How Happy Joe’s CEO Immerses Himself in the Brand’s Family-Centric Culture

Tom Sacco

Happy Joe’s may be best known for its timeless pizza party experience, family fun and original pizza flavors, but there’s one special aspect that makes Happy Joe’s stand out from the rest – genuine servant leadership. Happy Joe’s CEO, President and Chief Happiness Officer Tom Sacco has carefully cultivated a positive culture among guests, staff, vendors and franchisees since joining the Iowa-based pizza brand in 2020. He even works in the trenches of the restaurants to immerse himself in the pizza and party paradise.

Now in its 50th Golden Anniversary year, Sacco is reflecting on his time with the iconic Midwestern pizza brand and how his 30+ years in the restaurant industry have positively impacted the Happy Joe’s experience. Sacco shared how servant leadership has connected him to the brand’s family-centric culture: 

How have your past job experiences contributed to the leader that you are today?

I started working in the restaurant industry when I was just eight years old at my grandfather’s restaurant. My passion for food grew as he taught me firsthand how to make food taste great and stand out. But more importantly, the “why” behind a guest experience that brings guests back again and again. I also attribute my work ethic to my early days working in restaurants as a waiter, which not only helped me put myself through college and grad school, but allowed me to become a servant leadership disciple. That’s when I realized my servant’s heart is why I wanted to pursue a foodservice career.

I’ve been blessed to have held leadership positions with several iconic restaurant and retail companies, including Mother Tucker’s (Rene Bazinet), Bonanza (Jeff Rogers), Ghirardelli Chocolate (Jack Anton), Red Robin (Jerry Kingen), BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (Paul Motenko) and Ponderosa over my 30+ year career. My time with these great brands is where my accomplished mentors taught me the ropes on the business side of the industry. As a leader, I believe that my values should align with the brand because that, in turn, reflects how the restaurant treats its guests. When I first heard about Happy Joe’s, I fell in love with the uniqueness of the brand and what it stood for. Once I became CEO, I re-introduced high- quality ingredients and re-implemented the key attributes the late founder originally established. Those attributes had fallen by the wayside because subsequent leadership that followed the founder just didn’t see the value in those intrinsic characteristics like I do.

What are some values that you incorporate into your everyday work?

The three professional and personal values that I live by are manage with a servant’s heart, work with a warrior spirit and love what you do. By managing with a servant’s heart, I take care of others before myself. I check in on them and treat everybody as if they were my family. I will go out of my way to help and better serve our guests, our staff, our franchisees, our shareholders and our vendors. Working with a warrior’s spirit, you’re a true competitor. I will battle for my company’s values and not be intimidated

by my competition’s size or market share. If this means I may have to fight for my brand or product to become successful, particularly when I’m entering a new market or new country, that’s what I’ll do. Lastly, I truly believe that I must love what I do. I can’t get to a restaurant or the support center fast enough each morning because I love what I do. In my humble opinion, I’ve never met a tremendously successful leader that wasn’t truly passionate about their brand in any industry that I’ve been in, and it’s that passion I look for and aggressively recruit in my business.

Why do you believe in the importance of working on the customer-facing side of Happy Joe’s?

First, the guest’s happiness with our brand is key to who we are. For me, it starts with being comfortable in the kitchen. Many CEO-type leaders are finance or marketing driven, and hence, do not have a “feel” for the Heart of the House (HOH). I like to visit and chat with our franchise owners and staff when I’m in our stores and that usually takes place in the HOH. I frequently like to pick their brains and get their feedback on how we are doing as a company. I am fanatical about reading our guest’s comments. I prep myself before going to a restaurant by spending time reading guest reviews. It’s very important to stay on top of how each store is performing and if our guests are satisfied. Then when I am at the restaurant, I look for opportunities to discuss and remedy any guest comments that need improvement.

When I’m onsite, I understand the duties of all of the different positions and help where needed, even if that means just being an extra set of hands. If an employee doesn’t show up, I always ask how I can help by hopping into the kitchen or bussing in the dining room. Before my time at Happy Joe’s, I didn’t have any delivery experience, so for the first few months with the brand, I would do drive-alongs on the weekend and learn the delivery ropes. I would even deliver the pizzas to the front door to personally meet our guests. I’ll go behind the counter and answer guest questions about our products and menu items, as well as deliver our guest’s food to their table. I love working on the customer-facing side because it allows me to understand what makes every guest leave happy. I get to coach and mentor every staff member on “why” a guest leaving happy is critical to the guest having a great Happy Joe’s experience – just as my grandfather mentored and coached me half a century ago.

What does being Chief Happiness Officer mean to you?

Every organization has a CEO and/or President, which is important, but is a functional title in my opinion. I wanted to be more than just CEO to share and show what I see as my primary role in the company. My primary responsibility is to make sure we connect emotionally with each of our guests, particularly the children we serve because that will put a smile on everyone’s face that comes in contact with Happy Joe’s – whether it’s through delivery, to-go or dine in. As Chief Happiness Officer, I want our guests to leave “happy” from their great experience and our staff to be “happy” working at Happy Joe’s. Then, our franchisees will be “happy” because of how successful they are, and our shareholders will be “happy” because of our fiscal performance with their investment. And finally, our vendors will be “happy” and proud to be our business partner.

Happy Joe’s creates a utopia for children. To a child, it’s not about the cost of our product or about the type of ingredients we use. Rather, it’s about the pure “happiness” they receive from a birthday celebration, team gathering or any family-focused event. We make an emotional connection with children that lasts a lifetime, leaving behind a legacy of memories and tradition. I wake up every day with the mission to make a difference in children’s lives across America and around the globe. I’m able to do exactly that, thanks to the magic that we create every day and the great food that we serve at Happy Joe’s. At Happy Joe’s, we sell pizza and ice cream, but most importantly, we create lifelong memories emotionally connecting with our guests and turning them into raving fans of our brand. To learn more about Happy Joe’s, visit HappyJoes.com or follow Happy Joe’s on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

To learn more about Happy Joe’s franchise opportunities, email Kat Davidson at KatD@drhnow.com or call 678.485.8413.

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