J-P Despault's food of choice as a university student was pizza. It was cheap, filled him up and, best of all, always available. "There was this tiny little mom and pop pizza shop near the university," he says. "I ate their pizza every day. I practically used to live out of there."
Not much has changed for Mr. Despault. Today, he owns his own pizza shop a Pizza Pizza franchise in Bancroft, Ont. But before he took the entrepreneurial route, Mr. Despault moved to Japan in 2000, where he taught ESL. By 2006 he and his wife, whom he married in Japan, were ready for a change. "My wife wanted to give Canada a try," he said. "And we knew wanted do something on our own in terms of business."
Mr. Despault and his wife, Toshiko Kojima, did their research on real estate and business options before heading back to the Toronto native's home turf. They considered Muskoka or Georgian Bay, but found the housing prices out of reach. They settled on Bancroft, a town of 3,500, three and a half hours north east of Toronto.
Initially Mr. Despault and Ms. Toshiko toyed with the idea of opening their own Japanese restaurant. "But we weren't sure a small town like Bancroft would be ready for that," he says. He began to investigate franchise opportunities by taking stock of which franchises were already operating in the city and which weren't. "I discovered that there hadn't been a Pizza Pizza in the town for two years," he says. The previous Pizza Pizza franchisee sold the business and although the chain had bought property to open a new location, they had yet to find the right franchisee.
But Mr. Despault wasn't ready to make a choice yet. He talked to about 20 companies, mostly food-based, about franchise opportunities. In the end, he came back to Pizza Pizza. "They were really friendlier than the others and they put forth a considerable amount of effort to help out," he says.
In the summer of 2006 he began the process of applying to be a Pizza Pizza franchisee. The first step was wading through a thick information package brimming with details on the company history, its role in the franchisee's business and current company stats. Mr. Despault also had to sign documents such as a non-disclosure agreement and complete a personal application that asked for information on his background, credit history and even his likes and dislikes.
About a month after sending in all the paperwork, Mr. Despault had an interview with a Pizza Pizza sales rep. "He asked me a lot of questions about Bancroft and the area demographics, which I was ready for," he says. Once he had proven he understood the market, Mr. Despault was ready to move on to the next stage: Pizza Pizza University. Franchisees enter the 12-week training program with no guarantees that they'll actually be approved in the end. They have to score a 90 per cent average on weekly tests and a final exam. "They can throw you out at any time," says Mr. Despault. In addition to hitting the Pizza Pizza books, Mr. Despault had to fork over a $30,000 franchise fee (which he would get back if he didn't pass all the training tests).
In August, Mr. Despault relocated to Etobicoke for the first four-week segment of his training, which was entirely classroom-based. Among the topics covered were guest services, robbery prevention and Pizza Pizza's trademark recipes.
The next four weeks were a combination of classroom work and in-shop work. Mr. Despault spent part of each week at the chain's busiest corporate store at the corner of Toronto's Church and Wellesley streets doing everything a store manager would normally do: inventory counts, opening and closing, training staff, cleaning, ordering supplies "and tons of cooking."
In late September, Mr. Despault started the last leg of PPU. He and his wife (who wasn't a formal Pizza Pizza franchisee) commuted an hour and a half each way from Bancroft to Belleville daily, spending 50 hours a week in a Pizza Pizza store there. They fine-tuned their pizza making skills, concentrating on speed, and picked up tips on everything from handling large school orders (which make up about 10 per cent of a store's revenues) to facing dinner rushes.
By the end of the 12 weeks, Mr. Despault had aced PPU. All that was left before he was formally approved was finding the rest of the money to cover Pizza Pizza's fees. He and his wife took out a loan against their house and used it to make a deposit payment against the cost of the business. Pizza Pizza requires a 30 per cent deposit, which in Mr. Despault's case amounted to $90,000. (The remainder of the $300,000 would be paid in installments over the course of five to seven years).