The Untold Truth Of Hungry Howie's Pizza

The one food that never feels like a gamble? Pizza. And as long as the mood always strikes for a warm, bubbling pie, Hungry Howie's Pizza is there for you. This Michigan-based pie shop might not have the name recognition of its regional rivals Little Caesars or Domino's, but no matter; it's clawed its way into the hearts of pizza-lovers across the country since 1973, the year founder Jim Hearn transformed a hamburger joint into a full-service pizzeria (per Hungry Howie's Pizza). 

Hungry Howie's is well-known for introducing flavored crust to the ring, but its salads, wings, and signature bread sticks comprise the comfort food offerings that appeal to everyone. It's a gathering spot for families, and as Hungry Howie's website explains, a family-centric company. "Treat everyone like family" is one of the chain's guiding mottos, after all. 

On the surface, Hungry Howie's is the place you go to feed a crowd on a budget, your tried-and-true pizza parlor. However, that's not all there is to the pizza purveyor. It has a history that's stuffed with intriguing tidbits. Specifically things like industry coalitions, test kitchens, and in one case, potential paranormal phenomena. Hungry for the facts? If that's piqued your appetite, then it's time to dig into the untold truth of Hungry Howie's Pizza.

It's one of America's top pizza chains

America is overrun with pizza chains, and big names like Papa John's, Pizza Hut, and Little Caesars operate thousands of restaurants in many parts of the world. Meanwhile, Hungry Howie's Pizza only has 550 locations to its name (per Hungry Howie's Pizza). With those numbers, it might surprise you to find out that it's among some of the biggest pie franchises in the United States today. 

A 2018 list compiled by Pizza Today ranked Hungry Howie's at 11 out of 100 total establishments, beating Round Table and Jet's Pizza on overall profits. In terms of fast-growing businesses, a Technomic report shows Hungry Howie's Pizza is doing even better on that front, claiming Top 10 status alongside industry giants including Blaze and MOD Pizza (via PMQ Pizza Magazine). The numbers don't lie — Hungry Howie's Pizza claims a large cut of the delivery market despite the business's smaller footprint. 

Hungry Howie's has been called "the best kept secret in pizza" by its Director of Franchise Development Steve Clough, per QSR Magazine, and perhaps the modest size is why. Because it occupies the middle ground of restaurant franchises — not a mega-chain or an indie establishment — Hungry Howie's can expand on its own terms versus opening new locations too quickly or not quickly enough to meet the demand. It's basically the ultimate underdog story, a business relegated to the sidelines that's persistent to stick around. 

The CEO worked as a delivery boy

As Jim Hearn got his pizza business off the ground, he needed a crew to deliver the orders. One of the teens hired to drop off pies was Steven Jackson, who'd eventually become Hungry Howie's CEO and the guiding light of the nationwide chain 40 years and counting (via Franchising). As Jackson recalled in 2020, his foray into the biz started during his adolescence. He told Authority Magazine that when he was in high school, "My friends and I worked for Jim Hearn, the founder of Hungry Howie's, when he owned a couple of pizza shops prior to starting the chain." 

Jackson initially had his career sights on teaching, but job opportunities were few and far in between at the time. As a college student, he worked at Ford Motor Company, but eventually left both the factory line and university to become Hearn's right-hand man. He'd launch the pizza parlor's second location and about a dozen more throughout the decade, according to Authority magazine. By the time the duo began franchising stores in the early 1980s, Jackson would officially claim the mantle of Chief Executive Officer for good. 

Truthfully, it's not uncommon for CEOs to lack experience in the industries they lead and may have no prior history with the company they've been slated to run. Where Jackson's background differs, however, is that he gained his business bonafides working at Hungry Howie's at the very beginning. Not bad for a delivery boy!

Howard Hughes inspired the name

Restaurant names should be catchy, or at least grab people's attention. In the case of Hungry Howie's Pizza, it ticks both boxes to a tee. It's alliterative and snappy, and the logo is printed in a punchy yellow font hungry drivers will spot from the highway, guaranteed. But that doesn't answer our most pressing question, which is this: who is Howie? And what, or who, inspired this hypothetical individual to become the face of the pizza franchise?

