza, is a perfect example.
In 1999, the couple started their Columbus, Ohio, business the same way a lot of others did -- with a small loan and a stack of maxed-out credit cards. They had high hopes, such as a short-term sales average of $5,000 a week. But throughout the first year, the norm was half that.
Before long, cash was tighter than Joan Rivers' eyelids, and word of a second child on the way did little to lighten their stress load. But it didn't break the thirty-something veteran restaurant managers, either. Instead of bailing out, they dug in and did their best.
Today the couple owns two stores, which pull in nearly $750,000 in annual sales. Not only is that a respectable number for a take-and-bake operation, it's $2,200 a week more than their originally hoped-for average.
"There's no get-rich-quick business in this country," says Jeff Aufdencamp. "It's all about hard work and hanging in there."
Both Mama Mimi's bear the evidence of an entrepreneurial effort gone wise. Most of the equipment is used and bought at auction, the walls were sponge-painted by friends, and the menus are handwritten on wall-mounted chalkboards. Both stores also are in "have I got a deal for you" locations.
In the basement dough prep room at his first store, Jeff points to a dismantled mixer he's repairing himself. Next to the wounded warrior is a bucket half-full of its lifeblood, black gear oil. A smaller 40-quart mixer now doing the work of both whines plaintively as it kneads a 12-pound dough ball. Pointing toward it, Jeff adds fondly, "That's the first one we started with."
The shop clearly wasn't designed to be a pizza store. The stairway to its basement is so narrow that a cooler the Aufdencamps wanted installed there had to be dismantled, schlepped below and reassembled. It, too, was an auction bargain.
Mama Mimi's Take 'n Bake Pizza
"That's the best way to get things," Jeff says. "It's so much cheaper, and if you take care of it, it'll last."
Except for that mixer, perhaps.
Like many family-run businesses, the Aufdencamps are hands-on operators who know many of their customers by name. Their employees do, too, and they're encouraged to interact with visitors while they work. Not only do customers get good pizzas at Mama Mimi's, they get an experience, and that's an intangible factor that breeds near-zealous loyalty among consumers.
In the pizza industry, good products become great when they're sold with personality. Not ironically, that's often the little extra something family-run businesses are known for.
Want to see that in action? Just watch Jodi Aufdencamp working the counter during a Friday rush, dispensing home baking instructions for the thousandth time to yet another customer -- without sounding bored or robotic. Listen to the pizza makers asking customers if "such a big order is for a party" or merely a cache of Mama Mimi's munchies.
Then spend some time reading the framed articles on the walls detailing praise for Mama Mimi's pizzas. It'll give you something to do for a few minutes while you stand in line with the rest of the horde.