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EP 37 / Melvin Delacerda / President of Johnny’s Pizza House & Empowerer of People

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The Johnny's Pizza House is one of the American Dream playing out from Johnny Huntsman's first location in 1974 where he introduced the people of North Louisiana to pizza, the whole way to 2022 where the brand is now fully owned by the employees. JPH has been dominating the region for decades with their family-forward, sharing is caring attitude. In this episode, I sit with friend and former client, Melvin Delacerda to unpack the magic that makes JPH a fantastic place to work.

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EP 37 / Melvin Delacerda / President of Johnny's Pizza House & Empowerer of People
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Show Notes

The Johnny’s Pizza House is one of the American Dream playing out from Johnny Huntsman’s first location in 1974 where he introduced the people of North Louisiana to pizza, the whole way to 2022 where the brand is now fully owned by the employees. JPH has been dominating the region for decades with their family-forward, sharing is caring attitude. In this episode, I sit with friend and former client, Melvin Delacerda to unpack the magic that makes JPH a fantastic place to work.

Transcript

00:00.00
vigorbranding
Everyone today I am joined by longtime friend and client. Ah, Melvin Dalierta who is the president and Ceo of Johnny’s pizza house Melvin say hello give a little bit of backstory.

00:11.27
Melvin
good morning joseph good good see my friend um my name’s Melvin Delaserta I have been started working with Johnny’s pizza house in high school and not just last month turned sixty years old so that gives you an indication of how long I’ve been with this company. Um, started in high school just because that’s where all of my buddies were working had no intention of it turning into a career but I hit it at the right time and the company proved to be ah, a good place to to work and I enjoyed it enjoyed The people enjoyed the restaurant. Industry and so like said it’s all these years later I’m I’m still here with with Johnny Pizza started out at the very bottom of course. Yeah I was only sixteen years old so you know was busing tables and cutting up meat and shredding cheese and just all the things you do in a restaurant and. Worked my way up eventually got into the the area of human resources with the company and eventually moved on up into the position I’m in now.

01:17.47
vigorbranding
Nice yeah, and I think your your journey is not dissimilar from a lot of other folks in the organization if I recall so for for those who are not familiar with Johnny’s pizza house. It is a multi-unit brand out of. Ah, based in West Monroe Louisiana which is the northwest of the state technically correct or kind of north central ish yep and then but it’s all across the the north mostly the northern part of Louisiana you’ve gotten down to to baton rouge but haven’t quite cracked into.

01:37.31
Melvin
Yeah, North East yeah

01:51.44
vigorbranding
New Orleans which is obviously what most people will be familiar with Louisiana um, ah, can you describe the service model and and basically how it’s worked compared to like some of the other major piece of chains.

01:52.90
Melvin
Right? and.

02:02.68
Melvin
Well, you know we Johnny started this company back in 1967 so we’re coming up on our fifty fifth anniversary and when he first started. Company and in Monroe Louisiana which has crossed a river from where our headquarters is it was probably I think the second pizza place in the whole area. So needless to say when he started he had to introduce people to pizza they they literally did not know what pizza was. He had learned the craft going to school in Iowa where he went to college and brought it down here and and was originally but was making it for his friends and at the poker game and that sort of thing and they encouraged him to you know you need to do this for the public. So starting out like said. Johnny had to sell other things you know to hamburgers and you know he had a grill so and then at the same time he offered the pizza and introduced it to the to the people needless to say as a result of that I think. His brand and and his company became very emotionally a part of the people here in North Louisiana you know they were probably third or fourth a generation of customers now and so he need us to say we we have a a strong hold on this. Part of the country. Um, and I mean it’s it’s something that you can’t replicate you know pizzas everywhere now so you can’t go into an area and and you know become the first pizza place and and steal people’s hearts that way. So when we go into new markets now you know we have to compete with the big boys and you know there’s a lot of good pizza out there.

03:50.20
vigorbranding
And.

03:52.23
Melvin
So But but still you know we we offer you know pretty much the same thing that a lot of them. Do We we know have indoor in-store dining. We have a buffet at most of our locations delivery of course pick up and take out. So yeah, you know we pretty much follow the suit with with. A lot of the the bigger known to what better known companies out there.

