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Pizza company owned by local family expands across the Midwest

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WILLMAR -- Jim Gordon greets customers about six times a year while standing behind the counter of a Willmar pizza joint, the relentless aroma of tomato sauce and spices surrounding him.

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The owner of Jimmy's Pizza Inc. based in Willmar, Gordon has plenty of office work to keep him busy with Jimmy's Pizza franchises popping up all around the Midwest, but he still likes getting back into the kitchen.

And why not? After 23 years in the pizza business, side by side with members of his family, Gordon is just starting to reap the fruits, and perhaps vegetables and meat toppings, of his labor.

"There's been a lot of times when it's been tough, just like any business ... it's hard work," Gordon said. "But overall I think it's been an exciting, fast-paced business. Making a pizza is fun, it always has been."

In 1986, Gordon opened the first Jimmy's Pizza in Pine City after buying the store space from his father, Frank Gordon. His father had operated a full-menu restaurant there before the sale.

"I told him it was crazy," said Frank Gordon of Willmar. " ... But he is a very good businessman. He makes very good decisions, he thinks them out. And he did that when he was younger. He just loved the (restaurant) business."

Frank said his son "had a knack" for restaurant management and remembers when his son was 11 years old, opening up one of the family's restaurants in the early morning hours. Gordon's parents had owned numerous restaurants in Minnesota after the family moved from Laguna Beach, Calif., when Gordon was a first-grader.

Even with that experience, Gordon had his failures. When Gordon went into the pizza business at age 23, it was after a hard lesson learned. Just a year prior, Gordon had tried opening a full-menu restaurant in Pine City and didn't succeed. "I tell people I was able to lose $10,000 in about six months," Gordon said.

The pizza business seemed like a logical option, Gordon said, because he had been a cook for a St. Cloud pizzeria while finishing high school in Sauk Rapids. He said his in-laws also injected the business into him: his brother-in-law had worked at a St. Cloud pizza shop and his father-in-law opened a pizza store in Rice.

Nine months after that first Jimmy's Pizza opened in Pine City, Frank Gordon opened a store in Braham in September 1986 and quit his full-time job with 3M. Shortly afterward, Jim Gordon said, he and his father bought a store in Mora.

"We were in a lot of small towns," Gordon said. "And at that time, in '86, we were the first chain that was delivering in these small towns. You did not see delivery service in small towns in those days, and I think that was a niche for us."

Soon, Gordon, his wife, Jana, and Gordon's parents were operating five pizza stores per couple and then selling them to store managers.

Jana said the family found that "every town has its own personality and it's always kind of a challenge to see what works in what town."

Over 10 years and numerous stores later, the state of Minnesota contacted Gordon about the business arrangement he was making with his store managers. The state said Gordon needed to protect the new owners using the brand name by making Jimmy's a franchised company.

The Gordon family is glad it did. As of December, Jimmy's Pizza Inc. has 44 franchise stores spread among the smaller towns of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and one store in Colorado. Expansion into Nebraska also looks imminent, Gordon said.

Gordon's oldest son, Jimmy, is leading the Nebraska expansion project, and the 21-year-old already owns stores in Isanti and in Watertown, S.D. Gordon's 18-year-old daughter, Justine, works as an assistant manager for the Willmar corporate store, which is used as a training ground and showroom for prospective franchisee owners.

Gordon made Willmar the corporate center because it was close to his family's fall hunting grounds near Raymond. And it probably doesn't hurt that Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes. Gordon is also a professional fisherman for the FLW Walleye Tour.

"Not only do we sell it, we believe it," Gordon said. " ... When we say family business, it's been a family business."

Gordon said he wants his three youngest children to try something else before following the family path like their older brother and sister.

"We're a lot closer than your normal family," Jimmy Gordon said. "I know I spend probably how many hours a day talking to my grandparents and (my parents)," Jimmy said. "(The pizza business) is in your blood. It's like an addiction."

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