As a third-generation Hungry Howie’s franchisee, 27-year-old Rebecca Shannon learned plenty of lessons while growing up in the business and opening her first solo Hungry Howie’s this year. But maybe there are some things she is ready to teach the older generation, as she approaches being a franchisee from a different perspective.

For 27-year-old Rebecca Shannon, the path to a pizza career was all but genetically determined. Growing up in the Hungry Howie’s family alongside her uncle (CEO Steve Jackson) and her multiunit franchisee parents, Rebecca has worked her way up from employee to ownership. She’s now opening her first Hungry Howie’s restaurant as sole franchisee in Monroe, Michigan, bringing a fresh, modern outlook and set of structures to her new location.

Hungry Howie’s, based in Madison Heights, Michigan, with more than 530 stores in 21 states, is a 51-year-old brand famous for creating Flavored Crust Pizzas, but it’s also interested in capturing the attention of the emerging Gen Z demographic. Shannon’s focus on factors like digital fluency and embracing a purpose-driven approach naturally appeal to a younger audience.

More: Rebecca Shannon tells the story of going from box-folding toddler to Hungry Howie’s franchisee

Shannon, a franchisee with her family’s businesses RCJ Pizza, Toledough Pie and Milan Pizza—a three-entity company that oversees seven locations in Michigan—recently sat down with PMQ to talk about her journey from box folding as a toddler to full-fledged ownership, and her visions for the future. What lessons can you learn from this Gen Z franchisee?

PMQ: Tell us about your upbringing at Hungry Howie’s. What lessons did your uncle and parents teach you about working in pizza?

Shannon: My parents did an excellent job raising me, instilling this work ethic, helping me understand money and supporting me in every way. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They are such hardworking individuals who came from nothing and made a name for themselves. They never gave up and persevered through failures and challenges. I have looked up to them every step of the way, and I continue to do so. I am so grateful to work with a team of such patient, knowledgeable and hands-on individuals. 

Some lessons I’ve been taught:

  • You learn something new every day. Don’t be afraid of not knowing something, and ask questions. If you’re not learning something every day, you’re not doing something right.
  • It’s just pizza! When it’s busy, don’t freak out. Slow it down, pay attention to what you’re doing, and don’t stress. We will get through it.
  • If you’re prepared, you can handle anything. This is something I use daily, and I try to instill this in all of our employees.
Franchisee Rebecca Shannon smiles as she holds several pizza boxes.

PMQ: What kind of responsibilities have you taken on?

Shannon: Going from one store to three to five had its challenges, but being thrown into it sometimes is the best way to learn. Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot and taken on a lot more new tasks. While I’m still in the stores every day, my responsibilities now go beyond that: paying bills, communicating with contractors, accounting, dealing with various city representatives, reaching out to get involved in the community, etc. 

It also involves overseeing each store to make sure day-to-day activity is running as smoothly as possible. To better assist with this, our stores have begun using Discord to communicate on a store basis as well as on a company basis. We use Discord to send out weekly updates, have friendly competitions and post winners, and post the schedule for everyone to refer to. It gives a space for all employees to chat with one another about picking up/switching shifts, and management a place to keep everyone updated and involved. We like to reach out at least twice a day to our management teams at each store and see how things are going and if there’s anything we can assist them with.

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PMQ: What pizza memories in your younger years shaped your approach today?

Shannon: Since I grew up at store #88, my parents made me a small room in the back that was painted bright pink with an accent chalkboard wall. They made all my early childhood experiences good ones. Once I got into school, my mom started doing field trips with my classes, which probably lasted from kindergarten to around 5th grade. Everyone loved these, and they were such a hit that we still do them today! I just assisted with one yesterday, and one of the parents was in my kindergarten class, so it was a full-circle moment. My mom also delivered pizzas to one of my classes in middle school through the window, and this was a really big thing for us, for some reason. These memories that stand out really help me understand how important getting involved with your community is.

PMQ: Why did you decide to invest in a Hungry Howie’s as a solo franchisee, and how do you plan to stand out? What Gen Z-related outlook and structures are you bringing to your franchise location?

Shannon: I decided to invest after the opportunity arose on a whim. But what led to me agreeing to this was growing up in it, seeing my parents on the day to day, knowing what I could create, and taking the leap to go for it.

We currently have another location in Monroe, so we have a good idea of the market. We will stand out the same way as we do elsewhere: with excellent customer service, employing people who care and becoming more involved with the community. We will also have a drive-up window, which is something new to the city of Monroe for pizza, so we’re excited to see that take off!

I think being able to adapt and change quickly and being flexible are the two Gen Z strengths I most reside with. When it comes to running a business, these are key skills, because things can change at the drop of a hat, and you have to be ready when it hits you out of nowhere. 

I think one thing that is very beneficial for the staff is feedback. I have implemented a weekly check-in email for all of our supervisors and general managers. This has questions about how the week has gone, how their staff is doing, any questions or concerns they may have, etc. I feel this is a very helpful tool to have, as we can’t be in all seven stores every day, so it gives us something to refer back to. And then we can take their notes from their check-ins and reach back out to them about what they are doing well, and answer/address any questions or concerns they may have. 

Positive feedback is key when engaging with employees—it feels good to know you’re doing well and that it is seen. As a young female entrepreneur, I know how important acknowledgment is and how far a simple compliment can go. We make sure to give out positive feedback on the daily, and if we have an issue we need to address, we address it in the way of a compliment sandwich. For example: “This pizza looks pretty good. Next time, try to spread your toppings out a little more, but overall you’re doing very well.” Feedback is necessary to grow, so we always try to give it out in the most positive light possible.

I utilize Facebook regularly to see what kind of events are going on in our towns and reaching out to various organizations to see if they need donations of any sort. I am following all downtown-related groups for each city, and I find this extremely helpful in getting us more involved. 

PMQ: Have you faced any challenges as a woman in a male-dominated industry? If so, how do you overcome them, and how do you plan to make your business more female-friendly?

Shannon: Being young and female in the entrepreneurial world can come with its struggles, but I think the most important thing here is to not let it faze you and continue to push forward. When you get knocked down, get back up again. If you’re not getting an answer, try a different route or person; escalate your concern to a higher representative. I have found that with some issues people try to go behind my back and communicate directly with my father instead of myself. I am very lucky to have him, because he always directs them back to me. I think that’s been really helpful in my journey, having that support behind me.

I am focused on creating an atmosphere at work where everyone feels comfortable, no matter their age, sex, gender, ethnicity, etc., and, if someone is causing hindrance to that, taking the necessary action to correct it. Work, for a good number of people, is their safe space, and it is our duty to shape it into that. For our stores, we all make sure we come into work with a smile on our face and a positive attitude, engage in friendly competition, joke around with one another, but, most importantly, have fun. After all, it’s just pizza.

On the franchisee level, I think one of the main ways we will be able to flip the script is by having more young women get involved. Right now in our organization, we have four female franchisees, three female supervisors, and four female general managers. All of my partners were young female entrepreneurs themselves, so having these women next to me for support and being able to be there to be their support definitely helps as well. Julie, Courtney and I came up through our stores, and we always make sure everyone at our stores knows there is always room to grow, and that opportunities are always there. That’s why building more stores is so important to me; it allows these individuals the opportunity to jump, grow and create more for themselves.