04:14.78
vigorbranding
Yeah, and it’s it’s interesting because these for most of the locations from what I recall are actually pretty large footprints and it seems to me that the brand never really latched on to the. Delivery first or delivery only model like like ah not Mcdonald’s oh like a domino’s even pizza hut you know pizza hut shed their internal dining their interior dining a while back opted for a more delivery first approach and of course Papa John’s um. You know was there a strategy or reason to keep that that gathering place. Um, instead of going full on delivery mode.

04:58.41
Melvin
Well, that was kind of how Johnny built it. You know he was a hometown boy here and he wanted to bring people together and and give them an atmosphere that they they felt comfortable in. You know one of the things that he did early on was got involved in in youth sports you know with baseball during the spring here in Louisiana is is a big thing and so ah, you I would challenge you to try to find a baseball field here that doesn’t have a Johnny’s pizza house sign on it. You know he he got bobbed in that he actually whenever video recording first came about he bought a couple of these vcr cameras and recorders and went out and filmed the boys playing ball and then handed out. Little pamphlets to let them know that hey come to the pizza house tonight and you can watch yourself play ball on Tv and back then that was a novel thing and so sure enough people who know brought their ball teams in and you know it it just it created ah this this family atmosphere. You know we we have. Birthday parties. You know people have showers um, all kinds of reasons to gather and so I think that’s the main reason that that we kept this model and and it’s been very successful for us. Yeah.

06:20.77
vigorbranding
Yeah, so I mean like I mean I’m sure the listeners are probably thinking like how did that model How how did you manage to keep it going during a pandemic when you know doors closed and you know gathering became more of a. Guess Danger in some people’s eyes right? like getting close to other folks same thing with buffets like how how has the the business worked through that ah pivoted or just um, did you guys just hunker down and weather the storm.

06:39.64
Melvin
Then.

06:50.25
Melvin
Well, you know of course it started in early Twenty twenty and when it first hit and we knew you know our state had pretty much shut down indoor dining completely and you know we were like everybody else we didn’t know what the future held we you know we shut down. Got rid of all excess spending you know, started hanging on to cash thinking that hey we you know we’re going to have a rough, go ahead of us and we did for the back first week and what we found out though was because all these other restaurants were being shut down completely in pizza restaurants and and and other. Types of restaurants that had already had it part of their model to deliver had it their model for pickup orders. We were in a perfect position to to service the the customers to service the public. And so what we saw was the opposite of what we expected. We saw an increase in sales and primarily because of ah the the lack of competition with all these other restaurants shutting down. You know we couldn’t do indoor dining anymore. Nobody could so all our buffets were shut down. It was strictly.

08:00.48
vigorbranding
A.

08:05.85
Melvin
Pick up and delivery and and of course the men menu was cut back a little bit because we no longer could have a salad bar but we you know it it turned out for the best for us and and of course you’ve seen in the trade Journals. You know, a lot of other companies similar to us. You know felt. And they they had experienced the same same type of ah a business during that time. So.

08:26.93
vigorbranding
Yeah, and you guys also have another feature that not a lot of pizza places have had in the past which is a pickup window was that part of that saving Grace was that part of the one of the things that really kept you guys thriving.

08:34.87
Melvin
Correct.

08:42.15
Melvin
It certainly was and you know that’s something that when we first started and for years and years you know we we didn’t have pickup windows everybody thinks of it as a drive-through which pets up. You know it takes close to 20 minutes from the time you order it to the time you receive it. So. You know it just you know our business can’t operate a a traditional drive-through like a Mcdonald’s or those type places but what we found was that if you know we advertise it as a pickup window and people love it. I mean we would not open a location now without one and there’s people.

09:04.10
vigorbranding
A.

09:20.38
Melvin
That that we know that go out of their way to come to 1 of our restaurants that has a pickup window and we’ve got them into every restaurant that that we can put them in. We’ve got a few restaurants that are landlocked and we can’t get the lane around the the building. But if we can put it in there. It’s in there and it it proved to be.

09:32.58
vigorbranding
Sure.

