If you keep up to date with the restaurant industry, you’ve likely heard of Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream. The iconic Midwestern-based quick-service chain hasn’t let the volatility of the past few years stop them from making waves. In fact, the brand is stronger than ever, and 2023 is shaping up to fuel even more growth for the beloved pizza joint.
For prospective franchise owners, Happy Joe’s is certainly a brand to watch out for. With a strategic expansion plan, a strong commitment to philanthropy, and a culture of innovation, there’s a lot to get excited about.
Evolving a Beloved Legacy Brand
Of course, the biggest question on most potential franchisees’ minds is, how is Happy Joe’s evolving and innovating a 50-year-old legacy brand? While many in the food service industry have been traditionally hesitant to adopt new technology and ideas, the Happy Joe’s brand has been built on innovation from the start.
Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream opened its doors to pizza fans in 1972 in Bettendorf, Iowa. Founded by “Happy Joe” Whitty, the restaurant grew a cult following for its original takes on pizza pies, including the first-ever taco pizza. Now, 50 years later, the beloved Midwestern chain has expanded across the U.S., offering guests a variety of specialty pizzas, pastas, breakfast fare, and ice cream. As of this year, the company has launched a global expansion, opening new locations in Egypt, with more planned in the Middle East. In 2022, the brand was recognized and named a FastCasual Top 200 concept, Franchise Times Top 400 business, and Nation’s Restaurant News Top 500 restaurant. In 2023, Happy Joe’s CEO was recognized as one of the Top 10 Executives in the Pizza Industry at No. 8, and Happy Joe’s Menu Innovation was recognized in the Top 3 at No. 2 by Pizza Marketplace.
One of the biggest factors separating Happy Joe’s from the pack is the company’s approach to its pizzas. Unlike other competitors in the space, Happy Joe’s doesn’t see its iconic pies as commodities. Rather, its pizza, pasta, and other recipes are viewed as creative opportunities. So instead of keeping with the status quo, each of the brand’s original recipes starts as a blank slate, opening up new opportunities to push the envelope of what’s possible. Without this creative approach, flagship products like the original Taco Joe Pizza (the first-ever taco pizza) simply wouldn’t be possible. And the whole industry is taking notice.
This innovative approach doesn’t stop with its pies. Fans of the restaurant can enjoy the Happy Joe’s experience any time of day, thanks to a carefully curated menu that spans breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.
While the COVID-19 pandemic brought a number of issues to the restaurant and hospitality industry, Happy Joe’s managed to weather the worst of the storm. This is a feat not many legacy brands can boast, with Chief Happiness Officer and CEO Tom Sacco explaining that it’s a true testament to the brand that founder “Happy Joe” Whitty built.
In 2022, the company celebrated its 50th birthday, ending the struggles of the past few years on a triumphant note. “Ninety percent of all restaurants operating in the USA cannot say they have achieved this milestone,” Sacco noted in a recent interview.
Again, Happy Joe’s culture of innovation and willingness to adapt helped them achieve this milestone. Along with celebrating its half-century milestone anniversary, 2022 was an exceptional year for the company. While many restaurants struggled to regain their footing after two years of supply chain issues, inflation, and changing consumer preferences, Happy Joe withstands it all. They went from strength to strength, meeting several long-term goals, including crafting a better, more convenient digital customer experience. In 2022, the brand unveiled its new website design along with a new loyalty app powered by the loyalty and engagement platform Punchh. This helped to usher in a new era for the company, one where customers can order their favorite munchies faster and easier than ever, all while earning redeemable points. Along with the brand’s commitment to excellence in quality and service, improvements like these helped the company close out 2022 with seven consecutive quarters of positive sales.
While the company met internal goals for the year, it also caught the eye of the industry. Many leading voices in the quick-service space, including QSR magazine, recognized the brand for its achievements. In 2022, Happy Joe’s was recognized by the QSR Top 50 as a rising star ready for new growth. The enterprise was spotlighted at No. 39 on the list for its unique offerings, a strong sales record, and commitment to customer service. It was accompanied on the list by 49 of the U.S.’s most successful and innovative restaurants. With this honor under its belt, Happy Joe’s can be named one of the Top 50 Fast-Food Chains of 2023 and further into the future.
