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Pie High

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 10:00 a.m. July 25, 2014
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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There was a time when Erin Mullins' greatest business worry was if one of her pizza delivery drivers would make it safely through a shift without being robbed.

That was back in the late 1990s, when she managed a pair of Domino's Pizza locations in and around Trenton, N.J. The area, south of New York City and northeast of Philadelphia, is notorious for pizza delivery robberies. Mullins herself, when she was a delivery driver, was held up with a nighttime deposit outside a bank.

“When you are a manager, these people are like your family,” says Mullins. “There is a real sense of urgency in protecting them.”

Mullins, 40, now has a different plate of business anxieties. Her concerns are wrapped around real estate site selection, weekly profit and loss sheets and the rising cost of food products. Those are a few concerns in her new role: budding Domino's Pizza franchisee superstar.

Erick Ortiz, a Domino's franchise area leader for the Gulf Coast, says Mullins is the kind of franchisee others emulate. Ortiz worked with Mullins in New Jersey, too, and was impressed with how she brought humor to stressful situations. “She multitasks better than most other franchisees I know,” Ortiz says. “She's very spunky. She can handle her problems and others' problems at one time.”

Mullins owns 10 Gulf Coast Domino's locations, from Odessa to Fort Myers. She bought her first store, near McKechnie Field in downtown Bradenton, in 2009. She has since added to her portfolio through a combination of buying existing locations and opening new ones. Her 10th store, in Odessa, opened in March, and an 11th location, either in Seffner or Ruskin in Hillsborough County, is forthcoming later this year.

“We came down here to buy a few stores,” says Mullins, who moved from New Jersey to Manatee County with her boyfriend, fellow Domino's franchisee Keith Smith. “But we ended up building a whole bunch of stores. That wasn't on the radar.”

Adds Mullins: “We are constantly growing.”

Not only in locations, but in sales. Mullins had about $4.5 million in revenues last year, when she owned five stores for the full 12 months. Two locations, one on Dale Mabry Highway near Raymond James Stadium and one in Brandon, opened in the fourth quarter last year. Mullins, now with all 10 stores open, projects at least $7.5 million in 2014 sales.

Her success is best illustrated in the Lakewood Ranch location, on State Road 70 in east Manatee County. That Domino's, across the street from a dental college with around 1,000 students, opened in December 2010. Mullins says it was successful almost from day one. The store, with more than $1 million a year in annual sales, is so busy she recently added a third oven. “The doors blew off the second we opened,” says Mullins. “We didn't have to do anything.”

Growth for the sake of growth, especially in new locations, wasn't Mullins' focus five years ago. “The opportunity was there and we ran with it,” she says. “It wasn't a goal.”

It still isn't. Mullins says she seeks to grow when she has the right senior employees and managers who want and can handle their own store or stores. Other successful restaurant chains have a similar approach to expansion, including University Park-based First Watch, a breakfast-brunch-lunch chain with more than 120 locations in 16 states.

“We try to hire our GMs as business partners,” Mullins says. “We don't hire them to be GMs for life.”

Grassroots marketing
Not all the stores have been fast successes like the Lakewood Ranch location. The store in Parrish, on U.S. 301 in northeast Manatee County, is an example of a struggle.

The crux of the obstacle: The demographics of the local delivery area, mostly seniors, aren't traditional pizza eaters. Several senior-living complexes are within miles of the store, and Domino's, says Mullins, isn't exactly on speed dial. “A lot of seniors don't like pizza,” says Mullins. “And they only want to pay $5 for it.”

So Mullins went grassroots. She found out what nights the complexes hold bingo and other events. Then she showed up with a stack of Domino's boxes of pizza and other menu items. Turns out seniors, says Mullins, like Domino's flatbread pizza. “Every community is different,” says Mullins. “You have to get out there and figure out what people need.”

Mullins, through that theory, will use a different kind of marketing tactic in Odessa. That store, built under the chain's new Pizza Theater concept, has a chalkboard where customers write notes and leave feedback for employees. Several Tampa Bay Buccaneers football players who live in the neighborhood have already left their autographs on the chalkboard after coming in for pizza. To Mullins, that's another marketing opportunity.

Mullins' marketing skills will be especially necessary in the next three years: Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's, with $1.8 billion in U.S. sales last year, recently mandated all its restaurants, nearly 11,000 worldwide, convert to Pizza Theater by 2017. Pizza Theater is what it sounds like: custom-made pizza with the dough tossed in front of customers. Other new features, in addition to the chalkboard, include a comfortable lobby with tables and chairs for dine-in eating; a step-platform for children to see pizza being made; kiosks for ordering; and big-screen TVs.