09:39.56
Melvin
Ah, great reason for the success we had during the pandemic and ongoing with the pandemic.

09:43.47
vigorbranding
Yeah I imagine I mean just the thinking about the patrons who really love Johnny’s frequent Johnny’s a lot and and brands like that whether it was realized at the time or not it really does hit a category use occasion which is I have a car full of kids. We’re not going to be eating in. You know we we get. We need to take this and go maybe it’s to the ball field. Maybe the pizza’s brought there. Um getting all those kids out basically corralling the kittens as it were is a lot of work this kind of saves saves that time saves that that a heartache in that. Um.

10:04.34
Melvin
1

10:18.49
vigorbranding
Difficult scenario and it’s it’s quite brilliant I think a couple other brands have started to adopt it actually where they have a pickup window now which I laughed when I saw I was like man guys I’m doing that forever. Um, so that’s good, but um, let’s let’s get back to your journey because it is. It is a journey that I think a number of folks within the organization have had if I recall and that is first job was the Johnny’s or at least early in ah the career was Johnny’s and then you have stuck with it. Um, what do you think contributed to that what what kept you there and then what made you come back.

10:53.15
Melvin
Well I think a lot of it, especially us old timers that have started back in the 70 s it was primarily working with with our founder Johnny Huntsman founded the company and he is or was one of the most charismatic. People that you would want to meet. He was great with people. He originally was a so ah coach you know he went to school on a football scholarship like set up in Iowa came back and and coached some football here at local high school.

11:22.21
vigorbranding
A.

11:28.93
Melvin
So He was good with people he and he knew how to treat people and he created this atmosphere this family. Ah, it was just fun working there as we all grew up and and we learned the lessons of business and how to run restaurants. You know we it was just you know you. And know it’s cliche to say but it was just one big happy family and of course as families have you know we’ve had our differences and but it hits before but still though it’s a familiarity that that we all enjoy. And I think it’s led to the success success of us personally and the company.

12:04.22
vigorbranding
Yeah, how do you keep that going I think you know when we think about the labor shortages right now and a lot of a lot of small brands large brands startups single unit 900 unit. It’s really hard to have that sense of family fostered is. Is there a secret in the sauce as it were.

12:22.48
Melvin
Ah, we ah you know we train our our management we we give them as much human relations training as we can and and one of the things that we try to impress on them is that people don’t leave companies. They leave people they leave managers.

12:38.38
vigorbranding
They.

12:40.80
Melvin
And so we tried to you know, recreate that same family atmosphere that that we grew up with um and we train like said we train our people to do that and and not give them a reason to to look other places and you know we we have we’ve done what? Ah, just about all other food. Companies have done. We’ve had to raise the entry wage for for employees. Um, you know I think everybody has done that but there’s no doubt that they don’t stay just for the money so we create that that try to create that atmosphere now another thing and this is a big part of our company.

13:11.80
vigorbranding
Tonight.

13:19.56
Melvin
And it’s also a a big reason to to love Johnny Huntsman was when he got ready to start pulling away from the company. He didn’t like the idea of selling it to a bigger company because he knew that they would come in and and cut people there. They wouldn’t duplicate their services. And and we were the people that had made him successful and he had a personal interest in seeing for the well-being of us so we created what’s known as an employee stock ownership plan. This is a regulated plan the department of labor. The IrS.

13:41.66
vigorbranding
Um.

13:57.37
Melvin
You know they’re heavily involved in this. So it’s it’s not a fluke and and so basically the employees would start homing part of the company and he he started in the year two Thousand is when this thing was started and in December of 2018

13:59.24
vigorbranding
Right.

14:16.36
Melvin
Employees own 100% of our company and that’s where we stand Today. You know this company is owned by the employees so that I think also has a lot to do with with people hanging around. You know they. You know they’re they’re part owners I mean why not staying and you know work hard and and see your stock increase and you know go towards your retirement.

14:36.60
vigorbranding
Yeah, yeah, and so for those who are listening and haven’t heard the the term before for the sake of time sanity. Um, the employee stock ownership plan but we’ll we’ll call it esop from now on. So. That March to Esop was 18 years that’s a long time. Um, but what? what was the reason for the length is that standard and how intricate was it to to shift this privately held company into a not only publicly held but employee held company.

