Having built its pizza success mostly in the Western U.S., Vancouver, Washington–based Papa Murphy’s is continuing its spread into the Eastern Seaboard—with some help from the folks who grew up eating it in the Northwest.

Kim Earnhardt and Mark Dufault, a brother-sister duo who grew up in Washington State, opened their first Papa Murphy’s in Durham, North Carolina, last week, the first in the city.

“When I came [to the area], I was really shocked to find there wasn’t one anywhere in the area,” says Earnhardt, who has lived in the Raleigh-Durham area for about 10 years.

Papa Murphy’s, a take-and-bake concept and the fifth-largest pizza company in the U.S., has more than 1,200 stores now open in 35 states and Canada.

North Carolina is relatively new for Papa Murphy’s expansion, with only five stores, including the Durham site. Franchise agreements are in place to grow it throughout the Tar Heel state, though, including in Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh.

Earnhardt, who owns a plumbing business with her husband and was in the corporate world before becoming a stay-at-home mom, says she wanted to get involved with another business while also caring for her kids.

“I hopped on the website, and lo and behold [Papa Murphy’s] had expanded all the way to North Carolina just in the last year or so,” she says. “I still wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, [and] needed a partner I could trust to run the store so I could stay behind the scenes. So I called my brother.”

Earnhardt and Dufault first started looking into the Papa Murphy’s franchise in January of 2009, and signed an area franchise agreement with the company by early July of the same year.

“We loved the product, and we knew we could sell it because of how we feel about it,” Earnhardt says, noting that she and Dufault never shopped around for different franchises.

The area franchise agreement calls on Earnhardt and Dufault to open six Papa Murphy’s through 2012—four in Durham County and two in Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill.

Though the two say they’d like to open more than the six Papa Murphy’s they’re signed on for, Earnhardt and Dufault admit that it’s been tough going finding good real estate even for their second unit, which they’re aiming to open by the end of the year.

“What the problem is, is that we find lots of great real estate, but there’s one pizza place sitting in it—which doesn’t bother us at all, we have a totally different product [and] we’ll buddy up next door to another pizza place,” Dufault says. “[But] they all have exclusivity in their lease agreement.”

Earnhardt adds that the economy has made the leasing process much more difficult.

“When we first started this about a year ago, prime real estate was there,” Earnhardt says. “Now they’re not building new real estate, they’re not building new shopping centers.”

Another challenge in finding real estate for a Papa Murphy’s, Earnhardt says, is the fact that the concept thrives on parents picking a pie up on their way home from work—making store accessibility extremely important.

“We’re looking for people who just want to pop in and pop out and be here for six minutes, so it can’t be a hassle,” Earnhardt says.

But while Earnhardt says she and her brother are excited to grow the Papa Murphy’s brand throughout the Durham and Chapel Hill areas, the focus at the moment has to be on their sole open store.

“Every move we make, those other stores are on the back of our mind,” she says. “It’s, ‘Can this grow as big as we’re going to grow?’ every move we make.

“But at the same time, if we’re not plugged into this store and making it successful, we’re not going to start on a flop. So we’re very engaged in this store.”

And as Northwest natives who call Papa Murphy’s in that region “an institution,” Earnhardt and Dufault understand the excitement their store has already generated in the Bull City—especially from transplants from the West.

“It’s funny because it seems like one out of every four or five customers that come in are practically on their hands and knees kissing our feet” for opening in Durham, Dufault says.

By Sam Oches

News, Pizza, Papa Murphy's