How the Air Force Prepared him for Owning a Pizza Restaurant

Posted by Miriam Robinson

Miriam was a Marketing Content Specialist for SpeedLine Solutions from 2019 to 2020, and was always on the hunt for great topics to share with restaurant entrepreneurs all over the world.

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Brian Lombardi's Story

Brian Lombardi joined the Air Force at the age of 19, prepared to travel the world and serve his country. After 4 years of service, he set his sights on opening a pizza restaurant. At 24 years old, he opened what would quickly become one of the most successful early Pizza Factory franchise locations. Now, 35 years later, he has outlasted big restaurant chains such as Little Caesars and Pizza Hut and become a well-established part of the small community of Phelan, California. As a proud American citizen and former member of the Air Force, Brian explains why Memorial Day is such a special day to Americans.

Growing Up

Brian was born and raised on a farm in California, and enjoyed an idyllic childhood. When he turned 17 his family moved to Oakhurst, where he graduated from Yosemite High School. Coincidentally, this was also the birthplace of Pizza Factory—the restaurant franchise that would one day become his livelihood.

Joining the Air Force

After graduation, it was time to look for a job. Unfortunately in 1980, there were limited opportunities for work, and Brian had no clear direction about where he wanted to go in life. When his father suggested joining the military, Brian jumped at the idea, and at 19 years old he enlisted in the Air Force, with a dream of travelling the world.


He first went to tech school, and then became a mechanic on a cargo plane. He enjoyed his work immensely, and wanted to join a flying crew program. When the program was cancelled, Brian decided to study to become an Aircraft Loadmaster, a position which flies with the plane. Unfortunately, when his four years of service came to an end, the promotion wasn’t available, and although he loved his years in the Air Force, he knew it was time to begin the next chapter of his life. He just had no idea where to start.

Switching from the Military to a Bakery

Fortunately, Brian was able to secure a job quickly because of his military resume. He took a job at a bakery with the mind-numbing task of stacking hot bread pans all day. If the machinery broke, he’d spend 12 hours stacking. He saved his money and started to imagine what his future could look like. Meanwhile, his father and brother bought a building in Kingsburg, California and were in the process of turning it into a Pizza Factory restaurant. Brian felt intrigued, and asked them if he found a location, if he could do the same thing. They encouraged him to start looking.  

Finding a Restaurant Location

“I started location scouting on my days off,” Brian explains. “I knew I wanted to be near a snow ski resort because it’s what I like to do in my spare time, so I headed to southern California and started looking there.” He came across a small town called Phelan, in San Bernardino County. A building stood empty after being recently vacated by a grocery store. There were barely any other restaurant options in the town, which told him that the community was ready for Pizza Factory. He decided that it was the perfect spot.

Brian secured a good deal to lease the building, and on top of cheap rent, the landlord let him live in his garage. In December 1985 he officially signed the lease, and on March 13, 1986 he opened the doors to the public. 

Preparing the Restaurant to Open

During the 3 months it took him to build out the restaurant, Brian lived and froze in his landlord’s tiny garage. He wasn’t nervous about the venture at first—just excited.  He set to work renovating the store. 

At one point in the process, he started chatting with a local man while at a laundromat. Brian excitedly explained his plans for opening a pizza place in town. In response, the man, now a good friend, exclaimed, “Oh, you’ll never make it. Everyone will just go to one of the two food places nearby.” Brian admits that this comment scared him for the first time, explaining “I was 24 years old and all my savings were on the line.” Fortunately, at the same time he also felt an immense wave  of excitement from the community; he was constantly being asked when the restaurant would open. It encouraged him enough to continue the renovations.

Opening Pizza Factory in Phelan

When Brian opened the restaurant, he said he had a line through the door from open to close. “We were so busy all the time. There was nowhere else in the town to go out to eat, aside from the Mountain Top Cafe.” The restaurant took off, and the momentum didn’t stop. The Phelan Pizza Factory location had top sales for three years in a row.

