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Longtime restaurant franchise guy rediscovers his passion thanks to Mountain Mike’s Pizza

The restaurant business isn’t new to Jim Smith. He has worked for major restaurant franchises, including Jack In The Box, and is now on the other side of the franchising coin as a franchise owner of one Mountain Mike’s Pizza in Medford, Oregon. He has three more restaurants in development — a second Medford site, one in Roseburg and a third in Klamath Falls.

As a developer agent, Jim is looking forward to expanding the Mountain Mike’s brand throughout Oregon. Things have been going great for Jim. We interviewed him in late March as the coronavirus was spreading quickly throughout the U.S., and Jim was still doing well because his business was able to pivot quickly from dine-in, carry-out and delivery to just carry-out and delivery. He talks about his experience, including the moment he knew he’d made the right decision to invest, in this Mountain Mike’s franchise review.

Well, when did you become a franchisee?

I bought an existing location in September of 2017.

What had you been doing before that?

Well, mainly prior to that, I was part of a group that was operating fast casual Indian restaurants out of the Bay area. We were opening stores in the Bay area and in Denver. We’ve actually won some national recognition from Nation’s Restaurant News. Unfortunately, like a lot of companies that get awarded the breakout brand award, we got bought by some other people. So I pursued the sale and I helped transition them out. That’s when I was trying to find my next thing to do and ran across this opportunity. My wife was born and raised in Medford. We had a house in Medford, and we visit all the time. I was actually leaning towards coming up here and just opening up something else when I ran across this opportunity.

Had you ever heard of Mountain Mike’s Pizza before?

Yes, I was very familiar with Mountain Mike’s. Interesting story about this particular location: As a senior in high school, I used to consume pizza in the exact same space I now own that Mountain Mike’s. It was a different brand at the time. We’ve done some remodels in that space, but no one’s ever changed the ceiling. It used to be a concept called Buccaneer Pizza, and the dining room was shaped like the inside of a pirate ship. So you’ve got these sloping ceilings. When I look up, I’m like, I know why that’s there. It’s interesting how things have come full circle now that I own the Mountain Mike’s in that same space.

Was there a moment when you absolutely knew for certain you’d made the right decision to invest in a Mountain Mike’s Pizza franchise?

During those table visits, I’m talking to guests — and I’m not exaggerating — daily for the first six months and probably at least weekly for the next year. I would talk to somebody and they’d say, “This is the best pizza I ever had.”

I believe that to be true, but I may be accused of being biased. I’ll accept that. But the reason why I bought this concept was because I believed so much in what we could do. In those previous restaurants I had in the Bay area, we believed so much in the quality of the product that made us successful. That’s what I like about Mountain Mike’s.

As a kid, I grew up in Northern California, there was this concept called Shakey’s Pizza. I remember as an 8-year-old going to the manager and getting him to hand me some pennies so I could ride the penny pony while my family was enjoying the get-together at the local Shakey’s. That’s what this concept reminds me of. The first time I bit into the Mount Everest, it reminded me of my childhood. That’s why I love it. That’s the connection I have with this concept.

That’s a great connection. So getting new people in the door has been partly a matter of letting them know there’s pizza to be had under the Mountain Mike’s banner. How are you building that brand awareness there, since you do have plans to open more?

Well, I don’t focus on discounting. We compete on the quality of our product. It tastes authentic, real and homemade. You can tell it’s different from what some of our competitors are producing. So what I focus on is my lunch buffet. I mean, for the first year, every spot I ran talked about the lunch buffet or quality ingredients. That’s it. Because I wanted people to come in, and I do an $8, all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. I want people to come in and have the opportunity to sample it at a very low cost of entry. There’s virtually no risk. You’ll spend more than $8 going to lunch anywhere.

When they try that pizza, they’re hooked. They start coming back: “Hey, I had your buffet. That’s why I’m ordering for the family on Friday night and on Saturdays at the game.” That’s how I’ve really been successful the first year or so of driving trials, getting people into that lunch buffet.

The initial year was about just driving ops execution. How do we make sure we deliver the best possible product, as quick as we possibly can? Be honest with the guest. Let’s nail the delivery radius. I bought a couple of cars, we instituted that expanded delivery radius, and we held our delivery times to a reasonable number. We’re not trying to be the fastest guy out there because it takes time to make a quality pizza. And I want to make sure I take care of my employees and not pressure them to say, you’ve got to blow through red lights. There’s got to be a balance.

What I’ve found to be true is our customer, that core customer that Mount Mike’s, doesn’t mind. They’re willing to spend a little bit more and wait a little longer, because they know the product’s worth it in the end. As a matter of fact, if we don’t nail the product, they have no problem telling us we made a mistake. And thank goodness they do, because I need to fix that. When we do make a mistake, we own it, fix it and make it right.

Do you do any kind of community sponsorships with local sports teams?

