Franchising | December 2015 | By Bryan Reesman

Playing for Keeps

Former NFL player Billy Bajema, along with his college teammate, brings a winning franchise strategy to his home state.
Former NFL player with Baltimore Ravens now serves pizzas in top QSR.
Childhood friends and teammates Billy Bajema, left, and Josh Fields take a page out of the sports playbook at Pie Five. Pie Five

After playing nine seasons in the NFL—including a Super Bowl win with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013—Oklahoma native Billy Bajema decided his football career had run its course and he was ready for the next adventure. He had a business degree, but had not contemplated working in the restaurant industry.

After talking with childhood buddy and former Oklahoma State University teammate Josh Fields about his work as a Firehouse Subs franchisee, Bajema became intrigued by the idea of entering the field. The two looked into emerging opportunities in the fast-casual pizza market and discovered Pie Five.

Impressed with Pie Five’s product and professionalism, Bajema, his brother-in-law Tyce Jones, and Fields and his Firehouse business partner Brandon Birdwell formed Pistol Pie LLC to cover the entire state of Oklahoma, where they will open up to 10 Pie Five locations under their contract. They opened their first unit in Stillwater in March and the second one in Moore in September. Bajema and Jones run the day-to-day Pie Five operations, while Fields and Birdwell focus more on the business end.

With a winning playbook in hand, Bajema shares tips for translating the teamwork mentality in sports into the franchising world.

1. Friends can make strong teammates. Josh and I have been in baseball teams and Little League, and we played college football together. Through those experiences, you understand the person, their work ethic, and what they’re all about because you’re in something with somebody you trust. I know there are downfalls to getting into business with people you know well because there are opportunities for arguments and strained relationships, but it can work out well if you choose the people you trust the most and know what you’re going to get from them.

2. Treat your franchise like a professional sports team. A lot of things about football and sports in general translate over into the real world, whether it’s restaurants or anything else. You do your best to put systems in place to hold the people that are in charge accountable to do a great job. You expect a lot of them, and they expect a lot of you.

Even from an ownership standpoint, you work together and come to agreements that everybody is excited about and can move forward with a positive attitude. It’s not hard to see the parallels between athletics and business or restaurant management. Camaraderie and enjoying the people you work with make teams better in sports and make the work environment and the crew better in a restaurant.

3. Recruit the most valuable players. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of good people who you trust to help you, from employees to managers. Do whatever you can to find good employees, to always be on the hunt for them, and to continue to make your staff better. Sometimes that’s training them and getting them immersed in a positive culture. Sometimes it’s finding somebody new to replace them. You can never let it go and expect it to do well.

With a restaurant, you always have to have your pulse on things and make absolutely sure that they are being done the right way. It’s really important to be organized, have systems in place, and have methods to keep people accountable and preserve a great culture of service. I think that’s what keeps people coming back.

One of the biggest challenges is trying to create that great experience every single time. It is easier to lose customers and not have them come back than to gain new customers. You can’t be there from open to close every single day, so it’s nice to have other people who you believe in, trust, and who you know care about it just as much as you do. You want to make sure your managers and your partners are good people who you can trust and who care.

4. Remember that quality keeps people coming back. I wouldn’t say we’re big-time celebrity status here in Oklahoma, but there are a lot of people who know who Josh and I are and hear about it when we open up a restaurant and want to try it out. I think that helps get people in the door, but I don’t think it does a whole lot long-term. Getting people in is great, but you have to keep them coming back. You can only do that with good service.

There’s a little bit of pride: You want people to come in and see that it’s a nice place because it is something that you’re attaching your name to. Any time you sign your name to something, you want it to be quality.

5. Huddle with other franchisees.Josh and Brandon were involved with Firehouse Subs and had been through the franchising process before. There were a lot of things they taught us as far as being prepared, staffing the right amount, and giving the proper amount of training. We did a good job opening our first restaurant and it worked well, but we learned as we went and put in a lot of hard work. We knew it would be hard work. I don’t know if we understood exactly how much we would have to put in to make it successful. Going into the second one, we understood what it was going to take, but we were also a little more prepared for it with systems, people, and everything we put in place to get it rolling more quickly.

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