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Monday, March 13, 2000
 
2000 Small Business profiles

Papa Murphy's franchise

by Suzanne Monson
Special to The Seattle Times

Her road from district sales manager to pushing pizzas has been paved with more than pepperoni.

Along the way to running her own Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza franchises, Gigi Roberts-Roach earned a business degree in the Midwest, pulled in a fistful of performance awards during 15 years in her previous career, started raising two sons and logged thousands of miles in business travel.

"For a long time I really liked it," the Sammamish woman said of her former career working for a paper company. That was until her professional mentor was promoted and replaced with "a real stinker -- a real horse's patoot. It just wasn't fun anymore."

That was when Roberts-Roach decided to become her own boss.

It was her decade as a working mother that led her to Papa Murphy's, a privately held Vancouver, Wash.-based company with franchises that sell handmade pizzas to be baked at home.

Heavy business travel during Roberts-Roach's sales career prompted her to reserve Fridays for "pizza and games" night with her two sons -- then 4 and 7.

"Every Friday, we'd get two pizzas from Papa Murphy's, play cards or games and just laugh," Roberts-Roach recalls.

She soon figured that if she was busy enough to make this a weekly ritual, other families must be, too.

In 1997, Roberts-Roach started what became a yearlong quest to secure a franchise agreement and her first site -- all while holding down her existing job. She meticulously studied pizza-buying demographics: ages, traffic and residential income.

She liquidated stock-market investments to find the money to start the business.

Papa Murphy's franchise start-up costs range from $133,700 to $175,000, said company spokeswoman Debbie Britten.

Roberts-Roach kept her costs low by acquiring used items. "Used shelving, used filing cabinet -- you don't have to buy everything new," she said.

Time-consuming negotiations on three sites came close, but all fell through before she inked a deal in Lake Forest Park. Closing the deal was far from her last hurdle.

By this time, Roberts-Roach was expecting her third child -- and the landlord's plans for her space were behind schedule.

"I'm way out to here," she describes, holding her hand in front of her tummy, "and I told them I had to be in that store six to eight weeks before the baby came or I was going to drop it at their feet."

Crews met their deadline, and Roberts-Roach delivered her third son in January 1998, seven weeks after opening the shop's doors.

Though she declined to reveal exact figures, sales have been up each month since she opened the Lake Forest Park store, and Roberts-Roach has since set up shop in Edmonds, with plans to open a third in North Seattle.

Papa Murphy's corporate headquarters provides help with marketing, food-cost tracking, a store accounting system, sales tracking and more. In most other ways, franchise owners are small-business owners.

Today, Roberts-Roach's recipe for success is a careful combination of marketing, management and motherhood.

During advertising and marketing meetings with fellow regional franchise owners, Roberts-Roach comes with the mindset of a mother. Recently, when other owners were encouraging the co-op to buy more TV spots to compete with home-delivery pizza places, Roberts-Roach sided with owners advocating radio ads.

"I'm a working mom, and I try to tell these men that if you're a mom who's deciding what the family is going to eat for dinner tonight, you're probably not home at 4:30 p.m. to watch those ads on TV," she recounted. "You're in your car, picking somebody up from this practice or that practice or getting them to soccer, and you're listening to the radio."

The co-op eventually added some dollars for radio commercials. It's one of the advantages of working with a team, she said.

"The help that I get from my franchise consultants is indispensable, too," she said. "They're like partners in my business."

Other help comes from the service she uses to handle her books and pay the bills.

Securing minimum-wage-earning employees, many of whom are teens, a hot commodity in the fast-food employment market, is an ongoing challenge.

"This minimum wage is killing me," said Roberts-Roach, whose entire work force is younger than 21. "It makes doing business hard, when it comes down to the bottom line."

Yet she enjoys working with teens and applies some of the management lessons instilled by her own mentor years ago.

"I really look for customer-friendly people in interviews," she said. "I'm flexible with their school or church schedule and I push all of my employees to get their high-school diplomas or GED.

"Some people say I'm too mothering, but I set rules for my employees just like I do for my kids: Don't do drugs. One earring per ear. No purple hair. No holes in jeans. No sagging pants. You have to constantly pat people on the back, but reprimand them if they do something wrong -- so they don't think you're getting soft. My biggest rule is 'be considerate of others.' "

Is this kind of a career change something she recommends to others?

"This is not easy," Roberts-Roach says of her 12- to 14-hour days. "My husband commutes to Los Angeles 48 weeks of the year and I don't get to go to all my sons' activities. But I have really good people working for me, and now I get to make my boys' breakfast every morning and I'm with them three nights a week. It's just that our Friday nights have been moved to Sunday."

Suzanne Monson is a Lake Forest Park free-lance writer.

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