Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 28, 2023

Hunt Brothers devours huge slice of US pizza market

Nashville brand’s 9,000 locations top Pizza Hut, Domino’s. Who knew?

Finch’s Country Store is a quaint wood-sided shop on Highway 70 in Pegram. A gathering place for the community since 1971, locals come in for hunting and fishing supplies, coffee and lottery tickets.

Oh, one more thing. Finch’s is the epicenter of a pizza empire that now spans more than 9,000 stores across 30 states.

Finch’s was the first convenience store that told the Hunt Brothers – Charlie, Don, Lonnie and Jim – that their newfangled notion of making and selling high-quality pizzas at a convenience store in a tiny town with no pizza chains might just be a dandy idea. That was in 1991, the first year the brothers joined forces to enter what has become a very lucrative market they completely dominate.

The idea is this: Target convenience stores in small towns without the services of a pizza chain and partner with the store owners to provide the equipment and supplies to make fresh pizza. The stores buy the freezer, oven and display cases developed by Hunt Brothers, and the company delivers the flash-frozen dough and other ingredients.

The company has now moved into more urban markets and has a presence on the NASCAR circuit and in several major arenas, including Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, for brand exposure. But it still retains the small-town focus.

The Nashville-based Hunt Brothers’ philosophy is simple. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. There are no franchise fees or contracts, other than to promise to preserve the integrity of the brand.

The relationship between the company and its clients is as close to a handshake deal as you can get. Hunt Brothers sells stores the equipment, provides guidance in how to set it up to maximize space and trains employees on making pizzas. Then they deliver supplies as needed.

Darren Tristano, an industry analyst for Technomic, told CBS News the Hunt Brothers model of simplicity has spurred the company’s growth. Jay Patel, who owns several Golden Bear convenience stores in the Nashville area, agrees.

“It’s not a time- or labor-consuming process,” he says. “They do a site visit. Hunt Brothers determines the site size and what kind of equipment. The final step is to sign some documents.

“They help us do the install and, the first day, they help us do a demonstration for our employees. Once our employees and managers are trained, we do a sampling process for a day. And then we start selling our pizza.”

Keep costs low, quality high

The Hunt Brothers knew hard work from an early age. They grew up in Evansville, Indiana, and helped their father, James, run Austin’s Drive Up, an 80-parking-space joint that sold hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes.

At the tender age of 9, Don’s job was peeling 50 pounds of potatoes a day. Lonnie was master of the dumpster, spraying it to kill flies. Charlie and Jim were dish washers.

Their father died of a heart attack in 1955, but the brothers continued to run the restaurant and got a crash course in profit-and-loss statements.

“I started out at 50 cents an hour,” Charlie told Evansville Living magazine in 2010. “I worked my way up to 85 cents an hour. Then Lonnie comes to me and says, ‘Our labor cost percentage is too high. I’m going to have to cut you back from 85 cents.’”

Don played football at Vanderbilt – the fullback helped the Commodores defeat Auburn 25-13 in the school’s first-ever bowl game in 1955 and led his team to a 26-0 win against Tennessee in 1954 – making the Nashville connection that ultimately led to the company being headquartered here. A friend introduced him to a relatively unknown food item in 1962, a thing called pizza.

There wasn’t much in the way of pizza in Music City back then, and Don decided to buy an insulated box he used to take premade pizzas to bars and restaurants. Eventually, the other brothers followed, setting up their own pizza businesses in other cities, including Louisville, Lexington and Evansville.

What they sold back then was a pizza that was made by a manufacturer with a pre-baked crust, a process that had inherent flaws. Don recalled to Evansville Living that the crusts were made in a plant since they had to be pre-baked.

“You couldn’t ship raw dough,” he said. “It would get rancid. The yeast would work its way out, it wouldn’t rise and it would be as tough as shoe leather.”

So the brothers set about finding a better crust and worked with a manufacturer to develop a fresh-dough pizza that would be flash frozen raw at the plant. This kind of crust – now common in grocery store frozen pizza aisles – was a novelty at the time. With a product to sell that was virtually unknown in the industry, they decided to join forces and create a new business model that would cater to communities that were pizza deserts. Hunt Brothers Pizza was born in 1991.