It turns out "Howie" is a reference to Howard Hughes, the notorious business tycoon with a colorful resume — Martin Scorsese documented his life in "The Aviator" (via IMDb). As Franchising Times writes, Steve Jackson nicknamed Jim Hearn "Howard Hughes" in response to his entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the impressive wealth he'd built up until that point. Per Britannica, Hughes' intriguing career covered disparate fields, dabbling in everything from moviemaking and medical science to manufacturing aircraft during the Second World War. Later in his life, he'd retire and famously seclude himself from the public, with his whereabouts the source of much speculation, as Biography writes. 

Hearn was neither a Hollywood Renaissance man nor an unconventional hobby horse, but the celebrity magnate's ambition clearly lined up with Hearn's aspirations. Eventually "Howard" was shortened to Howie's, and from there the playful moniker would appear on the pizzeria's storefronts and delivery boxes throughout the Midwest. 

It introduced flavored crusts to the masses

Before Hungry Howie's came along, pizza crust was a much plainer affair. Maybe the dough would be coated in some olive oil or extra cheese, but besides that, crust flavoring didn't get a lot of focus. That was the story for quite a while, until the chain unveiled a genius idea — flavored crustSince 1985, all Hungry Howie's locations have offered eight delicious crust flavors for its pies: Asiago, Butter, Butter-Cheese, Sesame, Garlic Herb, Cajun, Ranch, and Onion.

The inspiration for seasoned crusts, Pizza Marketplace reveals, emerged after a franchise started dusting sesame seeds onto its pies, and the positive response encouraged the chain to test it out at a couple of locations before rolling it out nationally. Since then, the chain's branched out by offering limited-run flavors every month, including Cheese Puff per QSR Magazine and Dill Pickle via Chew Boom, as well as the first-ever cheese-stuffed flavored crust, as reported once again by Pizza Marketplace

There's no debating that Hungry Howie's launched flavored crusts to the masses, and for a long time, the chain tried keeping its flavorful twist under wraps. Regardless, copycats began flaunting jazzed-up crusts of their own, including from Domino's and Garlic Jim's. As Pizza Marketplace writes, it was a bold move. Steve Jackson joked to the publication that "We don't want anybody else to try flavored crusts," adding that "no one else is allowed to do it."

Sub sandwiches were traded for calzones

Hungry Howie's makes sure to offer more than just pizza, and one look at the menu shows salads, breadsticks, and chicken wings priming for a spot beside your slice. There's also the Oven-Baked Subs, only they're nothing like the massive foot-longs found at other sandwich shops. If anything, Hungry Howie's version is more like a calzone, which is by design. You see, the chain did in fact make traditional sandwiches back in the day, but the 1980s saw the item get the axe in place of the doughy, hand-held pouch that's offered today.

What exactly prompted Hungry Howie's to shake up its sandwich game? According to Steve Jackson, it was the bread. The rationale, as he explained in a 2021 interview with Mashed, was that sourcing bread rolls from local bakeries, all the while competing with sub shops slinging freshly-baked bread made on the premises, proved to be more trouble than it was worth. Also, subs barely made a dent in the pizzeria's profits at just 10% of the overall sum, which is still true today (via Mashed). 

People primarily come to Hungry Howie's for the pizza, not necessarily sandwiches. So the business stuck to what it knew best, not to mention what the kitchen could already craft in large batches, which was the dough. "We made this custom fold-over calzone sandwich, and that's pretty much been what we've been known for, for almost 40 years now."

Hungry Howie's headquarters doubles as a test kitchen

Madison Heights, Michigan is the location of Hungry Howie's headquarters, according to its website, and like any corporate office, the facility plays an important role in the development of new products. In a 2007 write-up from Pizza Marketplace, Steve Jackson spoke about the company's test kitchen which was installed for culinary experimentation sometime in the late 1990s. Staff wanting to cook something up could swing by the office's nifty pizza oven and put their ideas to the test. 