Yes, I do. So year two, we started getting into a little bit more into community involvement. In the summer of 2018, we started sponsoring the local Medford Little League team. We sponsored a couple of teams and gave the Little League organization some funds to do some repair work. We get very involved in lots of different charity events.

People in our neighborhoods know that we’re more than just a business. We’re part of the community. So whether it’s sponsoring the young wrestler that’s going to go into nationals and needs to raise some funds or helping the PTA with a fundraiser, that’s all part of the part of the deal. We don’t advertise a lot of that, because I think it’s something you need to do. It’s just the right thing to do. When the people around you give you some success, you’ve got to give back.

How do you feel about the overall direction of the brand?

I love it. In 2017 when I first started talking to the Mountain Mike’s group, (co-owners) Chris Britt and Ed St. Geme were just finalizing the deal to buy the Mountain Mike’s Pizza chain. I was excited about the opportunity, because I’m familiar with the brand and I ran the financials. I knew there was an opportunity to improve a few things and get some great success early on. But I was really kind of thinking, all right, this is going to be kind of a stop-gap until I do the other next thing I want to do.

But after talking to Chris and Ed and understanding what their vision was for bringing in some good operations folks, improving systems and standards, and not being afraid to grow, it got me really super excited. Especially over the course of that first six or eight months when I just continued to hear and see the success I was having and the loyalty from our guests. I was like, I need to get more of these in the state of Oregon. That’s when I made the decision, hey look, I don’t need to focus my energy on building the next best thing. I need to expand this great thing and do more areas in the state of Oregon.

Why should someone choose Mountain Mike’s as opposed to another pizza franchise?

Well, I worked for PepsiCo for a lot of years, so I’m very familiar with pizza franchises. I understand that segment a little bit, just enough to probably get me in trouble. I recognize the difference between the value position concepts, which is the majority of those franchises out there, and those who go a different direction, that high-end, high-quality focus on the product direction. Mountain Mike’s certainly is in the latter group.

With the value segment, the margins are so tight in that segment, weeks like we’re having right now would be extremely detrimental, as opposed to where I’m at right now where you’ve got a little bit deeper margin to absorb and you’re able to weather the storms a little bit better.

So I would tell any peer of mine that I’ve worked with in the past, this is the right concept to get into. It’s selling the authentic product that you feel proud serving.

It has a margin that allows you to do a lot of things creatively with your staff, to really build that camaraderie. And to give back to your communities without sacrificing some of the other goals that you have.

Do you interact very often with other franchisees?

It’s a great family community. I was welcomed with open arms. I was just part of the family from Day One. Our franchisees are a great group of people.

You obviously are a restaurant guy, you’ve had a lot of experience. Do you think that’s necessary to be successful with Mountain Mike’s?

I don’t know that you have to be a restaurant guy or girl. I think the most successful operators that I’ve worked with understand how to get the most out of people. You can do that in any number of industries. You have to have a passion for food and a passion for face-to-face interaction with people. Probably most importantly, you have to understand the dynamics of finding great talent, developing great people and building a good team.

How large do you want to grow your franchise?

I think there’s room for 20 to 25 Mountain Mike’s in the state of Oregon. That number might grow as people continue to move into the state. I don’t need to own 22 restaurants. I’ve been there, done that. But I would like to have probably between six to 10 locations in Southern Oregon, then I’ll begin to help find some great operators that want to expand in other areas of the state. Because there’s a calling in this state for great pizza in this family environment.

What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about being a Mountain Mike’s franchisee?

Being a franchisee in a lot of different organizations gives you an opportunity to interact with community leaders around you. Because they really are looking for partnerships, whether it’s other small businesses, nonprofits or other organizations looking for sponsorships. Being Mountain Mike’s franchisee I think even makes it easier, because we’ve got the meeting space, we’ve got the dining rooms that people are very familiar with. We put the heart of community first. As opposed to a lot of hot brands out there that are selling franchises, but they’re just selling a revenue stream or an earning stream.

As opposed to selling something that the community is going to hang onto and say, hey, this is part of our neighborhood. Pizzerias do that. I remember that. I remember after the high school football game, we’d go to the local pizzeria, play footage of the sports game and all talk about the tackle that was missed or the game-winning touchdown that was caught. That’s part of building that neighborhood community, and that’s what makes me super excited. I didn’t know that I missed that so much when I was part of other large organizations, but boy, it sure feels good to be able to do that.

Is there anything else that would be important for a prospective buyer to know?

When I was at Jack In The Box, 193 franchisees had my cell number, and I was the first call they made. I understand how franchisors think. As a franchisee, I know how I think, and I can tell you this group of individuals heading up Mountain Mike’s right now truly believes in partnership-leadership and not in franchisor-franchisee management. They don’t come to the table thinking they have the best idea. They come to the table saying, let’s get the best idea on the table and run with it. I appreciate that approach.