15:07.42
Melvin
Yeah, well it does take a little bit of time because what happens the owner in this case, it started with Johnny. He’s he sold 30% of his stock to the Esop and so the Esop was just created you know didn’t have any funding. Didn’t have any money to pay for that stock. So what we did was the company borrowed the money from a bank and then the earnings of the company went into the esop to pay off the loan I know it to get into doning it too too deep into the weeds on that but it takes a little while you know to to. Make the money to to start paying off that amount and once we paid off the first loan we bought a second ah chunk of his stock and then it went like that and we had at the time we had 3 other outside shareholders. So once we bought Johnny’s stock we started buying their stock as well. So you know it just took time and.

15:45.23
vigorbranding
Um, sure.

16:04.61
Melvin
You know esops it is’s pretty typical that it would take this this amount of time some eesops are you know, never become 100 % employee um it doesn’t have to be but that was the goal of Johnny when he started this thing he wanted this company to be passed on to its employees and it’s. Like said, it’s proven to be very successful. It worked out for him. You know he got you know what he needed out out of the company and it certainly is working out for the employees for.

16:29.20
vigorbranding
Turner.

16:35.56
vigorbranding
That’s great I mean I love that you touched on a couple things whether you know it or not ah the the narrative around the labor shortage specifically in the restaurant industry. It’s definitely bled into other ones is that of money and compensation and while that is. 1 of the facets I think you touched on it quite well that it’s not the only facet so you have folks out there that are stomping for a federal minimum wage hike which to be completely honest I think is ah I want to use the word insane. But I think it’s ah. It’s very undetailed to the detriment of of the industry. What I’m getting by that is $15 an hour in los angeles county it’s not going to get you very far. It’s not enough $15 in south arkansas you’re you living pretty well. Um, and there’s just too much difference across so you know while I may stump for not a federal minimum wage keeping at the state level or even local level. Um, that’s only one part of it and I and I think if I’ve heard correctly, a lot of what has been the magic of johnny’s in the 70 s but also even today is um. Feeling of cooperation of shared mutual interest that eesop has taken away the I’m working for the man as it probably was said back in the 70 s and and 80 s to you know? I’m working for a fat cat that is just raking in the cash on my hard labor. So. It’s actually just completely disarm that. Um, and with that in mind what does the so ah the say of the employee. How much does that affect decisions. Um I guess what I’m getting at is it a true democracy allah ancient greece where everybody gathers and then everyone has a voice. Or is it maybe more of a representative republic like we have in in the united states today where the managers speak on behalf of the people. How how does that even play out if you’re willing to share.

18:34.60
Melvin
Yeah I mean it’s more of a republic I mean you you think about it. You couldn’t take the you know 900 different people that work for our company on any given day and and have them vote on some of these decisions that need to be made in the company. And especially some of the higher level decisions. You know we’re running a business I mean it’s a multimillion dollar business and you don’t just let anybody make the decisions and so we actually have a fiduciary responsibility to run this company at.

18:55.48
vigorbranding
Sure.

19:11.13
Melvin
With these participants in mind you know we’re we’re supposed to make decisions and run this company for their benefit and that’s how the thing is set up. You know there’s a trustee that overlooks everything that that we do They actually are the ones that controls the stock on Behalf of.

19:29.86
vigorbranding
Me.

19:31.19
Melvin
Employees and so most things there are some limited situations where the participants The employees would vote on something but the day-to-day stuff. You know as far as electing. You know who’s going to be the president and who’s going to be the officers of the company to run this thing.

19:46.63
vigorbranding
Are.

19:48.57
Melvin
You know that’s mainly handled by the trustee and it works Well, you know if if I don’t do my job to the extent that the trustee believes that I’m doing a good job. Well they find somebody else to do it.

19:56.14
vigorbranding
O.

20:03.70
Melvin
So the trustee also has that fiduciary responsibility on these are personal responsibilities too. So everybody that’s involved takes it seriously and we know we work again. You know for the the benefit of these employees these participants in the plan.

