Happiness… With a Side of Pizza
Happy’s pursuing big goals with signature approach
There are a lot of pizza restaurants.
But as Christina Rice likes to point out, there’s only one Happy’s.
So, from the song that greets visitors to the corporate website to the upbeat manner in which phones are answered at restaurant locations and the company’s Michigan headquarters, the intention is to create a specific, memorable vibe that lingers far beyond the initial interaction.
“It’s absolutely true. It’s always a great day here at Happy’s Pizza,” the company’s vice president of franchise development said, perfectly delivering the signature opening line.
“That’s kind of the slogan. We say ‘Be Happy, Eat Happy.’ We’ve always prided ourselves on being a very family-oriented business. Community is also really important. We do expect our franchisees to be pretty actively involved in the community that they serve. It matters to us.”
And it’s been that way since the beginning in 1996.
The concept was born when the company’s founder, Happy Asker, then an 18-year-old video store clerk in Detroit, leased a pizzeria operation across the street from where he’d been working. The east side location was in close proximity to both a General Motors and a Chrysler plant, which provided a blueprint for the blue-collar footprint that Happy’s has created as it’s evolved.
There are now 12 locations across the city – along with others throughout southeast Michigan and into Ohio, Indiana, California, Nevada and Georgia.
The company began franchising locations in 2007 and 84 locations are now up and running across the roster, a number that includes between 20 and 25 corporate “affiliated” stores – which Rice defined as having a “like-minded interest between the corporation and the franchisee.”
New concepts in menu items or presentation are typically tested in those locations, she said.
Locations are very similar across the board, with the only variations tending to be where menu prices reflect different distribution costs in California as opposed to Michigan or other states. The same interior and exterior coloring is used in all locations – red and black, with lots of neon and chrome – and the menu is “99 percent the same” from restaurant to restaurant.
The differences in food items, Rice said, would be in regional dishes available in appropriate locations, like a Polish dog in Cleveland, for example. Overall, the typical offerings include selections ranging from pizza to ribs to grilled chicken salads to French fries to banana pudding.
“People don’t come to Happy’s to get pizza, necessarily,” she said. “They come to Happy’s to get 220 menu items.”
Restaurants can be positioned in both free-standing buildings or as parts of retail strips. The company is also working on a conversion model in which it would take existing restaurants or pizzerias and update them with the equipment necessary to become a full-fledged Happy’s Pizza location.
“Anything to lessen the cost and the initial investment for our franchisees,” Rice said.
Happy’s was slotted at No. 350 on Entrepreneur magazine’s “Franchise 500” list for 2014. The baseline financial requirements for franchise prospects are a net worth of $300,000 and $150,000 in available liquid cash. The franchise fee is $35,000 and total investment ranges from $336,500 to $608,000, with a $1,500 monthly royalty fee on a renewable five-year agreement.
Many franchisees own more than one location and 80 percent are owner/operators, and Rice said the company has had success with people from myriad business backgrounds.
A rigorous training program includes four or five days of mostly book work at the corporate headquarters, which is followed by an in-house experience that runs 60 to 90 days at an open operating location – during which the prospective owner is immersed in all elements of the business, including dipping fries in oil and sweeping floors.
“We definitely have had franchisees come from all walks of life, anywhere from a corporate CEO to an insurance agent,” she said. “We never want to have a franchisee go into their store without being able to do every job there.”
Trainees are evaluated on a weekly basis to assure comprehension during the process, and a corporate team comes in to help with pre-opening hiring at a new location, then stays on for shadowing purposes for another few weeks after restaurants are open.
A team recently stayed on for a full month when Happy’s opened a restaurant in Georgia, because the store was so busy and it was the first venture into a new region, and the company wanted to make sure that guests walked away with a completely positive first impression.
“We wanted to guarantee that customers were very well-serviced in that instance,” Rice said, “so they didn’t have a situation where the first time was the last time with Happy’s Pizza.”
A new concept, Happy’s Pizza and Pub, was rolled out to a pair of locations in 2013 as a full-service restaurant that features a standard Happy’s menu along with specialty items like fish tacos and craft beers. The concept will feature both a college campus model and a neighborhood restaurant model, and Rice said three locations have been awarded that will be rolled out within six months.
The company is also endeavoring to get its entire roster connected with online ordering capability.
Going forward, Rice said the aim is to continue to work on value for both customers and franchisees, which could mean an in-house commissary operation and fully active individual websites for all locations. Additionally, 18 restaurant locations are under active construction and 15 more franchises have been awarded, so a quick bump in numbers will soon arrive as well.
“After you hit your 100th location and you move forward from there, it’s pretty quick to 500,” she said. “So, hopefully, in the next five years we’ll be at that 300-to-500 level in terms of stores. But the most important thing for me is to make sure that my franchisees are happy and to continue to establish our brand and continue the value proposition to our customers.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Happy’s Pizza
WHAT: Restaurant chain whose menu includes pizza, ribs, chicken, seafood, sandwiches, pasta and salad
WHERE: Corporate headquarters in Farmington Hills, Mich.; 84 locations in seven states