Robbie Doughty had lost his legs in a 2004 roadside bombing in Iraq and was searching for a new life outside the Army when a call came from a pizza tycoon.
Michael Ilitch, founder and owner of the Little Caesars pizza chain, offered a business proposition.
Ilitch had read about Doughty’s recovery from the bomb blast and asked the former staff sergeant if he’d like to open a Little Caesars franchise in Paducah, in Doughty’s native western Kentucky.
“I was just kind of floored,” Doughty said. “I didn’t hesitate a second to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it.’ “
Ilitch told him to find a business partner, and Doughty picked Army comrade Lloyd Allard.
After months of preparations, the two partners celebrated their pizza store’s grand opening Thursday, where Ilitch and other Little Caesars executives attended.
Doughty’s situation in making the transition to civilian life motivated the Detroit-based carryout pizza chain into offering incentives to recruit military veterans into its ranks.
Since last November, any qualified, honorably discharged veteran can receive $10,000 in discounts to become a Little Caesars franchise operator — $5,000 off the franchise fee for the first store and a $5,000 credit for equipment. Discounts for veterans with disabling injuries can reach $68,000 — including a full waiver of the franchise fee, a $10,000 credit toward equipment and $20,000 in financing benefits.
“We’re all frustrated and want to help our service people,” Ilitch, an ex-Marine, said in a recent telephone interview. “I’m fortunate that I’m in a position to be able to help.”
Little Caesars has received hundreds of inquiries from veterans, and a many applications are being reviewed, said David Scrivano, president of Little Caesar Enterprises Inc.
Brian Lawrence, assistant national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit advocacy group, said disabled veterans are a largely untapped source of business entrepreneurs.
“They pour their entire being into that business,” he said. “They carry with them the discipline and the good work habits that they acquired in the military.”
Hallabrin said the veterans have many attributes for business success, including “a sense of self-responsibility — you have to look to yourself to succeed.”
Doughty, 32, who had a family to support, had been in Iraq for two months when he was wounded. He sought out a front-lines assignment after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In Iraq, he coordinated intelligence for several Army Special Forces teams.
He planned on spending 20 to 30 years in the Army, and then starting a second career.
Doughty’s plans were shattered by the bomb blast that hit his patrol in July 2004 at Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Two other soldiers were wounded in the attack by Iraqi insurgents.
After spending time in hospitals in Iraq and Germany, Doughty was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he spent five months in rehabilitation. He was fitted with prosthetic legs.
“I was pretty dedicated to getting recovered,” he said. “Once I made the decision that I was going to retire (from the Army), I decided I need to get home and find a way to move on with life.”
Doughty’s attitude appealed to Ilitch when he read about the wounded soldier.
“It was an impulse thing, I just picked up the phone and called,” Ilitch said.
Later, Ilitch traveled to Paducah to meet with Doughty, and the ex-soldier visited Little Caesars’ headquarters for training.
Doughty gained no upfront costs to open his store, which started serving pizzas about a week before the grand opening. He said business has been brisk, and he was preparing for a big rush on Super Bowl Sunday. Doughty and Allard have put in long hours, from opening to closing, though they have about 35 employees.
“We’re very hands-on,” Doughty said. “We do a little bit of everything.”