Pizza Theater, a high-profile image makeover, isn't the only big change. Domino's also has a new single-tile logo and an expanded and updated menu that reflects healthier fast-casual eating habits. “We'd like to reach the point where we're as recognized as the Nike Swoosh or the Golden Arches,” Domino's Chief Marketing Officer Russell Weiner says in a statement.

Mullins supports the changes, which Domino's CEO J. Patrick Doyle began to implement in 2008. “He wants to dethrone Pizza Hut,” says Mullins. “They are No. 1 and he wants to be the king. And I support that.”

Don't go cheap
Past marketing moxie, Mullins made a key decision soon after she moved to Florida five years ago in the heart of the recession. Some people advised her to cut the price of pizzas to $5 or so in response to the downturn. That would be at least a 50% discount in many cases.

Mullins, who dropped out of a criminal justice program at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey to concentrate on her Domino's management career, went against the advice. She kept prices intact. “We would change people's perception of us,” says Mullins. “We would not go cheap.”

The move worked. Mullins hasn't had to raise prices to catch up in an improved economy.

Mullins says most of her business lessons, like that one, have come through learning from past mistakes. That goes back to her first management promotion in New Jersey. “I knew what was expected of me, but I had no clue about running a business,” she says. “I learned by doing things the wrong way.”

Her top advice to entrepreneurs in any field, from all lessons, is to find trusted managers, delegate and clear out. Says Mullins: “I would tell people not to micromanage the living crap out of everything.”
Mullins says her biggest looming challenge is to find the best real estate sites to expand — not hiring, usually a top concern in hospitality. Each store she owns has 15-20 employees. “We are really picky about who we hire,” says Mullins. “A bad (hire) spreads like a cancer.”

This year also marks a personal milestone for Mullins. It's her 20th year with the company. She applied for a delivery job at a New Jersey store in 1994 because she wanted tips and didn't want to wait tables. A female pizza delivery driver was an anomaly, but a well-paid one. Mullins rightfully predicted pizza delivery “girls get more tips than boys.”

That job led to several promotions, to where she managed the two stores near Trenton. She worked many 100-hour weeks to keep it all humming. Five years into her own turn on the ownership side, Mullins continues to work hard. But the freedom of doing things her own way, says Mullins, is irreplaceable.

“I was a real good right hand man for a long time,” Mullins says, “but I don't think I can work for anyone else again.”

At a Glance
Domino's Pizza

Year Founded: 1960
Founder: Tom Monaghan
CEO: J. Patrick Doyle
Headquarters: Ann Arbor, Mich.
2013 Revenues: $1.8 billion (U.S. sales)
Locations: 10,900 stores in 70 international markets
Employees: 220,000
Source: Domino's Pizza, Google Finance

Executive Summary
Company. Domino's Pizza Industry. Hospitality, restaurant, franchise Key. Franchisee Erin Mullins doubled her Domino's portfolio, from five to 10 locations.

Borrowed Time
Erin Mullins, who has used bank financing, specifically SBA loans, to rapidly expand her Domino's Pizza stake on the Gulf Coast, has a message for other entrepreneurs who seek loans: Be patient, but be persistent.

Mullins acquired or opened five Domino's locations over the past year. She obtained SBA loans through Houston-based Ascentium Capital and another national lender. The SBA program's terms, says Mullins, are better than most of the preferred lenders Domino's corporate office recommends.

But those good terms come at a price — in time and energy. “It's a lot more paperwork,” than a traditional bank loan, says Mullins. “It's a lengthy process.”

Mullins used the loans to build three new Domino's stores in the Tampa region under the chain's new Pizza Theater concept. Those restaurants include an array of features, with a build out cost of about $350,000 each. An existing store, says Mullins, usually costs around $250,000.

One key to navigating the complex SBA process, says Mullins, is to have straightforward financials that exclude “crazy projections.” Even more important, she adds, is never assume the banker knows the intricacies of the strategy or model. So Mullins, in tandem with business partner Keith Smith, takes the time to make certain her banker is well informed.

“They try to put everyone in a box no matter what the business is, no matter if it's pizza or rental cars,” says Mullins. “So sometimes you have to keep them on the phone until they understand it.”

Chomp Chomp
U.S. pizza sales surpassed $37.38 billion in 2013. Here's a breakdown of market share leaders.

Independents: 40.33%
Other chains: 23.93%
Pizza Hut: 15.33%
Domino's: 9.37%
Papa John's: 6.53%
Little Caesars: 4.5%


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