Johnny’s Pizza House

EricS.

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After bankruptcy threatened its future, this Louisiana institution surged back from the brink, thanks to a bold and unforgettable publicity stunt by its founder.

cutting_pizza_previewBy 1989, Johnny’s Pizza House was in trouble. The business had enjoyed 22 years of growth since its 1967 founding in West Monroe, Louisiana, but despite counting 42 locations in three states, a sagging economy and low-priced competition forced the pizzeria into Chapter 11. When the local paper reported the news, customers falsely assumed it had closed down completely, further plummeting sales.

But founder Johnny Huntsman wouldn’t accept defeat. “Johnny put on a barrel held up by suspenders—the stereotypical poor-person look—and stood at the busiest corner in West Monroe holding a sign that said, ‘Please eat Johnny’s Pizza,’” recalls Melvin DeLacerda, president and CEO of Johnny’s Pizza House. “He was all over TV, and business picked up. He was willing to embarrass himself for the good of the company.”

The resilient Hunstman had faced obstacles from opening day. A star high school athlete who worked at a pizzeria during his college days in Iowa, he initially made the then-foreign food for friends at poker games, to rave reviews, and decided to open his own place. At first, he sold burgers and hot dogs alongside his pies; hired a local kid to stand outside wearing a sandwich board; created the now-famous Sweep the Kitchen pizza, an “everything” pie; and even convinced family members to park cars outside, making the place look more popular.

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Johnny's-on-PMQHis efforts won the hearts of locals, and additional locations followed in the early ’70s. After its impressive rebound from bankruptcy, the company now has 33 corporate-owned and 10 franchised locations. “Being one of the first in north Louisiana, now on our fourth generation of customers, we have a stranglehold on the market—and we don’t take it for granted,” DeLacerda says. “Our mission has always been serving pizza we’d be proud to share in our home.”

While cherishing old-school values (including a strong focus on giving back), the company also embraces the future, with cloud-based training and new in-house online ordering and customer relations software in the works. But Hunstman, who passed away in 2017 after a battle with Alzheimer’s, left a legacy that reaches beyond his legendary pies. With no family members interested in taking over the company, he established an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), which creates retirement accounts for all employees after one year. “We’re all so proud of and grateful for the ESOP, and it creates a culture of ownership—a key to our success,” DeLacerda says. “It’s a testament to Johnny, a great leader and so charismatic in a way that’s hard to describe. We just try to do what he’d want with the business that bears his name.”  

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.

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