20:19.67
vigorbranding
Yeah, so it seems like it’s It’s very similar to answering to a board except you know the board just happens to be not up top but actually I hate to say it but down below it’s It’s amongst the people. The people are the board. Um, and and you’re you’re certainly not. Ah.

20:30.14
Melvin
Just with it.

20:38.25
vigorbranding
Any less scrutinized than a president of a company that answers to a board would be if if I’m reading it correctly. Um, excellent. So there there are some other things that I think make Johnny’s unique um outside of that and that is.

20:40.98
Melvin
Right? Let’s the.

20:53.79
vigorbranding
Even down to the product level. It seems like their product is considered through the eyes of gathering and sharing and bringing people together. Um I’m kind of throwing this one up for you but talk about how you cut your pizza because for me when I first encountered Johnny’s I was like they do what now.

21:04.83
Melvin
I.

21:11.86
Melvin
Ah, but yeah, well and I guess ah again, this must have come from up in Iowa where Johnny first learned how to do pizza but it’s not cut the traditional pie shape. it’s cut horizontally it’s cut 1 time in the middle and then.

21:12.57
vigorbranding
So explain how it’s cut and why it’s got that way.

21:30.96
Melvin
Sectioned off so each piece is slender. It’s two inches each piece is is two inches wide and you know the the length of whatever size pizza you have so it’s. You know it’s kind of it’s not completely unique, but you find very few other pizza places if they would cut their pizza like this.

21:49.76
vigorbranding
Yeah, it’s kind of along the lines of ah if you order a cheeseticks from one of the other guys. Um, you know one one of the things that struck me about it I don’t know if it’s ah look I’m I’m a purist I was raised in the northeast. So I have the way I want my pizza cut. However, with this, it almost feels.

21:54.32
Melvin
Yeah.

22:08.36
vigorbranding
Less like a um, where am I going with this kind of like I could probably eat half the pizza and not feel guilty whereas if I eat half of a pizza of like a New York style pizza I’m I’m kind of questioning my life decisions. Um.

22:20.48
Melvin
M.

22:26.20
vigorbranding
So it’s It’s very snackable almost and in a good way in a good way and I think that’s what definitely struck me about it. Um, yeah, so from there, there’s a lot of other choices that have been made. Um, you know the way.

22:27.10
Melvin
Who.

22:41.19
vigorbranding
You apply meat to the pizza uncooked so the juices kind of get in there as well as like chopping of veggies I think all these things culminate to a better product overall in a better end result How have you? How have you fought against the.

22:43.46
Melvin
Yeah.

23:01.23
vigorbranding
Fiscal desire for a cheaper path in holding onto some of those things that matter most like the quality of product or the quality of ingredient I should say.

23:11.71
Melvin
That’s ah ingrained at least in in the current administration with this company. You know we were taught directly by Johnny and that was 1 thing that that was off limits as far as you know trying to do anything that would hurt the quality. The pizza and that’s part of our fabric I mean that you know we we hold that to be you know one of those absolute things you do not hurt quality. So and and we have passed that on just as he’s passed that on to us we have passed that on to the next generation. I don’t think anybody in this next generation would do anything to art to quality now years down the road who knows what could happen. But if we do our job right? and the next group does their job right and passes on those you know those beliefs the core beliefs of this company I don’t think we’ll ever do anything to change it.

24:03.70
vigorbranding
And.

24:08.26
Melvin
Understand that and and you know we use 100% real mozrella cheese and the cheese prices you know, fluctuates tremendously. That’s kind of at a high level right now but it would be real easy to to use some blended imitation but that would never happen I mean you know it’s ah you.

24:20.89
vigorbranding
And.

24:27.89
Melvin
Think that’s short-term thinking you know you might make a little bit more money for a month or 2 but long term I think it would kill the company so as far as I’m concerned as far as I’m here you know that there’s not going to be a reduction in the quality of our products and 1 thing you mentioned and this is a little bit maybe a little bit unique.

24:34.88
vigorbranding
Yeah.

24:46.68
Melvin
Pizza places we do use Raw hamburger and raw sausage on our product. You know so and it does it changes. It’s a different flavor than pre-cooked meats and it it makes a big difference in the flavoring of our our pizza.

