For about four years, he tinkered with the idea in his head.
As a BMW sales manager in North Canton, John Brenneman, 50, dealt with a loyal customer who was experiencing success with the first Hungry Howie’s Pizza franchise in Ohio.
“He urged me to do it; he felt that I would be a good fit,” Brenneman said in discussing his reasons for eventually opening several of the franchises from Canton to Boardman.
His customer thought Brenneman was just right because of his background. In 1982, before he turned 21, Brenneman joined the Marines and spent his birthday at boot camp.
After that, he spent 14 years on active duty and six years in the reserves with the Marines. He was deployed during the Gulf War and was with the first American unit in Bosnia during the armed conflict that raged there in 1993. By the time he left the service in 2002, at 41, Brenneman was no stranger to a challenge.
So, in 2005, he took his idea full-tilt by opening a Hungry Howie’s in Alliance, which led to a second location in Boardman in 2007 and three more just before the height of the nationwide recession in 2008.
Brenneman attributes his “success to the leadership and administrative background obtained in the Marine Corps.”
At the same time, success for Brenneman means giving back, even when “times are tight.”
His Hungry Howie’s restaurants have organized food drives, donated pizzas, and some locations organize fundraisers for community schools.
“I do whatever I can,” he said. “If times are tight, I donate maybe five or 10 pizzas; if times are better, then I try to give money.
“We definitely need to bend over backward for our military recruiters and active-duty guys,” he added. “For anyone with a military photo ID, they automatically get 10 percent off [their pizza purchase].”
When Alliance store manager David McKeivier wanted to organize a basketball team to play the faculty at area schools, Brenneman jumped at the idea.
“John bought us everything we needed to get us going,” McKeivier said. “All I have to do is tell him what I need and he’ll do it. He’s a great boss, and I’ve never had a problem with him in the six years I’ve been working for him.”
The team, called the Hungry Howie’s All-Stars, consists of not only employees, but a few professional athletes as well. This year, Jeff Woods, a former shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who was drafted from West Branch High School in 1975, is on the team.
Proceeds from games go to the communities and schools hosting them. McKeivier said his team hasn’t made it to Youngstown yet, but it hopes to play a game here soon.
Brenneman also bankrolls a Little League team in West Branch.
“They’ve done very well because John helped them,” McKeivier said. “I know he’ll be doing it again next year.”
Hungry Howie’s employs about 55 people between its five locations. Brenneman said his early success in Alliance and Boardman led to his buying the other three locations.
He has no plans to open more restaurants. He and McKeivier said they’d like to see more veterans take advantage of the discount.
“My favorite part about it all is the loyal customers we see come in on a regular basis,” Brenneman said. “It’s also been nice to see some of my employees go on to serve in the military. The people and the communities are really the best part of the job.”