Danny and Carol Wheeler had a dream 33 years ago -- To open a successful pizza restaurant in Oakhurst. Since then, that dream has flourished into the 111-unit Pizza Factory Inc. franchise with restaurants in five western states. The Wheeler's are now enjoying retirement in the state of Washington and the pizza touch has been passed to Mary Jane Riva with her purchase of the franchise.
The Wheeler's and their partner, Ron Willey, sold the business to long-time franchisee Riva of Southern California. Riva has more than 22 years of experience with the "We Toss'em, They're Awesome" Pizza Factory franchise and currently owns Pizza Factories in Temecula and French Valley in Riverside County.
The Wheelers' originally opened Danny's Pizza Factory in 1979 in Teapots Corner (now Gallery Row) on Highway 41 but soon outgrew that location and moved to the current location adjacent to McDonalds.
They raised their two daughters, Jenny and Kristen, here in Oakhurst from grade school to their graduation from Yosemite High School. In addition to serving an "awesome" pizza and treating their customers like family, the couple were strong believers in community involvement, supporting numerous youth and high school athletic teams and non-profit organizations.
Willey opened the second Pizza Factory located in Mariposa. After several friends wanted to open their own Pizza Factories, Wheeler and Willey decided to franchise the business in 1985 and remained partners in the business for 33 years until the sale to Riva.
"When Danny Wheeler and Ron Willey approached me with this opportunity, I felt I could bring my business experience as a Pizza Factory restaurant owner to the company and relate on an individual basis to each of our franchisees," Riva said. "I do not want to waiver from the original concept of Pizza Factory of being family oriented restaurants with quality food and hand-tossed pizza. I want to bring more awareness of the franchise to the public, bring encouragement and stability for our franchisees and grow the company."
A franchise-wide meeting was recently held in Sacramento to announce the change in ownership and inform the franchisees of Riva's plans and changes in the future for the company.
Although the high energy owner and president plans to continue in the original concept of serving great food and treating customers like family, she is looking at an accelerated expansion of the franchise, opening 15 to 20 new restaurants during 2013 throughout the west.
"We are on a campaign to grow," Riva said. "But we are not going to mess with the food. It is great the way it is."
Along with the planned growth, the expansion will come with a major advertising campaign with FOX Sports in every franchise market with a "freshened-up logo."
As the new president and CEO of the company, Riva is leading a major anti-bullying advertising campaign in every town that has a Pizza Factory.
"The suicide rate for children 10 to 14 years old has gone up 50% over the past five years and we are trying to bring more awareness to the problem of bullying." Riva said. "And it's not just in the schools -- it also takes place in the workplace and I feel this is an important cause to take up."
Riva said billboards, simply stating "Pizza Factory -- Don't Be A Bully," will start going up throughout the west in early January. The company has produced an anti-bullying video for schools and the popular rock band "Neon Trees," is lending it's talents for the music on a second video which will soon go into production.
"We have anti-bullying T-shirts at all our locations and they have been very popular," Riva said. "It's more than a corporate thing -- I hope to reach as many people as we can and make a difference."
Riva has been married to her real estate investor husband, Bob, for 27 years. The couple have two sons and a daughter ranging in age from 21 to 40. None of the children are involved in the business.
Riva plans on leaving the corporate office in Oakhurst and retain the management staff that includes Operations Director Nikki Van Velson, Accounting Director Anita Nichols, Field Representative Mary Ann Parks, Accounting Assistant Diane Patterson, DJ Cartwright, graphic designer, and Pam Tsang, office assistant. The six women have worked at franchise headquarters for 25, 23, 23, 10 and 10 years respectively.
Parks and her husband Hal, own Pizza Factory restaurants in Madera Ranchos, Friant and Carmel.
The original Pizza Factory concept was to open restaurants in small towns with little or no "pizza" competition, but over the years that concept has expanded to open restaurants in larger towns such as the five outlets in Southern California that are in communities with more than 100,000 people including Temecula and Rancho Cucamogna. Many of the 111 restaurants are located in towns with a population of more than 40,000 including Hesperia, Carson City, Nev. and Buckeye, Ariz.
Two restaurants soon to open are in Spanish Springs and Las Vegas, Nev.
The Wheelers sold their Oakhurst store to current owners Jeff and Pam Latham in 2009.
Riva says the future is bright for Pizza Factory and the employees that work for the 111 restaurants.
"Our product has always been the best out there and it will continue to be," Riva said. "We have a great company and I plan on introducing more people to Pizza Factory."