Women in Pizza: Mary Jane Riva - From Franchisee to CEO

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.

linkedin | Website

An Entrepreneur at Heart

Being an entrepreneur is a big part of who Mary Jane Riva is. She opened her first business at the age of 20, tripled her investment in 3 years, and moved on to her next venture—a pizza franchise. With this career choice came hardships, challenges, and countless hours of work. Despite the hurdles, she stayed true to her values and because of her work ethic, determination, and vision, Mary Jane and her husband were offered the opportunity in 2012 to purchase Pizza Factory Franchising System—a pizza chain of over 100 restaurant locations—the same chain that her own franchise locations are part of. She embraced the venture with enthusiasm. She has learned how to effectively lead and grow a large chain, tested her strength and resilience during her time as both a franchisee and franchisor, and has realized the importance of prioritizing the things that matter: most importantly, her relationships.


The Doughnut Shop - A Three Year Success

The first business venture that Mary Jane Riva rehabilitated was a doughnut shop. Like most youth her age, she had worked at a doughnut shop all through high school, but she wasn’t like her peers. After graduating from high school, she got married, and since it was within her realm of experience, she automatically went out to get a new job at a doughnut shop. After about a month of work, the owner offered to sell her one of his stores. Mary Jane was determined that she would be able to turn the store around, so she bought it at the age of 20, and set to work to build it up. 

It wasn’t easy. Mary Jane had to be at the shop at 11 pm and worked through the night to prep the baking for the next day. Then, when the rest of the world was taking advantage of the day, Mary Jane went home to sleep. She sacrificed the activities that her peers were able to take part in, but she was successful in her effort to revitalize the doughnut shop. After three years, she had tripled her investment, and was ready to move on to her next venture.


The World of Pizza Franchising

It was Mary Jane’s sister who introduced her to pizza franchising. Mary Jane welcomed the challenge, and opened her first Pizza Factory franchise location with her husband in 1990. She admits there was an element of naivety in their decision. “When you become a franchisee or own a restaurant, you come into it with misconceptions. We all think we’re going to have the store that will be successful from day one, or we wouldn't do it. We’re all a little naive about what goes into it 24/7. Even when you go home for the night, your phone is still on because there are employees still at the store. You’re just always on.”

Mary Jane notes that being a franchisee means learning the ropes on your own. “I had no background in anything, except working hard.” Through owning a restaurant, she found new capabilities within herself that she would have otherwise been unaware of. “As a franchisee, you have to figure out how to wear three hats: marketer, manager, and bookkeeper. It’s challenging. Ultimately, your success is dependent on how much you’re going to get out and tell people you’re there.”


Experiencing a Restaurateur Nightmare

Two years after the couple opened their first restaurant, the worst possible scenario occurred: a recession hit. As she remarks, “external circumstances can change the whole picture very quickly.”  Mary Jane was losing sleep, questioning herself for going into the business in the first place, and praying hard. In a situation where many marriages could fall apart under the stress, Mary Jane and her husband supported each other. They sold their house to downsize their financial burden, and worked even harder. Against all odds, they made it through their rough start, and went on to co-own five Pizza Factory restaurant locations with a partner until 2012, a grand total of 22 years. “Everyone goes through challenges like we did. It’s very rare to have a smooth ‘sunshine and roses’ experience [when owning your own business].”


Purchasing Pizza Factory

In September of 2012, the owners of Pizza Factory Franchising System approached Mary Jane to see if she wanted to purchase the company. The owners explained that they wanted the business to go to someone in the franchise that they knew carried the core beliefs of Pizza Factory. They also admired Mary Jane's strong experience, and believed that she would be able to take the company forward and lead the next generation of franchisees.

It was a difficult decision. Mary Jane took a 2 week vacation with her husband and laid out all the pros and cons. She admits that naivety came into play again, just like it does when you consider becoming a franchisee—”it was just at a whole new level, in a different position.” Mary Jane reveals that in her decision making, “the challenge for me was so great. I had the desire to be able to take a brand that had become somewhat stagnant, and try to revitalize it and bring it new life. I knew that through rebranding, new technology, online ordering, and a specialized POS system—I would be able to bring it into the 21st century.” Even though she was a bit older when she had to make this life changing decision, she admits that she still had no way of understanding what she was getting herself into until she stepped into the role of President and CEO of Pizza Factory Franchising System.


CEO Learning Curve

There were many facets of the job that Mary Jane did not expect when assuming the role of CEO. She was bombarded with rules about what the company could and could not do, a constant flood of legalities to assess, the responsibility of figuring out how to grow the franchise on both a unit and corporate level, and the ever evolving changes in technology. She faced many new roadblocks, but she had come into the role with ideas she was determined to implement.

Shifting From Franchisee to Franchisor

Having had the experience of being a franchisee for many years, Mary Jane says, “I had been exposed to every part of the business by this point.” She already knew what implementations had worked in her own restaurants, and had stored mental notes of items that she knew weren’t yet available to Pizza Factory franchisees, but she felt should be. “When we bought the company, the first thing I wanted to do was put new technology and programs in place,” she recalls, as she knew that it would help the company grow in the right direction.

