Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tavis Smiley To Open Pizza Restaurants in Indy

Hoosier Tavis Smiley plans to open several Marco's Pizza shops

By Nicole Blake

Kokomo native Tavis Smiley is a household name when it comes to radio and television, but the PBS talk show host is cutting into a savory new challenge.

He plans to open 37 Marco's Pizza franchises in the next five years. Smiley hopes they will create 1,000 jobs in the Indianapolis area.

His goal: to bring economic development to areas that haven't seen much growth and provide work for teens who need the extra cash. There also are entrepreneurial opportunities for those looking to someday open their own franchises. Considering sales and the work this will create for local vendors and other companies, Smiley says this will mean at least $1 billion being pumped into the Indiana economy during the next 20 years.

"Here is an opportunity for me to do something for the community and be able to give some young people some opportunity," said Smiley, who delivered newspapers as a boy.

He is coming to town this weekend to meet with potential investors and promote his documentary film, "Stand."

His first pizzeria, near East 71st Street and Binford Boulevard, has been open since April and employs about 20 people. Smiley hopes the second restaurant will be in full operation before the end of the year. A site hasn't been chosen yet for that one.

He said the city's growth and Marco's positive performance during the past 11 quarters played a part in his decision to take on this business endeavor. As the majority investor, Smiley bought the rights to own and develop a minimum of 37 restaurants, which will operate under the name Circle City Hospitality. Longtime friend and business partner Harold Patrick is managing the investment company and overseeing much of the operation.

Smiley wouldn't say who the potential investors are, just that he has had verbal commitments from three well-known individuals who live in Indianapolis. According to the Marco's Pizza Web site, costs for a new restaurant run from $219,000 to $419,000.

It's an ambitious undertaking, but not impossible, says Mandy Detwiler, managing editor for Pizza Today, an industry magazine.

"With the economy like it is right now, certainly going with a franchise company is going to give you the backing that you might not have had as an independent startup," Detwiler said.

In the past six months, 20 Marco's Pizza stores have opened in California, Florida and Virginia, among other states. Last year Pizza Today ranked the chain 30th out of 100 top pizza companies based on gross sales. In all, according to its Web site, Marco's Pizza has more than 180 franchised and company-managed stores in 17 states. All four Indiana stores are in Indianapolis.

Patrick, who has been in the franchising business more than two decades, said he will consider the number of households and schools in the area before selecting locations. This includes both affluent and less affluent areas, but "pizza is universal," he said. "Everyone deserves good pizza."

As for the risks, Smiley is aware that things might not go as planned, but he has a positive outlook.

"Business is investing money, taking a risk and hoping that it works," he said.

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