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.”