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Though the pizza sector in the US is largely dominated by three players, that doesn’t mean other chains aren’t making a national push. Hungry Howie’s, a Michigan-based outfit that has 575 locations, is looking to add 40 to 50 stores this year. Known for its “flavored crust,” the company entered Idaho, Oregon and Wisconsin last year and has Delaware and Utah on tap for 2008. Though expansion is a priority for the chain, which was founded in 1973, Hungry Howie’s has deliberately tried not to over expand, says Jennifer Jackson, its director of marketing who also heads the real estate division. She recently spoke with GlobeSt.com about the company’s plans.

GlobeSt.com: You grown moderately since the business started but are you starting to ramp that up more?

Jackson: We’ve always had a very conservative approach to growth. We want to make sure that we can manage the growth that we do have. Our first store opened in 1973, and we started franchising in the early 1980s. We’re never going to grow to the point where we can’t handle it. We’ve kind of stayed at the same pace. You’re not going to see us all of a sudden open 100 stores one year. We’re going to stay at the point where our operations team is built up, and they’re ready. Once we have more consultants and representatives on staff, we’ll go ahead and work on opening more stores. I don’t think you’ll ever see us grow super fast.

GlobeSt.com: Have the problems in the economy given you pause in regards to your growth?

Jackson: Pretty much only in the State of Michigan, and we’re not really developing in the State of Michigan any more. We opened our first store here and have over 250 in the state, so this market is pretty much saturated. We’re developing outside of the State of Michigan, and a lot of those states are really booming. We actually have people that are in the auto industry taking their buyouts who are familiar with our corporation in Michigan and are moving to other locales to open stores.

GlobeSt.com: Your stores are scattered across the country. How did you decide to take that expansion route?

Jackson: Rather than look into specific markets and deciding that we wanted to have 50 stores in California or the Washington market, we more look along the lines of prospective franchisees that we feel are going to be successful. So we’re not out there marketing particular areas that we want to open and develop very largely. We’re waiting for people to come to us, and we’re approving them. Then we’ll go wherever they’re at. We’ve got so many markets available. We’re so wide open throughout the country, so we let them choose where they want to go.

GlobeSt.com: Do you look for franchisees that have experience operating other restaurant chains?

Jackson: Sometimes. It’s not necessary. Obviously, we can teach anybody to make a pizza in a few minutes. We’ve got people from all different backgrounds: Coming out of corporate America, pizza operators, people who have been in the military. It’s such a diversified background. As long as they’re business savvy and willing to put in the hard work, we really don’t sugar coat anything with them. We don’t paint a pretty picture that they’re going to have this wonderful lifestyle. We are looking for owner-operators of locations where people are going to come in and really physically work the store.

GlobeSt.com: What are your favorite types of real estate locations out there?

Jackson: We usually are in a strip mall. Obviously, we want a main anchor there, like a grocery store or a drug store. But we can pretty much go anywhere. Everybody eats pizza. We try to go to high-populated neighborhoods, not so much residential, but places where there’s easy access for delivery drivers to deliver to homes and easy access for people to come in to pick it up as well.

GlobeSt.com: Are you looking at any non-traditional real estate venues?

Jackson: Not at this time. We do have some stores where franchisees are opening freestanding buildings, but that’s usually down the road after they’ve opened their fifth or sixth store or if they’re going to purchase the building. But we want to keep expenses down as much as possible, and it’s not something that we’re heavily looking into at this time.

GlobeSt.com: There are a lot of pizza competitors out there. Do you try to stay a certain distance away from them?

Jackson: It’s not even an issue. If we have a great owner who can get in there and do there job – again, everyone eats pizza – there’s enough of a market out there for everybody. And if we take some of theirs, we’re not going to complain. There are so many options out there. People can go everywhere. You can have five pizza places right there. You have to go above and beyond your competition and give people a reason to come back. Just having great products and great service just doesn’t do it any more.

GlobeSt.com: Have you considered launching a different concept?

Jackson: The State of Florida is a subfranchisor of our company. Our owner moved down there in the early 80s. He decided to develop that state and leave us the rest of the country. Now Florida has more sit-down style restaurants because it fits more with their market. We’ve just found that the carryout and delivery are the most profitable, and I think we’re going to stick with that. We did some of the quick service in gas stations, but the carryout and delivery is the most successful, and we probably won’t stray from that again.

GlobeSt.com: Has there been any movement in the company to go public?

Jackson: No. Our president worked with our founder to build this company from the ground up. We try to run it as much like a mom and pop as we can. We’re a family-owned business and we’ll try to hold on to that family for as long as possible. It’s possible if the numbers were right some day. Anything is possible, but it’s nothing that we’re looking into at this point.

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