Volunteer effort keeps pizzeria in business

Sept. 19, 2002

Jim Dandy's Pizza Pub isn't profitable, which is just fine. It's not supposed to be.

Even in the two years it operated as a for-profit venture, then-owners Wayne and Gary Burke lost more than they made, which moved them to close the 62-seat Fairfield, Idaho, pizzeria in 1997.

But not before a handful of the town's 390 residents stepped in to save Jim Dandy's -- the only pizza place for miles around.

"We wanted to keep it running for the sake of pizza and for the sake of having a gathering place with a nice family atmosphere," said Ed Smith, one of nine partners (two are singles and seven are married couples) who anted up $500 each about four years ago to keep Jim Dandy's open.

The prospect of life without pizza led the group not only to fund the operation, but to help run it -- on a strictly volunteer basis. A full-time manager and two part-time helpers operate Jim Dandy's four to five nights a week, and each partner helps out for a shift or two one weekend a month.

"Most of us have full-time jobs or other responsibilities, so we never wanted this to become a full-time job," said Smith, who runs a real estate brokerage. "We just wanted to keep it running for the community."

The community, which Smith said includes the 1,000 residents of surrounding Camas County, has rewarded it with patronage. Jim Dandy's has become a Fairfield social center where families, friends and groups meet for food, fun and, sometimes, business.

"Most of the partners would like business to increase to the point it would be attractive for someone to take it on. We'd be completely welcome for anyone to do that."

Ed Smith
Partner, Jim Dandy's Pizza Pub

"It's fun to work there, because it gets you out to see others," said Janet Croner, a partner for about three years. "You see a lot of people and make a lot of contacts."

Croner and husband Matt live within Fairfield's city limits, and that puts the couple high on the list of those called for help if an unexpected rush of customers descends upon Jim Dandy's.

"Sometimes we end up working a few more nights than we're scheduled to, partly because we can be there quickly," Croner said. "And if (one of the partners) drives by and sees a lot of cars at the pizza parlor, they'll stop in and ask, 'How are you doing? Do you need me to bus tables, do dishes or make pizza?' I think we're really fortunate to have a lot of great volunteers."

The business end

Mary Hansen managed Jim Dandy's for several months this year before leaving to spend more time at home with her children. Unlike her past management jobs, this position was "really laid back, nothing like I've done before." Hansen tried to apply her business acumen to reducing Jim Dandy's food costs, but the partners told her the effort wasn't necessary.

"I knew I could help them get the best bang for their buck by comparing distributors," said Hansen, who was asked to make all Jim Dandy's purchases from one provider. "But their attitude was, 'It's working fine, so just do what's needed to keep it going.' "

Sara Shepardson, a distributor representative for Sysco's Ketchum, Idaho, outlet managed some of Hansen's orders until all of Jim Dandy's business went to Food Services of America. She said she was just as surprised as Hansen when the partners told her to skip the cost-saving number-crunching.

"She did tons of spreadsheets for them, but nobody really cared," said Shepardson, who encouraged Hansen to compare Sysco's prices with FSA. "We just thought, 'OK if that's what they want to do, they can do it their way.' "

Hansen said that as soon as she adopted the non-profit mind-set, "I was really relaxed there and started having fun with it. It was a good time. They're good people."

The restaurant operates Wednesday and Thursday evenings from 5 to 8:30, and Friday and Saturday evenings from 5 to 9:30. During the winter, when the area's heavy snowfall draws skiers and snowmobilers, it opens on Sundays as well.

Jim Dandy's serves mostly pizza, salads and breadsticks, but Smith said if a staffer or partner gets the urge to make a lasagna or spaghetti special they can.

Pizza prices range from $8.95 for a small pepperoni pie to $16.95 for a large multi-topping Deluxe.

Jim Dandy's original owners made fresh dough, but the current partners use a frozen, sheeted product that's proofed near service time. Croner admitted she's quite particular about the dough.

"I really don't like it when it's not raised right," she said. "Sometimes you have to work with it to get it to warm up and rise."

Smith said pizza consistency is the only area where partners have occasional disagreements, and Croner said that's compounded in a fun-loving way by each partner's claim that he or she is the group's best pizza maker.

"We've tried to standardize and maintain consistency, and I think we do a pretty good job of that considering the number of people involved," said Smith. "We have recipes on the back wall so everybody knows what goes on a Deluxe, for example. But I think we all tend to make each pizza a little bit like we'd like to eat one."

Hansen and Croner said no partner has a particular job, leaving all to pitch in wherever help is needed. Whether that means running the dish machine, bussing a table or making pizzas, they all do it.

Croner said she likes to make pizzas while husband, Matt, who also is Fairfield's mayor, likes to serve customers. When a customer complaint arises, she said his political prowess becomes valuable.

"He's really good at saying, 'Let me pour you another beer or another glass of wine. We're moving as fast as we can,' " she said. "People understand the situation, and problems don't happen all that often. For us, a really busy night is making 50 pizzas."

Take my business, please!

Smith said the partners, whose ages range from 45 to 60, never intended to stay involved as long as they have. And while they've never fielded a serious buyout offer, he said all would be willing to have someone take the business off their hands.

"I knew I could help them get the best bang for their buck by comparing distributors. But their attitude was, 'It's working fine, so just do what's needed to keep it going.' "

Mary Hansen
Former Manager, Jim Dandy's Pizza Pub

"We'd even welcome a competitor with open arms," said Smith, reiterating that he'd rather have pizza made for him than make it himself. "Most of the partners would like business to increase to the point it would be attractive for someone to take it on. We'd be completely welcome for anyone to do that."

Neither Croner nor Hansen could state Jim Dandy's annual sales confidently, and partner-couple Dale and Sharon Smith, who maintain the books, were out of town at press time.

"I know I'm not the best source for that information," said Smith, when asked if he knew the store's annual sales.

All three admitted, however, that, for all its care-free cost-watching, the pizzeria does make an occasional profit, which it then donates to various community groups.

"None of us takes any money out of the business," said Croner, adding that the owners never get discounts or free meals. "We even give all the tips to the employees. We only want to make enough to keep it open, and we're having a good time just doing that."

Topics: Dough , Independent Operation , Operations Management

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