Women in Pizza: Michelle Howey - Her Unlikely Journey to Franchising

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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Chicago Franchise Systems, Inc. operates Italian-based, Chicago-style restaurants in Illinois, Georgia, North Carolina, and Missouri. They are based in Chicago and have operated since 1990, when they purchased and began franchising the popular Nancy’s Pizza brand.

Today, there are 20 Nancy’s locations in Illinois, as well as 6 locations in Georgia, 1 location in Missouri and 1 location in North Carolina. You can read a case study about their use of SpeedLine here

In a recent interview with Michelle Howey, she describes her journey to becoming CTO of Chicago Franchise Systems, and a 'woman in pizza'.

When Michelle Howey started her first job at a Nancy’s Pizzeria at the age of 17, working as a busser, she had no way of knowing that she would one day co-own its parent company. Her path to becoming the CTO of Chicago Franchise Systems (CFS) was not immediately apparent—she first obtained a degree in computer science from a top university, and then worked years in a career dedicated to cellular switching systems.

A Software Engineer at Motorola

She was good at her job. Motorola hired her straight out of Northwestern University, and although she was first hired as a software engineer, within a few years she was promoted to group leader. Over the course of her 12-year career, she proved herself as a strong manager, working in a lab where problem solving was the job. She learned how to manage people effectively, strengthened her organizational skill set, and became an expert in troubleshooting.

Michelle recounts a project she is most proud of:  In her early years at Motorola, she led a team of software engineers in building a complex system that could automate numerous phone call scenarios to thoroughly test Motorola’s cellular products, saving countless hours of manual testing. Forward-thinking and problem solving experiences like these would prove valuable to her when she later joined the pizza industry.

The Beginning of Chicago Franchise Systems

While at Motorola, Michelle began dating Dave Howey, an entrepreneur who had already opened a few different Nancy’s restaurants, and was looking to build a franchising system. This wasn’t the first time they had met—Michelle had coincidentally worked at the first Nancy’s that Dave had opened when he was a young, freshly graduated businessman in Illinois. In 1991, after their marriage, Dave started his franchise concept—calling it Chicago Franchise Systems. Since franchising was now their family business, Michelle was naturally involved. By 1995, with the arrival of twins, Michelle and Dave now had four kids under the age of four. Michelle decided it was time to take a leave of absence from Motorola and raise their family.

When she eventually came into her position at Chicago Franchising Systems, she is adamant that it was “just to help out.” CFS provided franchisees with extensive operating manuals, blueprints, recipes and instructions, but Michelle noticed that they were in need of refinement. She set about rewriting and updating them. Once completed, she turned her attention to the company’s online ordering system.

Transforming Online Ordering

CFS was using QuikOrder online ordering at the time, but when Pizza Hut announced that they were acquiring the software, they needed to find a suitable alternative. Michelle and Dave settled on SpeedDine, and with that came a new role for Michelle to step in to: becoming the franchisees' main point of contact for both the POS and online ordering systems. During the process of migrating stores to SpeedDine, Michelle worked closely with the SpeedLine support team and franchisees to quickly investigate and solve transitional issues that naturally arose. 

Technology is evolving so quickly that even if you just updated to the latest, there is likely already something better out there, especially for a company like ourselves [in the pizza industry]. —Michelle Howey

Standardizing the Menu Across a Chain

Michelle’s biggest feat to date at Chicago Franchise Systems was standardizing the menu across the chain. “The basic menu was the same, however variations had emerged over the years—we needed to standardize that to bring them all under one main menu.”

Bringing all of the franchisees on to the standardized menu system was a daunting task, and had been in discussions for a while. The Pizza Hut acquisition announcement was the catalyst—Michelle knew they had to do it now, during the transition to a new online ordering system.  With help from the CFS and SpeedLine teams and a few franchisees, Michelle consolidated the data into a single SpeedLine menu file, making it much more easily distributed and supported. Transitioning to one SpeedLine menu file that is used across the chain gives the corporate office the ability to more effectively change products, introduce limited-time offers and manage detailed aspects of the menu file.

Now, almost all the franchisees use the same standardized menu system, with just a few more stores to go. The standardization project was successful, and well worth the effort.

Another important feature of their POS is the granular control provided over pizza toppings using the Topping Matrix feature. Michelle praises this feature—"We could never do without a few of the features uniquely tailored to pizza that [our POS system] provides, especially the topping matrix", she gushes. "It allows [us] to specify specific weights of each pizza topping, based on how many toppings are added to the pizza." The corporate office had previously incorporated all the weights of each ingredient in every menu item into the POS, ultimately helping with food cost and product consistency. Now, with the single SpeedLine menu file, any changes to these weights can now more easily be pushed out to franchisees.

Testing In-House

The importance of testing the product came with Michelle from her time at Motorola. “Testing is important for any kind of software,'' she explains. She shares an example. Ever since the corporate office took ownership of the SpeedLine menu file, any pricing update requested by a franchisee is made by the corporate office. Once the pricing is adjusted, Michelle makes sure that a team in the corporate office tests it in-house first. A training computer is designated for this, and operates like a SpeedLine station would in the store. Michelle says it has been helpful. Her team puts in the time up front, which saves them from future complaints about incorrect pricing.

As one of the owners, Michelle’s work spans both hands-on projects and higher level directional planning discussions with both family and corporate office. Although heavily involved in the planning stage, she is consistently on the ground floor, executing company objectives.

Customer privacy and data confidentiality is so important. The internet makes people more vulnerable. Following all applicable laws is important. —Michelle Howey

The Key to Success

Michelle attributes both her own success and her husband’s success to their work ethic. “My husband and I work a lot, but we enjoy our work. We have both always been very driven. Family comes first, and work comes second. Of course, luck is always involved. But, work ethic, determination and an excellent product have been our keys to success.” She also gives credit to the company’s franchisees, who are “good, hardworking, and have helped build our brand.”

When prompted to share what it is that makes Nancy’s Pizza stand out, Michelle becomes very enthusiastic. Michelle is proud that it’s a family business—and she loves the product. She speaks about the menu offerings with pride, cheerfully explaining the important differences between Nancy’s stuffed pizza and a “deep dish” pizza. She describes the crust variations and quality of ingredients—taking a moment to rave about the sauce—before diving into an explanation about Nancy’s history. Michelle’s daughter, Kayla, is a trained chef, and is responsible for the introduction of some fresh additions to the menu—never compromising the strength of the traditional menu that customers know and love. 

It’s clear that Michelle is passionate about the product. When asked if she ever thought the business could fail, the products are what she comes back to. “[I thought it could fail] all the time—but we really always believed in the product. It always helped us battle through obstacles and keep forging ahead. In truth, our strength is in our products.”

“The future is bright,” Michelle shares. Although there are daily setbacks, she is excited about the thought of leaving the company to their children one day, as something they can continue to grow and pass on through generations. “Already, most of our kids are passionate about the family business,” she explains, “keeping it as a family business is the goal.” 


Posted on Tue, Mar 03, 2020 @ 07:03 AM.
Updated on June 22, 2022 @ 6:21 PM PST.

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

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