John Stetson didn’t waste any time after jumping into the Stoner’s Pizza Joint system in November. Since starting with his first unit of the quick-service pizza concept in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, over the past eight months he’s added three more locations in Georgia, in Savannah and Warner Robins, and he’s not done.
"I have two more coming in the next 30 to 45 days in Savannah," said Stetson, who explained he was drawn to Stoner’s because of its "low-cost economics and the branding niche." The initial cost for a Stoner’s ranges from $90,000 to $206,000, according to the brand’s franchise disclosure document.
"I said, wow, I can get into this for a cheap amount of money, and if I hit the numbers, I can get a return in a year, year and a half," continued Stetson, who drew on his chief financial officer and investment firm background in evaluating franchises. He also knew Drew Ciccarelli, one half of HHI Hospitality, which in 2018 purchased Stoner’s from founder Joel Harn and launched a franchise program that’s since brought the restaurant count up to 13.
Not only did Ciccarelli introduce Stetson to Stoner’s—"and I kind of got the itch," Stetson said—the HHI partner connected Stetson with the brand’s founder, a fortuitous meeting that’s helped Stetson ramp up operations.
"I brought him in to be my chief operating officer," said Stetson of Harn, who is developing a team in Georgia while Stetson is based in Fort Lauderdale.
As for the branding Stetson mentioned, he liked that Stoner’s new ownership had embraced its pot culture heritage and wasn’t afraid to get creative as it sought to maximize the name.
"We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift in marijuana culture worldwide, CBD products and how that takes shape in our food we eat. So, we thought we could shape Stoner’s to be a millennial-forward" brand, too, said HHI’s Nick Bergelt in an interview last year with Franchise Times.
As for Stetson’s focus on quickly expanding, he said the fast pace arose partly because he was able to identify some turnkey locations as other restaurants closed. "Landlords were itching to get a paying customer in there," he said. "So I saw tons of opportunities."
He’s mindful, though, of not moving too fast—"I don’t want to get overextended and have my name on 20 leases"—and remembering lessons learned from developing other businesses, including not sinking in too much capital.
"I’ve had lots of grand slams and also some failures as well," said Stetson. "What I take to Stoner’s is, don’t overspend. I see too many people in the restaurant space doing these million-dollar buildouts … it’s so hard to make up that money."
Stetson said sales at his restaurants have grown every week since opening, and he introduces Stoner’s to new customers through a combination of targeted digital ads and social media contests, along with "old-school guerilla marketing" such as menu fliers. He also launched an effort to donate 10,000 slices of pizza to students in his South Florida market that were without school lunches because of the coronavirus pandemic. That later expanded to include medical staff, first responders, and families that are food insecure.
Stetson is looking next at expanding in the Charleston area of South Carolina.