Will and Deb Brinkley both grew up in the Quad Cities celebrating birthdays and hanging out at Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream. More than 50 years later, they’re still doing much of the same—except now they’re the owners.
The Brinkleys have owned and operated their Happy Joe’s restaurant in Burlington, Iowa, since 1996. It’s the culmination of a longtime dream they had as children individually and then together as a family. Both wanted to own their own restaurant and, more than 27 years later, they’re living out that dream.
“It’s crazy to think we’ve been going at it this long considering we didn’t know anything about making pizza when we started,” Deb Brinkley said. “Thankfully, it didn’t take long to learn because we already had some of the necessary skillsets, plus the training classes Happy Joe’s provided made it even easier for us to make that transition.”
Related: Happy Joe Whitty’s dream comes true with global expansion
Will and Deb both started working at a large national burger chain as teenagers in the Quad Cities. The two stayed on after high school graduation, eventually building a successful career in the restaurant industry. However, the desire to own their own restaurant still gnawed at the high school sweethearts.
They eventually approached Larry Whitty, son of Happy Joe’s Founder Joe Whitty, to get information about what it would take and how much it would cost to open their own franchise. Larry convinced them that owning one was within their means, so they sold their house and moved their family to Burlington to start their new careers.
“It’s been a great experience because we’ve met so many wonderful people through Happy Joe’s and become friends with many of the other franchisees,” said Will Brinkley, who also is the past president of the Happy Joe’s National Franchisee Board. “Our community isn’t very big, so we know our competition. We stand out because Happy Joe’s is more focused on meeting customers face-to-face, giving them that interaction that you don’t get at most other pizza places.”
The memories of eating their favorite pizza—the Happy Joe’s Special—after football games and seeing Happy Joe’s-decorated fire engines in local parades drew them into the business. But the Brinkleys’ business savvy is what has kept things running smoothly the last two decades. They learned to have enough liquid cash, be present nearly every day and utilize their past restaurant knowledge to keep track of employee schedules and food deliveries, as well as employ cleaning and bookkeeping systems. They also learned to treat their staff like family to build tight bonds in times of need.
Related: Marc Vetri’s new pizzeria to open in late May
General Manager Stephanie Bailey is one of those employees. She has been with the Brinkleys at Happy Joe’s for 26 years and was recently named to Nation’s Restaurant News’ 2023 GM Power List.
“Considering how well they treat their employees and the results they’ve had going on two decades now, you couldn’t ask for a better pair of owner/operators than Will and Deb Brinkley,” said Happy Joe’s President, CEO and Chief Happiness Officer Tom Sacco. “I hold Will in a special place, too, as he was one of the most instrumental people to help me during my first two years at Happy Joe’s. When you have a franchisee supporting the CEO, that’s when you know that restaurant is in great hands!”
The Brinkleys have weathered the Covid-19 pandemic—and the staffing and supply chain issues that followed—and are still going strong in today’s difficult economic conditions. They credit their employees’ dedication, the support from Happy Joe’s corporate office and the relationships they’ve built in the community for their continued success.
“Restaurants by definition are a difficult industry to succeed in and maintain,” Deb Brinkley said. “We’ve been blessed to have great people work with us to build our dream. From employees that are resilient and prideful to a community that appreciates quality pizza and family fun, we think this is what Happy Joe’s has always been about.”
Joe Whitty founded Happy Joe’s in Davenport, Iowa, in 1972. The family-centric pizza brand has eight company-owned and 34 franchise locations throughout the Midwest with more in the pipeline. For information on Happy Joe’s franchising opportunities, click here, email Kat Davidson at KatD@drhnow.com or call 678-485-8413.