As the general manager of a Pie Five Pizza restaurant, Joel Roberts sometimes found himself working alone in the restaurant. This usually wasn’t a problem for the understaffed franchise location but posed a big problem when Roberts he a medical emergency in 2017. He couldn’t find anyone to cover his otherwise unmanned shift, so he resorted to his next best option — his dad.
Steve Roberts showed up to take over his son’s shift but wasn’t happy when found that the restaurant lacked food product, operated on broken machinery and wasn’t clean.
“[Steve] got up there and he goes, ‘Oh man, what a mess. Give me your boss’s phone number right now,’” Joel says.
Steve was so furious with the disarray that he called the owner to air his grievances. Instead of rebutting the father’s complaints, the owner responded by asking Steve if he wanted to buy the storefront. Despite his lack of business experience, he did. So in 2018, Steve officially signed the ownership papers with the intention of turning the establishment around.
What Steve lacked in business experience he made up for in enthusiasm. After he decided to own the Pie Five location, he dedicated a month of his time to figuring out the restaurant’s problems.
“I was talking to employees like, ‘What do you guys see? What is the good, the bad about this place?’” he says. “Of course they’re telling me, ‘cause they know I’m Joel’s dad and they had no idea I was buying it.”
Addressing bad before it gets worse
Steve found two glaring issues in the Pie Five store. The first dealt with restaurant’s internal culture and its employees. It wasn’t just understaffed — the store wasn’t able to motivate employees to care about the company. Some employees gave away products for free, consumed company supply throughout the day and even stole from the pizzeria. The staffing issue was so bad that the former owner recommended that Steve fire all of the restaurant’s employees and hire new ones.
Beyond the internal issues, Steve says the store’s external reputation posed the biggest problem. Steve was well aware of the store’s nasty reputation, as he didn’t even order from the restaurant before he became the owner. An online web search confirmed the store’s bad standing: Reviewers rated it 2.3 stars on Google, with complaints ranging from bad service to a dirty storefront.
There are a number of factors that led to the restaurant’s reputation, but Steve says one of the main reasons was its ownership. Despite having a restaurant based in Ankeny, Iowa, the previous owner ran the restaurant from Illinois. This time around, the father-turned-owner decided to employ a more hands-on solution.
Many of Steve’s solutions came from life experience. For instance, his two decades spent as a railroad foreman ended up guiding him when it came to addressing the problems with motivating his employees. On the railroad, companies encouraged employees by bringing small prizes as rewards for working hard. As a result, Steve used the same strategy and offered gift cards to employees if they finished their training and familiarized themselves with Pie Five Pizza’s res.
More importantly, Steve was honest with his employees in an effort to get them to care.
“I showed them the numbers. I showed them that this box of cheese costs $200, and when they continue to make products the way they’re making it, it’s going to cost me an extra $30,000 a year,” he says.
Steve also used this level of type of involvement to fix the franchise’s reputation. He leveraged his deep involvement in the community as a third-generation Ankeny resident and Little League board member, announcing to the community know he was the new owner of the Pie Five Pizza on social media. Though he didn’t have capital to give community members sponsorships, Steve gave out free pizza coupons and fed churches, animal rescues and nursing homes among other community groups. He made amends for bad reviews by offering discounts to customers so they would give Pie Five another chance. As the owner, he even told customers how much money he made in an effort to be more transparent.
“All these other restaurants are telling me, ‘Hey man, you’re pretty ballsy telling people how much you make in a day,’” Steve says. “These people are what makes us, so why shouldn’t they know what we’re making?”
When the store implemented these changes, Steve says the positive results were immediate. With Steve running the restaurant and Joel managing at the helm, the restaurant managed to go from making $5,000 a week to doubling that amount. The franchise location gained a new reputation as an example for others to follow, winning a handful of awards at the 2019 corporate Pie Five Pizza summit that included Rookie of the Year and Turnaround Store of the Year.
Despite all of the support the restaurant has gotten from the community, the father acknowledges the success he has now wouldn’t have been possible without the support of a franchisor.
“Having that franchise and all that legwork done for you already — all you have to do is call somebody or look it up in a book,” Steve says. “Pie Five has been amazing to me. They’ve let me go out of the box more than they probably should have.”
A cinematic moment
Measuring the success of Steve’s out-of-the-box ideas in improving store culture and community engagement may be hard to quantify. But perhaps the biggest piece of anecdotal evidence of the franchisee’s success occurred when the store hit its lowest point during the pandemic. In a situation not unusual to the restaurant industry throughout 2020, Steve had to raise $8,000 in one weekend or face store closure. So he took to the internet and pleaded for help on social media. The result was a feat of survival one local blogger compared to the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, as the store managed to earn $28,000 in three days.
“People were walking up to me and handing me money, not even eating at the restaurant because our line was so long,” Steve says. “It just makes you cry.”
It’s hard to imagine that a store with the ability to garner that much support was the same restaurant barely bringing in customers just a few years prior. But some values have remained the same since the start — being there for his son is what led Steve to the franchise in the first place, and family has continued to remain a priority.
“You really learn what family is and what family needs when it comes to owning something and running something and being successful. You all have to be in it together or else it won’t be successful,” Steve says. “I’m blessed with my family and I’m blessed to have such a huge following and support.”