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On Restaurants | Flyers Pizza holds on to slice of the pie

Flyers wasn't supposed to make it, but 35 years and 7 pizzerias later. . .

By Denise Trowbridge

FOR THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Heather Russell piles on the cheese as she prepares a pepperoni pie at Flyer's Pizza in Groveport. The family-run business is celebrating                35 years, with seven stores still offering the original recipes that keep customers loyal.
Neal C. Lauron | DISPATCH
Heather Russell piles on the cheese as she prepares a pepperoni pie at Flyer's Pizza in Groveport. The family-run business is celebrating 35 years, with seven stores still offering the original recipes that keep customers loyal.
Ashley Hill watches as a pizza comes out of the oven at Flyers Pizza in Groveport. The first Flyers Pizza, in West Jefferson, had sales of $173.22 its first day in 1976.
Neal C. Lauron | DISPATCH
Ashley Hill watches as a pizza comes out of the oven at Flyers Pizza in Groveport. The first Flyers Pizza, in West Jefferson, had sales of $173.22 its first day in 1976.
The Ulreys running Flyers Pizza are, from left, Scott, Steve, Mark, founder Wayne, Matt and Dave. The first shop was in West Jefferson.
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The Ulreys running Flyers Pizza are, from left, Scott, Steve, Mark, founder Wayne, Matt and Dave. The first shop was in West Jefferson.
 

Combining the West Side with good pizza turned out to be a magic formula for Flyers Pizza, which just celebrated 35 years in business.

"Not too many independent pizza shops can say they've made it that long," said Mark Ulrey, vice president of marketing for the chain, which has seven locations in central Ohio.

The Flyers Pizza story began in April 1976, when Mark's father, Wayne Ulrey, bought a struggling pizza shop. "It was just a 1,000-square foot sliver on the side of a building in West Jefferson," Ulrey said.

Wayne Ulrey had no experience in the pizza business. Family lore has it that the shop's previous owners made the deal with the idea that they could buy it back from the Ulreys for pennies on the dollar six months later.

"Their broker told them to sell to us because we didn't know what we were doing, and they could go back in and build it back up after we screwed it up," Mark Ulrey said. "We were supposed to fail. But here we are 35 years and seven shops later."

There was only one hitch: "Dad actually waited a month to buy it, so I could turn 16 and become the delivery driver," Ulrey said, adding, "Let's just say I had my share of accidents."

The first day's sales: $173.22. That was enough to keep the shop going and growing.

In 1979, the family bought a doughnut shop on W. Main St. in West Jefferson. Eventually, a Flyers Pizza was built in its place. In 1982, they opened their second shop, in Galloway. "There was a lot of opportunity on the West Side," he said. "It was really growing."

Their third shop opened in 1992 on Roberts Road in Hilliard. The fourth store opened in 2002 on Hoover Road in Grove City. Locations in Powell, Blacklick, and Groveport soon followed.

Although founder Wayne Ulrey is now 87 and retired, Flyers is still very much a family-run business. Among the brothers, Scott Ulrey is vice president of field operations, Dave Ulrey is vice president of new build and renovations, and Steve Ulrey is chief operations officer. Sister Linda Ulrey runs the company's catering division, Top Flight Caterers. "We can't grow with just one person," Mark Ulrey said.

Pizza is a notoriously competitive slice of the restaurant business, said restaurant consultant Randy Sokol of Sokol & Associates. But Flyers has many things going for it. "They built a solid business with a good reputation, and that's important," he said. "And now that they have been around for 35 years, they are getting generational business - people who ate there as children are now grown up and still eating at Flyers with their children."

They also grew smartly, Sokol said. "There are a lot of advantages to having more stores, but more stores only means more profits if they are done right."

True, Mark Ulrey said. "When you're independent, you can't have any lousy stores. Two lousy stores and you're done."

Beyond that, Flyers has spent a lot of time and energy staying front-of-mind with their customers. "We've put a lot of shirts on Little League teams," he said. "You have to build relationships. We know who our customers are, and we spend a lot of time working with schools, sports teams, churches and families."

They also haven't bowed to price pressure from the big guys. "You can't give in to $5 and $10 pizza," Ulrey said. And even in bad times, don't cut corners. "The No. 1 thing customers want when they open a Flyers pizza box is consistency. A lot of places have changed over the years - they've changed recipes, changed this or that. Not us."

For instance, they have used cheese from the same small dairy company for the entire 35 years they have been in business. "We've never strayed from what got us in the game in the first place."

And the name?

When the Ulreys purchased the shop, it was named Tonni's Pizza. They changed the name because there were too many other pizza places with similar sounding names, Mark Ulrey said. The name Flyers "came from defunct chicken chain out of Dayton called Flyer's Chicken," the same city where the University of Dayton Flyers play.

"We went with that name because we thought we could market it well."