I’ve already heard some carping about Blaze Pizza’s third restaurant opening in the Paddock Shops today. Some have said, “Only a chain could give away pizza all day,” and predicted that’ll kill business at any other nearby independent restaurant.
It’s a bold move, no doubt, but such market moxie doesn’t just magically happen. It starts at unit No. 1 and grows from there with a lot of work and sweat. Here’s how that’s happened with this particular Blaze franchise group: Jim Patterson and Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman are the biggest investors in Blaze locally (also in Lexington, Tennessee and Florida), and if you don’t know their stories, you should. It may help you reconsider any anti-chain stance.
Patterson grew up poor in Portland—the West Louisville neighborhood, not either of the two hip coastal cities. He was the only member of his family to graduate high school, and then college, where he played baseball on scholarship for U of L. As a teen he worked as a dishwasher and busboy, and after college and service in the Air Force, he bought a run-down restaurant building that he later turned into a Jerry’s. As he franchised a few more Jerry’s, he saved enough money to create Long John Silver’s and began growing that brand. After selling his interest for a reported $20 million in the seafood chain, he founded Rally’s, which he grew to approximately 600 stores before selling his shares and moving on. And those are just the highlights of his business ventures. His philanthropic generosity, it should be noted, is legendary.
The poor kid becomes a multi-millionaire. It’s the American dream writ large.
Same story for Bridgeman. According to Forbes’s magazine, Junior Bridgeman is the 18th wealthiest black man in America (Kobe Bryant is 19th, Shaquille O’Neal is 16th), but he started out as a lower-middle-class kid growing up in East Chicago, Ind. As an early 1970s star basketball player at U of L, he went on to a solid 12-year career in the NBA, where he served as president of the NBA Players Association.
Smartly, two years before he retired from hoops, he bought two Wendy’s franchises and spent his off seasons working the grills and running those stores. Anyone who follows pro sports knows this doesn’t happen often—certainly not during years when most athletes are still playing. But Bridgeman, an incredibly humble guy, knew he needed to get started on something else before his playing days ended. Doubtless, his Milwaukee Bucks contract paled in comparison to the payouts earned by O’Neal and Bryant.
He eventually accumulated more than 160 Wendy’s and a nearly equal number of Chili’s restaurants. Locally, he owns Mark’s Feed Store, Napa River Grill and Birracibo. Last year, however, he announced he’ll divest those holdings in order to focus on a Coca-Cola bottling distributorship. My guess his rank on the Forbes list is even higher now. Also like Patterson, Bridgeman is known for his generosity.
I’m like most of you reading this: a patron of local pizzerias. But I do like Blaze and visit the St. Matthews store a few times a year.
Yet at some point, great businesses grow, and that attracts investment from outsiders who help it grow further. Like it or not, what begins as a quaint business run really well can become a powerful and massive brand that can play hardball in the marketplace. That upsets some who see a free pizza day as a bully move, but it’s merely business. It’s how some poor people who’ve become rich make and donate more money back to the poor.
It’s your choice to patronize it or not (I’m certainly not standing in what will be a long line out the door today.) But save your criticism for something truly bad or evil—like Bashar al-Assad, any random ISIS leader or our presidential candidates—and instead cheer the success of two hard-working people.