High school physics teacher turns entrepreneur and multi-unit operator with Johnny’s Pizza franchises

Stephen Burge had been teaching high school physics and chemistry for almost 20 years when — to make a little extra cash — he started hosting a weekly Team Trivia night at Johnny’s Pizza in Conyers, Georgia. Stephen already liked the pizza, and hosting the trivia nights was a fun side gig. So much fun that when Stephen moved to the Snellville area, he continued to host Team Trivia for Johnny’s Pizza in Loganville.

One night, the owner of Johnny’s Pizza in Loganville jokingly asked Stephen if he wanted to buy the shop. When Stephen found out what it would cost to buy a franchise, he was intrigued. He ran the numbers, and what started as a joke between friends began to look like a real investment opportunity.

“I’d host Team Trivia for a packed house. I know they didn’t come just for me,” Stephen laughs. “The food is great. It’s a fresh, high-quality product.”

When a nearby location in Lawrenceville, which happened to be close to Stephen’s home, went up for sale, Stephen was ready to jump in, though his wife was skeptical.  

“I was coming up on 20 years of teaching,” he says. “I was burned out and I needed a change.” In the summer of 2015, Stephen called Luke Jackson and the Johnny’s Pizza franchise team.

“I had pored over the numbers and thought it was the right long-term move for me and my family.” Stephen has seven children, two of whom have special needs and require a good deal of his attention.

As a teacher with a strict schedule, Stephen felt like he was missing out on a lot of quality time with his kids. “When I was teaching, I was unbelievably stressed out,” he says. The challenge of helping his kids get ready for school in the morning and making sure his son got the attention he needed was creating a real struggle to get to work on time and find substitute teachers when necessary.

When Stephen bought his first Johnny’s Pizza restaurant, he was a first-time business owner. And even though there were advantages to buying a restaurant that was already up and running, he needed help from the franchise team to get going. “They show you where to start, and they have a recipe for building a successful business. The Johnny’s way works. Why not follow it? It’s been around for over 40 years now.”

In November of 2018, the Johnny’s Pizza in Grayson came up for sale. “It’s a great store. When I heard it was for sale, I knew I wanted to partner with Ian Bruce, a former general manager.”

Ian had worked for Johnny’s Pizza for 10 years. He started as a dishwasher, worked his way up to general manager, and even met his wife while working there. Now, Ian is a Johnny’s Pizza franchise co-owner. He and Stephen have updated the Grayson location with new wood tables, fresh paint, an updated bar area, and new equipment to speed things up for lunch and dinner.

Now, even though Stephen spends a lot of time in both of his restaurants, he has the flexibility to make his own schedule. “The greatest thing about this job is that I don’t have to be at the restaurant early in the morning. I can drive my son to a school that meets his needs, and I’m available to participate in all of my kids’ activities.”

And as for Stephen’s wife, she’s no longer a skeptic. “She even wears the t-shirt,” Stephen says. “And now she has the opportunity to make a career change because of the financial stability the franchises have brought us.”

Software engineer turned restaurateur finds success with Johnny Brusco’s Pizza franchise

In 2001, Chuck Richani was living in Atlanta, Georgia, most of the time. But as a software consultant, he traveled all over the country helping companies develop software, set up information systems and understand their business data. 

He’d thought many times about leaving the consulting world to start his own business. But his vision didn’t have anything to do with software. He wanted to open a restaurant. Chuck grew up in Bristol, Tennessee, with two parents who were both restaurateurs. Over the years they owned lunch counters, a steakhouse, and an ice cream shop. “I always ate very well,” Chuck remembers. “Both of my parents were fantastic cooks.” 

As a kid, Chuck spent a good deal of time hanging around his parents’ restaurants, looking for ways to entertain himself. “I liked to scare the customers,” he admits. An unsuspecting diner taking a bathroom break might find the lights turned off on him. Another might encounter a fake snake made of putty. The staff would find scuba diver toys in the dishwater.  

Back in Atlanta, while kicking around the dream of opening a restaurant, Chuck was a Johnny’s Pizza regular. One day, in the Cheshire Bridge store for lunch, Chuck closed the menu and saw the words franchise opportunities on the back. On September 10, 2001, Chuck met with Bruce and Scott, the owners of Johnny’s Pizza, to discuss just that. Chuck planned to sell some stock for the initial capital to open a store in Johnson City, Tennessee. 

And the world knows what happened the following day. On September 11, 2001, terrorists flew planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers, sending the country into a period of shock and mourning. In the aftermath, the stock market took a nosedive of its own. Chuck’s dream had to wait.

A few years later, Chuck was in a new job, but his restaurant dreams weren’t dead. “I was bored at work. I could get all my work done for the day in about three hours.” And while Chuck didn’t know much about the ins and outs of the restaurant business itself, he knew he wouldn’t be bored. He understood how hard the work was, and he was up for the challenge. 