The last of the brothers, Charlie and Don, died five days apart in December 2022. But the company remains family owned and the business model largely unchanged.

Staying true to the niche

The beauty of Hunt Brothers Pizza, even in an age of numerous delivery chains, is that consumers can watch their fresh pizza being made and carry it home piping hot in less time than they’d wait for a delivery order.

Today, Hunt Brothers has surpassed both Domino’s and Pizza Hut – 6,000-plus each – in the number of its U.S. locations. Chief Operating Officer Bryan Meng, a nephew of the original brothers, says that’s not really a valid comparison.

“Those companies have brick-and-mortar locations, their own employees and delivery drivers,” he says. “We are an addition to a convenience store. It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. The blessing is those companies do a good job with their niche and we do a good job with our niche.”

The Hunt niche involves carefully catering to each convenience store.

“One of the strengths of the program is it’s designed for convenience stores,” Meng says. “They’re challenged on space. We built our program to ergonomically flow for the staff. You need to minimize your steps for making and baking a pizza. The least steps they can take, the simpler you can make it the better.

“I know one of the great strengths of the concept is that store operators can turn out quality pizza in an extremely small space. We have to have an oven to make our pizza consistent every time.”

In an age of labor shortages, Patel says the efficient model has been a lifesaver.

“As a small-business owner, we always keep our focus toward the labor and, after COVID, labor is a big issue,” he says. “You don’t have to have three people to cook the pizza. One person can do it.”

The cost of installing the equipment is proprietary and obviously depends on the space available. But one industry estimate is about $10,000. Meng will say most stores get a good return on investment and pay off the cost within six to nine months.

The profit store owners make varies, but Patel says pizza sales account for 8-10% of his stores’s profits. And then there’s the intangible effect of putting a product in a store many other products. If customers order a whole pie – as opposed to the slices or “hunks” that also are available – they have about 15 minutes to browse other items while they wait.

“It extremely helps the bottom line,” Patel says. “It helps us to sell other products.”

Patel says the Hunt Brothers model also helps keep food costs down. Because the pizzas are made to order and the dough is frozen, there’s not much that has to be thrown out, he says, compared to a product like fried chicken that can only sit in warmers for a specified time.

And then there’s the lure of unlimited toppings, with the exception of extra cheese or meat.

“All the toppings are included in one price,” says Patel. “That’s why a lot of consumers like it.”

Finding community in pizza

In the early years, if Hunt Brothers Pizza had ever decided to go public, they might have had a hard time selling their unique business approach to Wall Street.

“We went into stores to be a blessing for the people, the employees and the store owners,” Jim Hunt told Evansville Living in 2010. The company has never wavered in that mission.

“The brothers operated on handshakes,” Meng says. “They decided to build the company to be a blessing and, if we’re successful, we’ll probably get blessed in return. We’ve made decisions that as a private company maybe didn’t make sense.

“We earn our customers’ business every week. There’s no guarantee they’ll stay with us. We know if we walk the walk the vast majority will stay.”

Patel first started partnering with Hunt Brothers Pizza when he bought his first convenience store in 2011 and the company already had a location there. He now owns 10 properties and insists that Hunt Brothers be in all of them.

“Hunt Brothers has always been a pleasure to work with,” he says. “Customers love their flavors, the aroma. My children love Hunt Brothers Pizza. They don’t like any other kind.”

Back at Finch’s in Pegram, fans had an emotional reaction when Hunt Brothers Pizza posted a photo of the store on its Facebook page with the caption: Tell us why your favorite c-store deserves a shoutout.

“Y’all, the fact that Hunt Brothers Pizza posted a picture of Finch’s Country Store has made me entirely too emotional,” wrote Amy Martin of Nashville, “Finch’s has the best Hunt Brothers Pizza, hands down. I’ll fight anyone who wants to argue that.”