CEO Tom Sacco said making the list was another big leap forward for the brand. “We’re honored to be named a QSR Top 50 contender, and it’s motivation to keep working toward being the top pizza brand in the country,” he explained. “We’ve heavily invested in our digital efforts to better deliver our one-of-a-kind, gourmet menu to guests across the country, and we’re glad to see it paying off with this type of recognition.
“Fifty years of blood, sweat, and tears have gotten our brand to this point, and we aren’t stopping any time soon as we continue to ramp up our expansion efforts in Arizona, Florida, Texas, and more. We’re on a mission to be the preeminent experiential pizza brand that creates emotional connections with families as we build our ‘Happy Places’ across our beloved country.”
Honoring a Lifelong Commitment to Philanthropy
From the start, founder Joe Whitty built his business on a people-first model. From honoring excellence in customer service to investing in employee experience, the company’s commitment to people has been one of its most important recipes for success. This commitment extends outward as well, with the company sponsoring a wide variety of community programs and initiatives.
One area Happy Joe’s is significantly involved in is the special needs community. Throughout Whitty’s life, much of his philanthropic work was done to support special needs children and their families. Today, that work continues with partnerships with Junior Achievement, Partners in Education, and The Handicapped Development Center.
Along with these partnerships, the brand hosts several annual community events and fundraisers for special needs kids. In 2022, after a hiatus, Happy Joe’s hosted its annual Kids Micro Marathon in partnership with the TBK Quad Cities Marathon in Moline, Illinois. Children and their families gathered at the city’s Vibrant Arena to compete in one of three different races.
Marketing VP Kristel Ersan was excited to bring back this friendly competition.
“This race has been a wonderful September tradition for Happy Joe’s and all of the amazing families in the Quad Cities and surrounding areas. We are so honored to be sponsoring it once again this year.”
After finishing their race, all participants were treated to free pizza and went home with an official Kids Micro Marathon medal, T-shirt, and Happy Joe’s swag bag.
Last fall, the company also created a fundraiser for special needs children. In conjunction with the Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation, the brand launched a new program on Sept. 10, founder Joe Whitty’s birthday. Over the following month, Happy Joe’s awarded $50,000 to help lessen financial burdens for families with special needs children. Fifty families were selected to receive $1,000, which could be used to support children’s educational, medical, and mobility needs.
Unveiling a Bold Expansion Strategy
This year, Happy Joe’s is stretching beyond its Midwestern roots, partnering with franchisees across the United States and the globe. Along with opening a new restaurant concept in Florida, the brand opened two new locations in Cairo, with more in the works for the North Africa/Middle Eastern region.
This is just one step forward in the company’s long-term global goals. “Opening in Egypt in July of 2022 was a huge milestone for Happy Joe’s,” noted CEO Tom Sacco.
“Inking this deal was among the most exciting moments in our brand’s history,” Sacco added. “We’re beyond thrilled to begin this extraordinary international growth push as we bring Happy Joe’s overseas by expanding our presence in the Middle East and North Africa over the next decade. I expect this expansion to springboard Happy Joe’s into South Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia. We look forward to working with Ahmed [El Batran, a master franchisee] as Happy Joe’s prepares to scale new heights globally.”
Stateside, this year has seen the brand enter the Lone Star State with its first-ever Black-led franchisee group. Rickey McBride and his group HJ SMS OpCo, LLC are leading the charge into north Texas and hope to open their first Happy Joe’s location by the end of this summer. Each of their top choice locations are in areas with over 40% minority populations, a big factor in the group’s search. As McBride explained, the group aims to bring new jobs to these areas, with the ultimate goal to open Texas’ first Happy Joe’s in their multi-unit agreement in the southern Dallas suburbs of Grand Prairie or Cedar Hill. Once opened, the group will continue to expand its footprint across the state.
“We’re happy to be the first minority group of Happy Joe’s,” McBride said. “To add jobs to areas that minorities are based in has been a goal for all the owners.”