The entire franchise was growing too. When Brian opened, the company had grown to about 12 or 13 stores in the franchise. According to Brian, the Pizza Factory owners had some doubts about opening a restaurant in a small town in the desert, but after opening, his store “blew the other franchisee’s doors off.”

The restaurant kept doing well. Brian was heavily involved in the community, sponsoring little league teams, and hosting parties. His restaurant became a place where families could come and hang out all night. Soon, Brian knew everyone in town.

Outlasting the Competition

“I am blessed that the store has always blessed me, even in bad times. It always did better than a lot of other stores.” When Little Caesars came to Phelan in 1993, a lot of locals went to try it. Fortunately for Brian, they quickly returned to Pizza Factory. The same thing happened again in 2000, when a Pizza Hut opened across the street and told him they would put him out of business. Unfortunately for Pizza Hut, they only lasted 7 years before they too were gone.

Standing the Test of Time

So what made the Phelan Pizza Factory location so successful where others failed? Brian thinks it’s because of the community. “We do a lot for our community, and we’ve now become a part of it. Pizza Hut, on the other hand, wasn’t participating in the community. It was a managed store, so the owner wasn’t even on-site. People would try it out, and come right back. It was sad for Pizza Hut corporate, but it made me look really good.” 

It is also the feeling that customers get when they enter the restaurant that makes them stand apart from their competition. “In the store, it feels like family. When customers arrive, it’s like coming home for dinner. There is a lot of loyalty,” his wife, Kimberly, explains. “Brian makes a point of going over and talking to guests. People love to come in and feel important, and they immediately feel like Brian’s best friend. I would attribute most of our success in that business to Brian’s demeanor and including everyone. These people in the community are our everything.”

A Restaurant, a House, and a Family

Brian met his wife in Phelan, while cleaning and renovating the building that would become the Pizza Factory restaurant. Kimberly came in for a job interview and was hired. Once the store was running and doing well, he bought a house. Although a fixer-upper,  it got him out of the garage. After feeling established with a business and a house, he was ready to get married - and has now been with his wife for 35 years, raising a large Italian family.

Top Lesson from the Air Force for Success in the Food Industry

Brian’s Air Force safety training instructor shared a lesson about taking shortcuts at the end of training that he’s never forgotten. “I know how you guys are sitting here thinking how stupid it was to have to make a bed so perfectly and fold clothes in 6-inch squares. You’re right, it is ridiculous and redundant. But try to think of folding clothes like putting a part in right, or wiring a nut as working as a mechanic on a plane. If you don’t do it exactly right, you could be jeopardizing people’s lives. That’s why you do those chores and why we make it important that you do it correctly and perfectly—every time.”

Brian explains that the same lesson applies to food preparation. “We clean things properly. If we don’t make food properly in a clean environment, people could get sick. It goes beyond the risk that people won’t come back.” He says this makes him a "hard nut" to work for when an employee is first training at his store. “I like the sauce spread perfectly, the right amount of toppings used, the clean up done well, and everything done just so. That part of me comes from the Air Force.”

Brian Lombardi Memorial Day

Memorial Day

Brian, shown here at the veteran's dinner that he caters every year, explains what Memorial Day means to him. “Memorial Day is not a day for veterans. It’s a day for those who have sacrificed and given it all. They laid down their lives for our country. It means that I am eternally grateful for how awesome our country is. Everybody wants to come to our country, not the other way around. No one is trying to escape and sneak out. That tells you how wonderful our country is. There is no better place, and that’s because of the freedoms that we have here—due to the men and women that have sacrificed their lives for us. It’s a special day in our store, and in our home.”

Posted on Fri, May 22, 2020 @ 07:05 AM.
Updated on June 22, 2022 @ 6:51 PM PST.

Tags: Case Study, Franchise, Restaurant Management, Pizzeria Owners

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