25:01.88
vigorbranding
Yeah, it really does I can attest to that firsthand I Definitely miss getting out there and having some some of the pizza because we don’t have it around here. Um, speaking of that like let’s let’s talk about expansion plans. So we currently the brand currently sits at.

25:12.61
Melvin
Yeah, yeah.

25:20.39
vigorbranding
Ah, 48 50 units where we at 44 44 great and so what’s what’s the expansion plans like I mean what? what are your sites set on. Are you looking to get into other states.

25:24.50
Melvin
We’ve got a total of 44 yeah 35 corporate and 9 franchise locations. So.

25:37.17
vigorbranding
Is it about reinforcing your your stronghold in Louisiana um, what does that future look like for the brand.

25:42.81
Melvin
Well we’re we’re planning on expanding and we would have expanded last year we opened up 1 new location and we’re looking on the corporate side of of going into some new markets. Um, franchise side. We got 2 locations now that are under construction that should open.

25:53.43
vigorbranding
Nice.

26:00.93
Melvin
First half of this year within the next quarter probably um, the thing right now that’s holding us back is just this situation with with covid you know we we had trouble getting management people hired and trained the the staff that we had you know it really stressed them out. You know.

26:07.68
vigorbranding
Right.

26:20.51
Melvin
Because we were operating shorthanded a lot of times but they hung around I mean 1 thing that I’ve noticed about our company is we have not cut our hours. We have not had to close so and there’s a lot of companies out there that are are doing that. So.

26:30.90
vigorbranding
A.

26:37.40
Melvin
We feel good about it. However, it is a strain and and we’re kind of waiting for this labor crisis to ease up a little bit and then we’ll get back into our our expansion. You know we want to try to grow slowly you know from the nucleus that we have here you know not get too far away from from our market.

26:45.86
vigorbranding
I like it.

26:56.86
Melvin
And then just kind of grow out that way and in franchising like I said we’re in Mississippi already. We got another location about to open in Mississippi we’ve kind of let South Louisiana go franchising and then we got a second 1 right outside of New Orleans and a little town bottle of plus Louisiana.

27:10.55
vigorbranding
A.

27:15.47
Melvin
That’s about to to get open So so we are expanding. We’re expanding slow. We just feel like that’s the best way to do it to try to ensure that that quality stays and in our product and our service. So.

27:24.71
vigorbranding
Yeah, it seems like you’re in an unique position where you’re not beholding to um I mean you not beholden to people who are hungry for the numbers. It’s more hungry for the longevity. The numbers will come and it seems like that’s a different perspective which is benefiting the brand very well. Um, so this might be the hardest question of all if you had 1 final meal on this plane What would it be where would it be and why that meal. Ah.

27:54.56
Melvin
But have to be a Johnny’s pizza wouldn yes we have a one of our products are probably our specialty pizza is called a sweet the kitchen and that was a name that that Johnny came up with when he opened up his very first location. And it of course has everything on on the pizza and and that would be that’s that’s my personal favorite. It’s a lot of people’s personal favorites and that’s that would probably be the that. Be that the meal I would order of a tank.

28:25.22
vigorbranding
Um, with with anchov Visa without.

28:28.94
Melvin
I Can do either way I use eat it without because the people around me don’t care for anchovies. But I don’t mind to mind I have acquired that taste.

28:31.60
vigorbranding
Um.

28:36.73
vigorbranding
I love it? Well hey thank you for taking the time out to talk to us about this I think it’s really insightful. Um, where where can people find Johnny’s pizza house and connect with you.

28:46.62
Melvin
Okay, well you go to our website. It’s Johnny’s J O H N N Y S P H Dot Com and that that’s our website if you want to send me an email. My name is or my email address is melvinat. Johnny’s phdotcom it’s Melvin at J O H N N Y S P H Dot Com

29:11.10
vigorbranding
Wonderful. This has been great. Thank you for sharing everything and it’s It’s always great to talk to you? absolutely.

29:16.21
Melvin
Great to see you again. Joseph and looking forward to seeing you in person here soon.

 

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