Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs | July 2016 | By Robert Thomas

Pizza Exec Reflects on 40-Year Career

Hungry Howie’s CEO Steve Jackson shares what has inspired him as he's helped grow the Michigan-based pizza franchise.
Michigan fast food pizza chain executive talks career inspiration.
Steve Jackson is CEO of Michigan-based pizza franchise Hungry Howie’s. Hungry Howie’s

The pizza business has been my life since high school, when I started out helping a friend deliver pizzas. I went to college to become a schoolteacher and got a job at a Ford motor plant to make money through college. I knew it wasn’t the industry for me long-term, and education jobs weren’t popping up, either. Through high school and college, this friend had built his pizza business, and I decided to partner with him and open the second Hungry Howie’s when I was 21. It wasn’t the most popular decision among my blue-collar family, but I knew this was the right path. I opened my first store in 1976, and with the help of Hungry Howie’s founder Jim Hearn, we decided to franchise the concept in 1980.

I quickly realized that the pizza business, and quick service in general, was the right choice for me. I liked being my own boss and building my particular business. Once we began to franchise, it became even more fulfilling, because I was teaching people how to operate the business. The teaching and franchising was successful, and we ended up with 500 stores in the early 2000s.

We’re continuing to better our business model by bringing in proven executives and industry-proven individuals. This was a big shift, but after the recession and losing some stores, we needed to reevaluate only promoting from within the organization. We’ve done everything to refresh and reevaluate, and it’s starting to pay off—so much so that the executive team and I look to have another 800 stores open by 2020.

Pizza is a value-conscious business. I remember delivering a large pepperoni pizza in high school that totaled $3.62. A coffee would cost you 10 cents, same for an ice cream cone. Now the coffee and ice cream have increased to 10–15 times that amount, but some pizza brands are still offering $5 deals. To combat this, we developed an approach to deals, starting at $5 and going up in $5 increments to $20. The deal might change, but the numeric amount is always the same. This helps us stay current and fresh with our customers and our deals.


What was your first job?

Server at an ice cream shop.

What’s your favorite menu item at Hungry Howie’s?

The classic large pepperoni with Butter Cheese–flavored crust.

What’s your other favorite type of food besides Hungry Howie’s?

I’m a big fan of Italian food and restaurants.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

I love to golf and travel as much as possible.

What menu item or operational strategy are you most proud of?

The development of flavored crust.

Who are some leaders that inspire you?

Jim Hearn, founder of Hungry Howie’s.

What is the best piece of advice quick-serve executives should hear?

Surround yourself with great, successful people.

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