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Johnny’s Pizza House: Shakin’ & Bakin’ Since 1967!

onlylinkFrom the “only link in the world’s smallest pizza chain” with a tiny store with three parking spaces across from a college in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1967 to the largest locally owned pizza chain in North Louisiana today, Johnny’s Pizza House has come a long way, tossing and turning the area’s favorite pizza without fail day after day.

“It’s been quite a run,” Johnny Huntsman, founder and chairman of the board emeritus, said. “We started out small, grew rapidly, had to restructure and now we’re enjoying a nice, steady pace.”

After college in Iowa in the 1960s, Huntsman returned home and worked as an assistant coach at West Monroe High School and then as a sales representative at what is now Graphic Packaging International, also in West Monroe.

He had always wanted to go into business for himself. But the only thing he knew at the time was how to make one heck of a pizza. He had learned that working at a pizza place while in college.

johnny_bw“All the while I was making pizza for my friends and at parties,” Johnny said.

Then one day he passed by the college (now the University of Louisiana at Monroe) and saw a building for rent. And with some borrowed money – $5,000 – he opened his first restaurant on DeSiard Street. There were no other pizza stores in Monroe in those days. And most people around had never eaten pizza.

So the going was slow. His advertising consisted of a kid walking around with a poster in front of the restaurant, ringing a bell. And to encourage people to come in, he’d have friends park their cars in front of the place or ring the cash register when someone might call in on the phone.

When Shakey’s Pizza, a national chain, came to town and started advertising in a big way, Huntsman thought it was over for him. But the advertising created an awareness about pizza, and Huntsman’s product started to take hold and claim its own following.

In five years he was able to open a second store, converting an old washeteria in West Monroe with the help of his brother. Stores three and four soon followed. Johnny’s Pizza House grew to a chain of 40 stores – 30 corporate stores and 10 franchises — in three states with over 600 employees.

In the mid-1980s business began to slow. Louisiana’s economy was suffering from a collapse in the oil industry as well as problems in the agriculture and timber industries. Also, heavy discounting by the national pizza chains cut into their business. Finally in 1989 the company declared bankruptcy.

“We simply didn’t have the deep pockets” of the national chains, Johnny said. “But we expected the chain to bounce back.”

barrelWhen the bankruptcy was announced in the media, people just assumed all the stores were closed and that Johnny’s Pizza House was officially out of business. Johnny, however, had a solid restructuring plan and had been working hard to get out of trouble. But how to move ahead and stay open with no orders coming in and no money to advertise?

That’s when Johnny came up with his now-famous idea and donned his outlandish outfit of a barrel, suspenders, sneakers and a ball cap, and went out to the busiest intersection in Monroe, carrying a sign reading “Please Eat Johnny’s Pizza.” It wasn’t so much a brilliantly conceived plan as much as it was an act of desperation, he said.

The media came out in force, and Johnny got more publicity than he could have dreamed possible. He did the same thing in Shreveport, and sales bounced back. The company was able to exit Chapter 11 in less than a year by closing some of the more expensive stores out of state and rededicating its efforts to North Louisiana.

Since then sales have rebounded stronger than ever. Long known for its great products (it consistently ranks as North Louisiana’s favorite pizza) as well as its outstanding community service, Johnny’s Pizza House commands a large market share percentage of the Monroe area pizza dollar.

There are strong competitors in the marketplace, Johnny acknowledged. “We maintain an aggressive marketing and advertising program and make a real effort to stay on top.” But so much of the credit has to go to Bernie Lear, chairman of the board, he said. “He’s the marketing genius around here.” Lear joined the company over thirty years ago. He has been manager, operations director, marketing director, CEO and now chairman of the board.

kidsAs always, Johnny continues to lead by example. He is involved in civic affairs with a variety of organizations and also works with youth and charity groups.

He has an endowed scholarship at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and serves as a sponsor in the Adopt-a-School Program. Also, the company has a tuition-assistance program for employees. What’s more, the majority of the company is owned by employees through a stock ownership program established several years ago.

Johnny is proud to be celebrating all these years in the pizza business. He is proud of his popular products and especially his original Sweep the Kitchen pizza. And he is proud of the consistently high level of service they offer. But he quickly points to his employees as being the backbone of Johnny’s.

So many great years of terrific pizza. So many great years of community service. So many great years of believing in people. Thanks for the good times, Johnny!


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