Billy St. Pierre Powers New Pita Pit Franchise

Friday, December 14, 2012

Billy St. Pierre, 27, opened the first Pita Pit franchise in Alaska in November. Business has been bustling at the new restaurant in the ACS Retail Center on 36th Avenue in Midtown and St. Pierre is already making plans for additional locations.

Billy St. Pierre radiates so much energy it seems like he could be hooked to a generator and light up the Anchorage Fifth Avenue Mall.

The high-voltage St. Pierre just turned 27, opened his first business and has big plans for more.

St. Pierre's restaurant is the newly-opened Pita Pit, in the ACS Retail Center on 36th Avenue in Anchorage's Midtown.

"I always wanted to be in business "" and for myself," he said.

Pita Pit is a franchise, and St. Pierre's venture is the company's first in Alaska, said Corey Bowman, the company's vice president for franchise development. The company is fairly new in the U.S., too, having originated in Canada in 1995.

Al Hermann, St. Pierre's former professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage's MBA program, agrees his former student has the right stuff: "If there was anyone in my class I would pick to be out on his own, and quickly, it would be Billy." There are challenges. St. Pierre has chosen a type of business that carries risk and a high mortality rate "" a small restaurant, and a fast-food one at that. But if anyone can pull it off, he will, Hermann believes.

St. Pierre seems to have the ingredients for success in the business: drive, an enthusiasm for service and keeping customers and employees happy, a mania for cleanliness and a focus on the details.

Maybe too much detail focus, he sometimes worries.

St. Pierre has the right training, too, with undergraduate and graduate business degrees including the MBA, which is good because too many small business entrepreneurs start out without training in skills like financial management.

His undergraduate degree, interestingly, is in sports management, while he was hoping to pursue a career as a sports agent. That's not a bad credential to have for managing a restaurant crew, in fact.

He also plenty of hands-on experience working in restaurants. It may be in his genes, too. His father, Bill St. Pierre, is a long-established and successful businessman in Fairbanks.

The main product at Pita Pit is a Lebanese-style wrap in combinations chosen by customers, meat or several variations with vegetables wrapped in pita, the thin bread from the Mediterranean.

There are now more than 200 U.S. Pita Pits with 50 more planned in 2013, Bowman said. St. Pierre will be part of that growth "" he wants five to seven more Pita Pits in Alaska in five years and is already scouting locations.

Meanwhile, things are off to a roaring start at the first store, with the revenues substantially beating his most optimistic business plan projections, he said.

In fact, business has been so brisk for a new store opening that it caught St. Pierre, as well as the national franchise support team managers, by surprise.

There were some start-up bumps, St. Pierre said, such as understaffing relative to the unexpected demand. Those problems are now solved, St. Pierre said.

"Another problem was simply how to get people through the doors quicker during our busy lunch rushes. We"�ve tweaked our system in a manner that has allowed us to do that," St. Pierre said.

Although Pita Pit does provide some support in the form of a new store opening Marketing Package, "we also benefit strongly from word-of-month advertising that comes with a fresh concept and customer experiences," Bowman said. "Our target customer base are people who are health conscious do not want to sacrifice quality and taste in their food. Our competitive advantage is the healthy content." New federal rules requiring nutrition information to be posted is seen as a nuisance by many in the restaurant business, but Pita Pit sees it is an advantage, he said.

"The food is healthy and fresh, and the products are different enough that it sets us apart from the competition," Bowman said.

Pita Pit is pretty selective about who is awarded franchises, he said. Youth and energy is a plus, and sometimes prior experience in the business can be a negative, such as if it is with another food company with a different business culture, he said.

The company picks its communities carefully for new stores. Historically, about half of Pita Pits stores are in college towns or cities where there is a major university, and with a certain population density, Bowman said.

"However, as the brand has grown in popularity, the majority of new development is happening outside of the typical college market and in more mainstream areas," he said.

Typically, the demographics of the customer base are 18 to 40 years in age, generally athletic, health conscious, high-energy and active.

Anchorage fits all of those criteria, Bowman said.

While there is less proximity to UAA at the 36th Avenue location, there are office buildings and hotels nearby, which has already created a brisk take-out business.

St. Pierre worried at first about the Midtown location and admits it wasn"�t his first choice.

"At first I wanted to be in a building we could own, but we just couldn"�t find one that was affordable and in the right location," he said.

The location has turned out to be very good, however, because of the high volume of east-west traffic on 36th, good parking and a south-facing entrance that will bring in plenty of natural light when the days lengthen.

For the future, St. Pierre still wants an owner-occupied building. His MBA training has taught him the advantages of owning property. All of this is serious business, however, because St. Pierre has several hundred of thousand dollars of investment in the venture.

Standing out Despite the flush of success at startup, St. Pierre worries about an eventual slowdown, so he thinks a lot about how to distinguish Pita Pit from the competition, such as large and well-established firms like Subway, which cater somewhat to the same health-aware crowd.

And Anchorage does have a lot of fast-foot retail, he acknowledges.

Besides some unique products St. Pierre hopes his competitive advantage can be service and the personal touch. In all other fast-foot eating establishments there is a notable lack of both, he said, even in some high-end restaurants.

"Customers can often feel that no one cares, especially in a quick-service restaurant setting. My goal is to provide a service experience that one might expect at a full-service restaurant, but in our quick-service establishment," he said.

For example, St. Pierre likes to get out and "touch tables" with customers, a common strategy in restaurants, talking and asking about the food and service, seeking customer advice on how to improve.

We"�ve already made a few adjustments to our restaurant based off of customer feedback," he said.

A concern, however, is whether he can imbue these values and practices into other managers and enough employees if other Pita Pits are opened.

St. Pierre is a natural "people" person, but finding the right mix of that with other skills for a manager for other outlets may be tricky, he knows. However, one old friend in which St. Pierre has confidence has already joined him, and will help out in opening a second store.

St. Pierre is happy with his employees, though.

"Most are college and high school students and they show up on time and work hard," St. Pierre said.

Pita Pit pays above scale and allows customer tipping, which most fast-foot restaurants don"�t, he said.

St. Pierre is also happy with owning a franchise business, a type of business his father was not happy with in his own experiences in Fairbanks, he said.

There can be sometime be problems with franchise arrangements particularly if the home office pushes the local partner to expand too quickly, St. Pierre said. Some of the benefits of the franchise agreement, however, are the training and support in store design and decor, for which St. Pierre is grateful.

He also likes Pita Pit because the national management team only has about 30 people based in a small city, Coeur d"�Alene, Idaho, so there's a small-town feeling about the company that St. Pierre likes, and that he can relate to from his Fairbanks upbringing.

"It's almost like a family business," he said.

Because of that there is increased flexibility and an open mind toward ideas for growing business on the local level, St. Pierre said.

"They empower and encourage the franchisee to make the marketing decisions that will work best within their own market," St. Pierre said.

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