Read why Pizza Factory chose SpeedLine as their POS here

Mary Jane's franchisees viewed her as someone in the trenches with them. “There is a part of you that understands exactly how a franchisee feels when they come up to you with an issue. You can genuinely say, 'I know how you feel’.” Like Mary Jane, half of the staff members at corporate are former franchisee owners, giving them the ability to relate to the franchisees they support.


A Typical Day as a CEO

In her new role as CEO, Mary Jane now oversees the marketing, IT and accounting departments within the company, and works diligently to manage the vision for Pizza Factory—guiding and directing the company, from top to bottom, toward the same goal. She attends meetings, talks to franchisees, speaks to attorneys, and more. At the end of the day, she says it’s all about the franchisees and finding out how to contribute to their success. “Their success is our success. If they’re not successful, we’re not successful—it’s as simple as that.”


Keeping Franchisees Happy

Mary Jane shares her key to success when working with franchisees: communication. “Communication is one of the biggest things that deters problems. We host regional meetings, conferences, an internal podcast, distribute surveys and newsletters, and are always looking to find new ways to help them.” Pizza Factory not only strives to be transparent, but also to be completely accessible. “If someone calls, we want to be there for them.” The company is always looking for ways to negotiate better prices with vendors and get ready for the next big thing, so that franchisees can focus on their day-to-day operations. “We want to provide the support and marketing that a franchise is supposed to offer.”


Taking a Stand Against Bullying ("No Bully Zone")

During Mary Jane’s time as a franchisee, she noticed something about some of the youth coming into her restaurants. A few were clearly less popular, and seemed left out. She began to hear about some of the hurtful experiences that youth endured within the community because of bullying. Interestingly, those same youth would often work for the company after school. To her pleasant surprise, they began to transform as they befriended co-workers—eventually even being invited to go out with the group as new friends. She appreciated how impactful a simple thing such as exclusion could be on a young mind, and began to find ways to implement small initiatives to make a change. 

Mary Jane implemented a “friends are awesome” bench, and began visiting schools to speak to kids about the importance of kindness, friendship, and the repercussions of bullying. Pizza Factory has now been to over 90 schools. “Social media can be cruel.” she says, “It’s important to direct kids and show them that differences are good. Just because they feel different, doesn’t mean they aren’t able to offer something unique and special.” Mary Jane is passionate about this cause, and proudly explains that people within the community are starting to see each other in a different way.

Although started on a store level, when she became CEO, Mary Jane knew anti-bullying was something she wanted to continue on a franchise level. To her delight, franchisees have embraced the program wholeheartedly.


The Pizza Industry Today

As the pizza industry evolves to include online and delivery services and wage increases, Mary Jane remains confident in the Pizza Factory brand. “Pizza Factory has been the place where friends and family in the community have eaten together for over 35 years.” She notes that in this era, there is less face time between people, especially through the use of convenient home deliveries, but that people still do want to go out and sit with their friends and family to catch up over a delicious meal. “It’s the biggest asset for the pizza industry, especially for those of us who still have that traditional pizzeria family atmosphere.”


The Importance of Mentors

Mary Jane explains how grateful she is for the lessons she’s learned and the mentors who have helped her along the way. “That’s what got me through this journey. In the beginning I relied heavily on one of my mentors, Steve Olson. He got me through those times where all I was thinking was ‘why did I do this, and what do I do next?’. He introduced me to people who could help, and slowly shifted me from a franchisee to a franchisor.” Along with having strong mentors around her, Mary Jane surprisingly compliments the community of other restaurant chains: “There are always people in the franchise world willing and able to help someone. I came onto the scene with the expectation that it would be a very competitive environment. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone was so kind, willing to share their knowledge and availability, and proved themselves to be a great community.”


Achieving Success

Mary Jane attributes her success to a little bit of being at the right place at the right time, and an extreme amount of hard work. “Ultimately,” she says, “it depends on your definition of success.” In terms of success as a career position, Mary Jane attributes her career success to being first of all, hard working, and secondly, involved. For example, she volunteered her time on the marketing team for corporate as a franchisee, because she was involved in the success of the company. “You have to be engaged. Whatever business you have, you have to be engaged.”

Mary Jane has achieved a level of career that most will never experience, and she didn’t need a college degree to put herself there. Not only did she combat her lack of formal education, but also her gender and age. She recalls that this was especially prevalent during her first business venture at age 20, where both being young and a woman caused resistance at the time. Now, she is a proud woman in pizza, successfully implementing programs to combat bullying, and directing a multi-unit restaurant chain.

Success to Mary Jane, however, goes far beyond career, as it’s only a small part of who she is. “I don’t look at myself like that. I’m a mom, a wife, a person. I look beyond my career, because it’s not what defines me. I don’t want it to define me.” To her, success means relationships, happiness, and being able to choose things for herself. She admits she can be a workaholic, but has come to realize that she doesn’t have to be at every event, or do everything. Instead of internalizing requests to mean, “I’ve got to," she is learning to instead say, “I don’t have to.” In choosing where she directs her time, she can prioritize her relationships to a level of success that makes her feel proud.



Posted on Fri, Mar 06, 2020 @ 07:03 AM.
Updated on June 22, 2022 @ 6:36 PM PST.

Tags: Case Study, Franchise, Restaurant Management, Women In Pizza, Pizzeria Owners

New call-to-action