Open for business -- really, they're open!

June 12, 2003

I met a couple of gamblers at lunch today. Not card players, dice throwers or slot jockeys, business gamblers: two young guys who just opened a new pizza joint.

I didn't ask their ages, but Rob and Scott look about 25 or 30 -- let's just say they don't see the same wrinkles and gray hair I see in the mirror every morning. Nor do they have those puffy calzones hanging below their eyes from working murderous hours and sleepless nights opening a business.

I expect they will, though, if they ever get busy.

Their shop opened about 10 days ago without fanfare and virtually no advertising. They've drawn about 100 customers since.

Completion of the shop's front sign is two weeks away, lag time Scott admits they didn't know to build into the schedule. So in the meantime, the logo and name of their operation is on about two-dozen 8 1/2 x 11 computer-printed sheets, tiled together and taped to their shop's front window. Not glamorous, but give them points for effort.

The good news is they've got good pizza. The cheese is first rate, the dough is light, crispy and

Steve Coomes, Editor

uniquely seasoned with herbs, the canned tomato sauce is top quality and the toppings are good. In my opinion, that step alone gives them a leg up on the pizza competitors in the area.

Problem is, too few people know they're there. Those who know their shop's phone number assume they're calling the pizza company which last occupied their space. The callers ask about the large, one-topping $4.99 special, leaving Scott and Rob to tell that they charge $11.99 for the same-size deal. Some listen politely, some even buy the pizza, but others hang up.

"You just hear the 'click,' and they're gone," Scott said. "We've checked (the demographics) out, and the people around here can afford us. Those people just don't know about us yet."

A tough row to hoe

It's fascinating to watch the cycle of turnover in the pizza industry. An operation closes and another takes its place under a new name promising a better pizza and better service and better ... you name it. That same dream is written all over Scott's and Rob's smooth-skinned faces.

But it's just as sad to see the turnover, too. I know one of the operators who ran Rob and Scott's place before the man and his partner bailed out. In 1998, that pizza company was born of a few fellas who opened a delco, made some pizza and met with decent success. Other stores followed and the small chain grew to six

But when reality screamed "Husband," "Father," "Mortgage," "Self-insurance," "Quarterly taxes," and I scurried back to the arguably comfortable confines of my workplace cubicle, tail between my legs.

stores by 2001.

And then they started to close. The partners chose some bad franchisees, guys who wanted to be the next John Schnatter without the equally Herculean effort. Word on the street had it that the cash register at one of their stores became an operator's ATM -- minus the withdrawal records -- and they had to force him out.

At last count, only two stores remain.

I don't want to see something similar happen to Scott and Rob, but the fact is they've chosen a tough row to hoe launching a pizza business in the middle of a recession -- not to mention in the home market of the world's third-largest pizza chain.

I wish they'd had a solid marketing plan before they started, and I wish they'd gained a few months' pizza operation experience to add to their restaurant experience before opening up.

But like I said, they're gamblers. Whether they're driven by naiveté, sheer guts, someone else's investment capital or a mix of all three, I don't know. But I admire them nonetheless. They're sticking their necks out and putting their money on the line to grab a slice of the American dream of owning their own business.

I've considered the same a few times, spent many hours reading books and dreaming of the freedom of being my own boss.

But when reality screamed "Husband," "Father," "Mortgage," "Self-insurance" and "Quarterly taxes," I scurried back to the debatably cushy confines of my workplace cubicle, tail between my legs.

I've only known these boys for the better part of an hour, but I already admire them. It's people like them who give me something to write about, and, perhaps, someday, something to model.

Until then, if anyone's got any good "start-up" tips to pass along to these guys, I'm sure they'd receive them gladly. Just send them to I'll see they get them.

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