In 2003, Chuck restarted the franchise process with Bruce and Scott, who advised him on decisions about real estate, store layout, buildout, and suppliers for what would become his first store in Johnson City. There was nothing in tri-city area like Johnny’s Pizza. There was pizza, of course. “The pizza places all said New York style,” Chuck remembers, “but they weren’t. When I tried Johnny’s Pizza in Atlanta, I knew it was different. It tasted different. It was made different. And I was sure the tri-city area would welcome it.” 

Chuck was smart enough to know what he didn’t know about running a restaurant. “I wouldn’t have known what was normal, in terms of food and labor costs. The corporate support was there to tell me how I was doing and give me realistic targets.” And that’s not all the help Chuck got from Scott and Bruce. “When they came to Tennessee to check in and assist with training, they brought their tools. They helped me build shelves, and once they even helped me build out my office.”

Today, Chuck has three franchises and he plans to open another one. “One of the reasons I wanted to start my own business is that I have total control over my investment. When my money’s in the stock market, I don’t.” Plus, Chuck thrives on the bigger challenge of more stores. 

Now that Chuck has developed his management team, he has a little more freedom and flexibility in his schedule. “I have great people who I can rely on,” he says. 

Down the road, Chuck has more plans to travel. And this time, he’s not traveling for work. “I took a motorcycle trip along the California coast last year. I’ve done the Maine coast, too. There are a few more places I’d like to see,” he says.

Chuck doesn’t pull pranks on customers these days — no rubber snakes or lights out — though he does like to have fun in his stores, visiting with his regular customers. “The most fun I have now is hearing how much customers love the pizza.” Chuck’s not in danger of feeling bored anytime soon, and Johnny Brusco’s Pizza lovers in Tennessee are all the better for it. 
 

Retired Firefighter Builds a Pizza Empire and a Family Legacy

Mike McLean grew up in Philadelphia, the youngest of three kids in an Italian family. Every Friday night in the McLean house was pizza night. Mike’s mother and father were both teachers, and his father coached. All of the McLean kids played sports, and Friday night gave the crew of five a chance to sit around the table, catch up on each others’ lives, and enjoy family time.

When Mike married Suzanne in 2004, they moved to Loganville, Georgia, a suburb at the far reaches of Metro Atlanta. Far enough out to avoid the traffic; close enough in to enjoy the city. But one thing was missing — good, New York Style pizza. Mike and Suzanne, who was also a pizza lover, searched high and low for a slice that measured up to Mike’s childhood pizza nights.

When they found a Johnny’s Pizza in a nearby town, they became regulars. And while Mike wanted to carry on the tradition of family pizza night, he never thought the pizza business would end up supporting his own family.

Soon a Johnny’s franchise opened in Loganville — Mike and Suzanne’s own backyard. Mike kicked himself. “We should have done this,” he said to his wife one night, watching a bustling Johnny’s crowd enjoy hot pizza and cold beer late into the evening.

At the time, Mike was working as a firefighter in Conyers, a nearby suburb. He loved the thrill, hard work and personal satisfaction his job gave him. Plus, the atypical work hours allowed him to start his own home-building company.

One afternoon, Suzanne came to the fire station for lunch. “Too bad there isn’t a Johnny’s in Conyers,” she said. The next day, Mike called Johnny’s corporate office. He had worked hard his whole life, so the learning curve didn’t scare him, and he knew Johnny’s had the most valuable thing going: a great product. Mike and Suzanne entered a franchise agreement soon after.

Their Conyers grand opening was huge. “Our friends and family night was so busy, Luke and Scott [the owners of Johnny’s Pizza] rolled up their sleeves and helped us in the kitchen,” Mike said. The full tables, nonstop orders coming into the kitchen, and heaping plates of food going out gave Mike a rush of adrenaline. And while the shop never really slowed down, Mike and Suzanne grew comfortable as franchise owners. Two years later, with better-than-expected profits, they open a second location in a nearby town.

Mike, still a Lieutenant in the fire department, was accustomed to running a crew. He also had a knack for opening new stores. His construction background and the time he spent as a fire marshal lent him a familiarity with store build-out requirements. Not to mention, he liked the thrill of opening new franchises.

So when Mike retired from the fire service in 2015, he opened another franchise in Tampa, Florida, and became the regional developer of franchise sales there. “I don’t know why we can’t sit still,” he says of himself and his wife. “We like to drive things. We’re just those kind of people.”

Their drive has paid off. Aside from feeding his entrepreneurial hunger, Mike’s pizza empire has provided well for for his family. “The franchises have been a steady source of income, and they allow me to make my own schedule, which was something very hard to do at the fire department. I don’t work through birthdays or Christmas anymore,” he says.

Now, his kids are in college and Suzanne is starting another business in real estate. Mike is focused on the Tampa market, and he’s enjoying every minute. “It’s easy for me — I love pizza,” Mike says. “I have a slice every day. It’s quality control!”