Unsurprisingly, the test kitchen also earned itself a reputation for free food. Employees had to simply take a whiff of what was baking and head over to the kitchen to find a delicious meal awaiting. As many as 75 people would crowd into the room for lunch. What's more, workers in the region caught wind of the complimentary nibbles and would make a beeline straight to Hungry Howie's HQ. "The business community in the Detroit area knows Howie's has lunch on Fridays about noon," Jackson said. "It has become a nice thing that has evolved over the course of a decade" (per Pizza Marketplace).

Does that mean every appetizing creation fired up in the oven becomes a permanent menu item? As an interview with Mashed reveals, not exactly. Plenty of ideas don't make it past the test kitchen, which is just the normal part of doing business. 

Charitable giving is at the heart of the business

If there's anything you should know about Hungry Howie's, it's that the pizza chain wears its heart on its sleeve. Charity has always been a major part of the business, to the point where a chunk of the restaurant's sales are donated to a significant cause. For Hungry Howie's Pizza, that cause is breast cancer prevention. 

Perhaps you've ordered a pizza during the month of October and noticed it arrived in a pink box. That's because October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and every year the company hosts its Love, Hope & Pizza campaign, which assists people affected by the disease through fundraising initiatives according to its website. The money made off of every pizza is sent to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, a Texas-based non-profit organization (via Restaurant News). 

While most food establishments donate across an array of important issues, Hungry Howie's Pizza prefers to put all of its eggs in one basket. Since establishing the program, Restaurant News writes that the franchise has funneled over $3 million dollars to medical research and cancer screenings. The rationale? Per CEO Steve Jackson: "If we could focus on one [issue] and make more of a significant impact, it's a lot better than focusing on 25 and just donating a little bit each way" (per Mashed).

A Florida location is possibly haunted

Many well-known restaurants has a few skeletons rattling around in the closet. But literal ghosts? Well, that's the last thing people wanna hear. A Hungry Howie's in Florida has attracted some attention for its supernatural activity, which Newsbreak writes dates back to the 1980s when the restaurant used to be a 7-11 convenience store. In fact, the hauntings even served as the inspiration for an "X-Files" episode from 2015, albeit with some minor creative liberties taken in the ghost's TV portrayal (via Spring Hill Courier).

At any rate, the story Shadowlands posted resembles something the horror novelist Shirley Jackson would have written, and it goes a little something like this: In 1983, a drunk man stumbled into the convenience store late one night for a six-pack of beer. The cashier, who was manning the counter alone, refused to sell the alcohol to him. Because the individual was so inebriated, the employee thought he would attempt to drive himself home in such a state. Out of retaliation, the customer murdered the worker with a bullet to the brain. 

Regardless of your stance on the paranormal, the accounts witnesses have attested over the years are spine-tingling, to say the least. Doors have opened on their own, promotional materials have been found on the floor, and games from the arcade area have switched off without any warning. If a scare is what you crave in the Sunshine State, look no further than Hungry Howie's. 

It's part of the American Pizza Community

A $46 billion-dollar industry per Statista, pizza claims a large slice of the United States' takeout boom. Yet even a thriving business still requires strong representation. Take the American Pizza Community, a multi-chain organization set up in 2012 to address industrywide issues with input from the U.S. government (via Nation's Restaurant News). The united front of pizzerias encompassed the major players — Domino's, Pizza Hut, Godfather's — as well of course Hungry Howie's Pizza. 

The reason the American Pizza Community was formed in the first place, Nation's Restaurant News writes, had to do with legislation Congress proposed to enforce nutritional transparency in dining establishments. Now, the restaurants involved were not opposed to posting dietary labels as a whole. Rather, the objections to the bill related to pure logistics of how it would affect pizzerias. Pizza chains overwhelmingly operate in quick-serve formats. Since customers tend to order from home, menu info posted in the physical shop wouldn't make sense. Secondly, the nutritional content of pizza is all over the place. Depending on how they're used, toppings, crusts, and cheeses can result in wildly different pies. 

