McKendree's Pizza Tradition Serves Up Success

by Stephanie (Coartney) Dulaney '10

Pizza-nomicsChances are if you’re a McKendree alum, some of your favorite memories with friends and teammates include that unmistakable aroma of crispy pepperoni, melting mozzarella, and fragrant oregano. Whether fresh, cold or reheated, pizza has become more than just a staple food group for college kids. At McKendree, it has become tradition.

For the last 20 years, President James Dennis has welcomed countless students into his home for “Pizza with the President,” a chance to share a meal together and get to know each other on a more personal, informal level. Faculty and staff also have the opportunity to come together and socialize over pizza each year at their own “Pizza with the President” event during the summer.

With its power to bring people together, pizza has now found its way into McKendree’s academic curricula in a new course called the Economics of Pizza. Led by Assistant Professor of Economics Eric Abrams, the special topics business class guides students through real life applications of economics principles within the specific area of the pizza industry.

“Classes such as this one enhance the McKendree experience because they incorporate other courses and apply that knowledge to a real world environment, while doing so using a product students all can relate to,” said Eric.

Pizza has also become central to the careers of several McKendree alumni who had the dream of owning or managing their own business. No matter how you slice it, an appreciation for pizza is one value they can all agree on.

Jon Weaving ’99, Owner of Jonny’s Pizza

Jon Weaving ’99As a McKendree business student, Jon Weaving hadn’t planned on getting into the pizza industry, but he definitely enjoyed tasting the product. He and another McKendree student, Manny Trupiano, often spent their free time in Olney, Ill., at the Trupiano family-owned restaurant, Joe’s Pizza and Pasta.

“Manny’s dad started Joe’s in the 1970s,” said Jon. “We would both go there to hang out and have free pizza, which was awesome for two college students.” After graduation, Jon began a career in sales and worked as a marketing manager for a credit union before earning his master’s in marketing from Webster University in 2005. When the Trupianos opened another Joe’s Pizza and Pasta in Effingham, Ill., Jon proposed expanding their stores into a franchise. His suggestion led to the creation of eight more restaurants.

“I had always wanted to own my own business, so I became the owner and operator of one of their stores in Fairview Heights, Ill., and named it Jonny’s Pizza,” he said.

While he notes that running his own business requires much more than a traditional 8-to-5 job, Jon finds the hard work gratifying for the family atmosphere that Jonny’s creates. Much like his change in career path, his goals for the business have shifted some as well.

“When I first started, I thought I wanted 15 stores, but you can’t be in 15 places at once,” said Jon. “Instead, I’d like to grow my store to be able to accommodate large meetings and family events, to have a place where kids on sports teams and their families can come before and after games.”

Jon was thrilled to return to McKendree as a guest speaker in the Economics of Pizza class. “McKendree provided me with a great foundation to run my own business, so I was excited to hear about the class,” he said. “People don’t think about where food comes from or the impact that weather has on the industry, but pizza owners need to be aware of it.”

Jon’s McKendree experience has come full circle as he brings his firsthand business knowledge back to his alma mater.

John Schieppe ’63, Owner of Schiappa’s Pizza

John Schieppe ’63John Schieppe first opened Schiappa’s Pizza in Lebanon, Ill., in 1979. If you ask him what has kept him in the business for the last 36 years, he’ll tell you it’s the people you meet along the way.

A New Jersey native, John first came to Lebanon as a McKendree student and baseball player in the early 1960s. After earning his degree in math and physics, he went on to work as a math teacher for Lebanon High School for 34 years. It wasn’t long before he discovered an unmet need in the community that prompted him to start his own business on the side.

“There was nothing in town for the kids to go to, so we first opened Schiappa’s at 120 West St. Louis Street,” said John. “We moved to another location in town in 1986, and then in 1998, we bought what used to be an old filling station on Route 4 and renovated the whole thing.”

Today, Schiappa’s is still very active in all Lebanon’s goings-on. The most rewarding part of the job for John is greeting old friends and meeting new customers who quickly become friends too. From former students to fellow McKendree alumni, John notes that people come from far and wide to stop in at Schiappa’s.

“One couple from West Virginia travels to Arizona for three months every year, and they always send me a card to tell me they’ll be stopping by on their way there and back,” he said. “You really get to know people over dinner, and I have dinner with people every time they come in the restaurant. I take the time to sit down and talk with them.” For John, pizza is not just a meal; it’s a social event, and that’s the most gratifying part of all.

Karen Gerstner, MBA ’08, Marketing for Papa John’s

Karen Gerstner, MBA ’08If you don’t believe that something as simple as pizza can make a difference in a community, then you haven’t met Karen Gerstner, and her husband Dennis. As franchise owner of 34 Papa John’s stores in the Minneapolis, Minn. area, Dennis has been in the pizza business for years. While Karen has held previous management positions in higher education, her current role as a member of the Papa John’s marketing team now allows her to use pizza to improve the lives of others.

Karen was an employee in the McKendree business office and later served as the assistant to the vice president of administration and finance. When Dennis was promoted from division vice president for Papa John’s to a new role as operation vice president in Louisville, Ky., Karen continued her work at McKendree’s Louisville campus, eventually becoming director of the Louisville campus.

“Dennis always thought he would own one or two stores upon retiring,” said Karen. “When Papa John’s founder John Schnatter asked him if he would be interested in becoming a franchise owner in Minneapolis, he got a few more.”

For Karen, the opportunity to serve a new community as the local face of Papa John’s was a chance she couldn’t pass up. Far from strictly a desk job, she can often be found with her family serving pizza at events and making it in the stores. “I think of my job as relationship marketing,” she said. “Whether it’s partnering with sports teams and charities, mentoring in high schools, or setting up fundraisers at schools, it’s all about the relationships that we build within the community.”

Karen’s efforts give a personal touch to one of the nation’s largest pizza chains and show what can happen when one McKendree alumna blends her heart for service with her love of pizza.

Jamie Geoppo ’99, Co-owner of Papa Vito’s

Jamie Geoppo ’99With a family history rich in Sicilian cooking, pizza has been a part of life for the Geoppos ever since they can remember. “My father and mother started Papa Vito’s 25 years ago and named it after my great-grandfather, who invented many of the recipes we use today,” said Jamie Geoppo. “You could say the restaurant business is in my blood.”

Jamie grew up with his three siblings working at the family restaurant in Waterloo, Ill. As a McKendree student, he played basketball for Coach Statham and earned his degree in education before beginning his career as a high school social studies teacher. After ten years in the education field, he decided to make a life change and join his siblings to take their parents’ pizza business to the next level.

“Mom and Dad worked so hard for so long and gave up a lot for us kids, so we wanted to spread their legacy,” said Jamie. “We started a franchise, opened two additional stores, and are working to bring their salad dressing to stores across the country.”

Reflecting on his college days at McKendree, Jamie believes that the principles he learned still serve him well in his new career path. “I may not be in a classroom now, but I’m still teaching every day,” he said. “I teach servers, cooks and other employees about our product and expectations.”

The University’s new Economics of Pizza class is something that Jamie wishes he could have taken as a student and is another reason why he’s proud to be a Bearcat. “Pizza is a staple in U.S. society, and students can learn a lot from this class,” he said. “McKendree prepared me for real world situations and taught me how to communicate effectively with people. I always told my former students, ‘Go to McKendree. They’ll take care of you there.’”