When the economy throws you lemons you have to make lemonade. Or if you’re Charlie Johnson, you make pizza.
Johnson owns Jimmy’s Pizza on Washington Street in northeast Brainerd. It’s a venture he undertook after retiring more than 15 years ago.
“I said, ‘How hard can it be?’” Johnson said of owning a restaurant. But on a stretch of town that has an abundance of Jimmy’s, John’s and Pizza, it could be easy to get lost in the crowd.
Not for Johnson.
“I’m a bulldog — I’m a fighter,” Johnson said. “I’m going to make this thing go or, well, I’m going to make this thing go.”
Johnson spent most of his career in road construction and later real estate before retiring in 1993. Upon retirement, Johnson said he “chased his dream” and traveled as a tournament fisherman.
“I competed against the best fishermen in the world,” he said.
Johnson fished for 14 years until 2007 when the real estate market collapsed and wiped out a painful majority of his real estate assets.
“That forced me back to work. Kicking and screaming,” he said.
Johnson said he sent his resume out for a year. He applied all over the country for low-level management positions in construction firms. “I got no response,” Johnson said. “There was one rejection letter and I didn’t hear from anyone else.
“I realized no one was going to hire a 57-year-old guy who has been out of work for 15 years.”
While traveling the fishing tournament circuit, Johnson met Jim Gordon, owner of the Wilmar-based Jimmy’s Pizza chain and said it was Jim who gave him the idea to buy into a Jimmy’s franchise. “After not getting anything, I got the wild idea — I’ll start a little pizza restaurant,” Johnson said.
Jimmy’s Pizza in Brainerd finally opened in May 2010 in the former Taco John’s location on Washington Street. Johnson said opening a business is like nothing he’s ever done. The start-up cost was higher than he anticipated, food and fuel costs have increased and the lingering effects of the recession have limited his power to price his products.
“I just wanted to open up a cute little pizza shop,” Johnson said. “I thought I wouldn’t have to learn the restaurant business from scratch, but that’s not the case.”
Johnson said the sluggish economy has taken its toll on his business, as it has on countless other small business owners everywhere. “I never expected this economic situation to be this bad or last this long,” he said. “You just pretty much squeeze between a rock and a hard place.”
Johnson said he is determined to make his business at Jimmy’s Pizza one area customers can rely on, especially when price becomes more important than quality. “It’s everybody — everybody is looking how they can save a buck,” Johnson said. “I do what I need to give my customers the best and let them decide what they like.”
Johnson said volume over quality is no an option in his store. “There’s no skimping at Jimmy’s,” he said.
While Jimmy’s Pizza does have some proprietary restrictions as far as ingredients and preparation methods, Johnson said there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to selling pizzas. No two stores are alike.
Jimmy’s in Brainerd is one of few Jimmy’s locations that features dine-in and Johnson said about one-third of his customers dine in.
Johnson’s Brainerd location features $10 pizzas of any size and gives away free breadsticks with every pizza purchased, an idea created by Jimmy’s manager, Brad Klein, who’s affectionately called “Bradsticks.”
“Everybody likes something for free,” Johnson laughed, “It’s just hard to stay in business that way.”
Nonetheless, the breadsticks, along with Jimmy’s $10 pizza campaign might be working.
“For the first year it didn’t look real good — it’s still tough,” Johnson said. “But the last few months have been really good.
“I’m still a novice but I’m learning more every month.”
Johnson, who turns 60 on his next birthday, said he hopes to get his investments back in order over the next 3-5 years and retire. Again.
“I won’t be doing this when I’m 65,” he said. “On slow days I could sell tomorrow, but on good days it’s a lot of fun.”
Johnson said at the end of the day, slow or busy, his priority is doing things well. “I want satisfied customers,” he said. “I want people to walk away from here thinking this is the best thing since sliced bread.”
Johnson said he doesn’t worry about the competition in town “I don’t have any control over that, so I don’t worry,” he said.
“I’m trying to be an asset to the community. I guess I’m trying to make the work a better place than I found it.”
SARAH NELSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5879.