The unpredictable nature of pizza means a direct approach is needed towards preserving the business. "We want them [legislators] to know who we are, what we do and whom we touch," Chairperson Lynn M. Liddle said. "We want to tell them as they think about legislation, try to keep us in mind and help us to grow."

Hungry Howie's Pizza runs some strange promotions

Being a value-based company, Hungry Howie's Pizza dishes out discounts on the regular. Think two-topping pies for $6.99 family-sized meal bundles under $30. Frankly, it's the kind of budget fare that keeps us coming back. But in a sea of generic pizza adverts, Hungry Howie's deals do stand out. If you frequent the pizzeria often, you've probably noticed many of the special offers are, well, fairly unusual for a food franchise. 

The first one that comes to mind? The Leap Day special from 2020. Chew Boom reports that to coincide with the 29th day of February, the chain advertised a 29-cent pizza with the purchase of any large, full-priced pie. Two years prior, the chain concocted a clever way to commemorate its 45th year in business by offering — you guessed it — pizzas costing 45 cents each (via Michigan Live). 

By far the highlight of Hungry Howie's marketing strategy came in 2015, when it unveiled a promotion for National Cheese Pizza Day. One would assume there'd be a discounted cheese pizza, or perhaps a rendition of the buy-one-get-one offer to celebrate the holiday. Instead, the chain invited anybody with the name Howard to enjoy a pizza on the house. Or anyone bearing some variation of the name in any order, as QSR Magazine clarified. We imagined all the Howards (Howies?) of the world rejoiced for a single day, as they should!

The 2008 recession pushed Hungry Howie's to embrace technology

Gone are the days of manual bookkeeping and tallying by hand — at Hungry Howie's Pizza, running a tight ship means leaning on the spoils of modern technology. A 2017 article from QSR Magazine explains that the chain decided on upgrading its technological footprint in response to the aftershock of the Great Recession. The changes that followed probably saved the business, too. 

Per Retail Dive, the chain embraced digital service platforms, including a mobile app allowing visitors to place their orders straight from their phone and without having to dial a number. It doesn't hurt that the chain rolled out a rewards program to encourage users on the platform. What's more, QSR Magazine writes that Hungry Howie's has leaned in on customer data to improve its marketing power. Customers' dining habits, such as the types of food they order and the frequency of those orders, became a helpful tool for Hungry Howie's to strategize exclusive offers based on the data collected by the company. 

Streamlining the business side undoubtedly makes the customer experience more convenient, but it's also boosted profits as well. According to Franchise Times, orders placed digitally have risen to 35% of the chain's total business and beat out phone orders in terms of customer spending. 

Profits soared during the pandemic

When the COVID-19 crisis put life on hold, the pause would reverberate across the service industry and put many restaurants out to pasture. Unfortunately, the economic strain is still tugging at our favorite franchises years later. Hungry Howie's Pizza has not only stuck out the pandemic's rough patches, but it seems to have thrived along the way. CEO Steve Jackson notes that the chain enjoyed a 20% uptick in sales while other dining establishments toiled to keep up (per Franchising). 

The variables that allowed Hungry Howie's to swim instead of sink, Franchising explains, basically apply to any pizza franchise. Pizza is portable, easy to make in large batches, and relatively affordable for families on a budget. It's usually delivered to the customer, and isn't reliant on a particular dining environment in order to be enjoyed. The contact-free service methods that emerged as solutions, like curbside pickup and carryout, is essentially the pizza delivery model in a nutshell. A model that's succeeded for decades, at that. 

Due to the conditions fostered by lockdown — increased time at home and financial insecurity among them, pizzerias got the upper hand thanks to offering a convenient, comforting product (via The New York Times). The perks are practically baked into the business. So for Hungry Howie's to succeed shows that a brand based on comfort and convenience always has a way in.