Reporter's Notebook

Enough Friends to do the job

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In my eight years covering foodservice for Nation’s Restaurant News, I’ve heard lots of franchise owners talk passionately about developing team members to run their own restaurants some day. Jennifer Friends, a newly signed franchisee of Toppers Pizza, is the first operator I’ve interviewed to refer to her employees and future general managers as her children, but she isn’t exaggerating.

Friends and her husband Barry have signed a five-unit area development agreement with Toppers, and four of their seven children will begin working in the new family business to be groomed to run one of the four stores set to open in 2014 or 2015. The family’s first pizza restaurant will open this year near Minneapolis.

Three of Friends’ daughters and one of her sons will join Mom and Dad in the Toppers franchise, including the oldest daughter and her fiancée as assistant managers at store No. 1. They have the most experience in foodservice, having worked as servers, hosts or bartenders since high school. Their youngest daughter, who is 15 years old, already works part-time at a McDonald’s and wants to major in hospitality in college.

Meanwhile, one son comes into the family franchise from the paper distribution business, where he learned a little about restaurants from foodservice clients. Another daughter will work at her parents’ Toppers location after serving out the school year as a teacher in Tennessee and moving back to Minnesota.

Jennifer Friends, a college professor, became very familiar with the brand, which has grown mostly in college towns and caters to the young-male audience with cheeky messaging like “We come fast, no apologies.” Despite that irreverent tone — actually, because of it — Toppers is the family-friendly choice for the Friends’ new business.

I spoke with her about her expectations for teaching her kids the value of a dollar and hard work in the restaurant industry.

How did you and Barry go from franchising a Toppers to be in business for yourselves, to getting four of your seven children involved in the franchise?

My husband was in foodservice distribution since he was dating me, and over the 32 years we’ve been married, he’s had a new make-it-rich scheme all the time. We were going to open a custard stand, or a banana bread shop, and I’ve always humored him and let it go. He would go to an annual Dairy Queen convention and come back and say, “We need a DQ franchise here.”

We moved to Wisconsin, and I happened into a Toppers and just cracked up. We’re a heavy pizza-eating family with seven kids, so we started eating them all the time. But a year ago, when a girlfriend visited, and I had her call it in to hear their funny phone messages and had her read their website, and she said, ‘Wow, we need a Toppers back home.’ I thought, this is one franchise I could get behind. I told that to my husband and it went from there.

I started canvassing the kids and asked them if it’s something they’d want to be part of. There’s doom and gloom on the economic front, with everybody saying all kids are going to be living in basements and not doing better than their parents. But we always told them to study what they want. And as a result, we’ve got a creative-writing major and an art major, which may not translate right into jobs. … But we’ve got enough kids that are definitely interested that would become involved right away, and in time that might spread to the whole family.

What made Toppers the family-friendly choice?

I think it’s a good product, and I like the irreverent sense of humor. There is that aspect of Toppers that’s fun, and I appreciate that, because I don’t think work should be a burden. I wanted my kids out of a restaurant with a bar. There’s drugs and alcohol in a lot of restaurants, and I’d rather them be in the industry in a pizzeria with us to avoid those aspects.

If any of these locations go up in the area where we live, we’re going to be inundated with friends’ children looking for jobs, and we already discussed how to handle that. We’ll have our future son-in-law interview those people, because he doesn’t know them like we do.

Any advice for potential franchisees hoping to involve their families like you will?

I couldn’t speak to any successes in franchising yet, so maybe I’m a fool. But I do think that it’s important to like your family. We’re not doing this just because we want to provide for them, but we like having our kids around us. That’s not always the case in families. Now, one daughter is already saying she can’t work with her one sister, but they pretty much like each other and it shouldn’t be a huge clash.

I’m looking at is as parallel to my husband and me. He has the strengths that I don’t have and vice versa, and of the four [children] coming into the business with us, two are like me and two are like him. We’re hoping we all pull on our individual strengths, and after Barry and I bow out, it will balance out with the kids still in it. If it only worked with the two of us involved, that’d be a bust.

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