Pizza Plus beats the odds, plans to expand

Dan Blake went into business in 1981 with loads of strikes against him. Back then, Ronald Reagan was president; the country was in a deep recession; inflation was 9.1 percent and interest rates hit 20 percent. Such economic conditions make experienced entrepreneurs blanch.

Yet for Blake, who had taken two years of business classes at Truckee Meadows Community College, the challenge was just what he needed. That year, at age 23, he lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and needed to refocus his life.

Dan Blake started Pizza Plus in Sparks, NV

“I always knew I wanted to own my own business,” he said.

What to do? Do what you know.

The Sparks resident knew pizza. His first job at age 14 was at the old Shakey’s Pizza chain. He loved pizza and turned into a passion.

He opened his store in the fall. His future mother-in-law Diane Ross provided start-up funding and mentoring. He had minimal staff, mostly family and a few ex-Shakey’s pals.

The first years were rough. Funding and managing cash flow were huge learning curves.

“Cash flow is king. We didn’t have much of it in the beginning,” Blake said.

For five years they grew by word of mouth.

“That was our only advertising. It was all we could afford,” he said.

After 12 years they opened a second store. Then seven years later, in 2001, they opened a third store.

“You know what happened in 2001 – 9/11 hit and the entire economy ground to a halt,” he said.

In 30 years of business he’s seen boom and bust economies – and thrived through both. Today, Pizza Plus is a four-store chain with 100 employees.

       Pizza Plus had humble beginnings averaging $9,000 a              month in sales. Last year, sales were $500,000 a month, a 26     percent year-over-year increase from 2010 to 2011.

“So far this year we’re up another 20 percent,” Blake said.

Looking ahead, Blake plans to expand Pizza Plus regionally in the next five years.

Blake attributes much of his success to a terrific staff and to the mentoring and support from peer groups.

The annual Pizza Expo convention keeps him and his staff abreast of trends, innovations and industry advances and marketing techniques.

In addition, he regularly meets with owners of other local small businesses and a professional business coach.  He currently is part of a SCORE-Reno group facilitated by John Moran and Nicole Barde. SCORE is a free service of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) dedicated to helping small businesses grow.

In prior years he paid for professional business coaching from other facilitators including the private Vistage group.

He finds peer advice invaluable in learning to balance life and work.

“They hold your feet to the fire. They support the entire life-balance focus. Each of us is a three-legged stool and you need to pay attention to each leg – you, your family and your business. You need to work on all of them,” he said.

Past mentor groups charged up to $12,000 a year per person.  SCORE does basically the same thing – free of charge.

“One thing that amazed me is that even with the diversity of businesses in our group – the similarities of what we’d run into – supply issues, customer service – are the same across industries. It’s great to have a group of peers of business owners. It’s just not the same as talking to your employees, because you’re the boss,” he said.

He learned of SCORE after the latest recession hit in 2009. The fees became too much for some business owners in the construction and trades.

“We meet once a month. We’re all owners of different local businesses (no direct competitors). SCORE is a life preserver for established business trying to find ways to make it. The counselors have a great wealth of experiences. They’re very bright people,” he said.

Pizza Plus is part of SCORE’s Northern Nevada Business Forum (NNBF). Owners like Blake and SCORE facilitators meet to share their unique knowledge and talents with each other to help their companies prosper and grow, said Moran.

“This pooling of resources often results in new business opportunities, specific problem resolution and valuable contacts for all members,” Moran said.

Hiring the right people matters. 

Great people, key to any organization, Blake said. He has more than a dozen who have been with Pizza Plus more than 10 years.

“You have to have trust in your people and training the right people. It’s by far the hardest lesson in running a business,” he said.

Dennis Cain, Blake’s old boss at Shakey’s, joined Pizza Plus early on and today is director of operations.

“One of the growing pains was letting go and building a system for consistency of operations between (stores),” Blake said.

His toughest issue over the years was marketing and advertising.

“We made lots of mistakes in our early marketing efforts. They were just horrible,” Blake said.

Hiring Ann Armbruster, marketing director, changed that. She over sees their community partnership program, which has allowed Pizza Plus to give out $75,000 last year to local teams and organizations, while bringing in new customers.

Pizza Plus puts customer service and food value right up front, Armbruster said. “That’s what keeps a customer. We want them to say ‘Wow’ every time,” she said. Staff members know they are part of the team that makes the business a success.

“Dan inspires his staff with leadership his perseverance, both are such rare commodities these days,” Armbruster said.

With SCORE, Blake is developing a strategic plan to take Pizza Plus to the next level – expanding regionally.   SCORE is helping him focus on organizational systems and getting a strategic plan in place.

“It’s a document to help keep us on track. We’re so busy running the business, actually doing it is tough,” he said.

“It is a pleasure to work with Dan and to see him applying tools and ideas from the NNBF to help his company grow,” Moran said.

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