Business partners and Army buddies Jessy Watson and Dennis Poe figure they’ve got no place to go but up.
Dennis Poe, left, and Jessy Watson recently added two more stores to their Domino’s chain, bringing the total to four. Both men grew up in La Grande and became business partners while serving in the local Oregon Army National Guard unit. Their goal is to one day own 100 Domino’s stores throughout the Pacific Northwest. The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
The two recently added a third and fourth outlet to their chain of Domino’s stores. Not a day goes by when they aren’t trying to figure out how to get bigger still.
The hours they work are long and hard. They’ve made sacrifices on top of sacrifices, and they expect to make more.But they’re enjoying themselves, and that’s what counts the most.
“Minus the debt service and the need to meet the payroll, we’ve achieved what a lot of people would call the American dream,” Watson said with a laugh.
Watson, 37, was born and raised in La Grande. When he was 17, he moved away to Newport, where he graduated from high school in 1990.
He joined the Marine Corps, serving until 1998. When he returned to La Grande, he coached soccer at the high school and dreamed about becoming a teacher. In the meantime, he worked at Domino’s.
He started out as delivery driver, but from the first meant to move up. After a while he decided teaching wasn’t for him, and set his sights on owning the local Domino’s franchise.
“I did some research on the opportunities, and I learned that to be a Dominos franchisee you have to come from within the system. I set forth to become general manager,” he said.
He achieved that goal in 2001, learning the business from La Grande store owner Chris Droege.
“Chris was a mentor then, and he remains one today,” Watson said.
Poe, 32, moved with his family to La Grande when he was in the fifth grade. He graduated from La Grande High School in 1995.
Even as a youngster, he was fascinated with business. Through high school, he worked at a video rental store, and later, he and a partner ran a paintball supply company.
Watson and Poe both joined the Oregon Army National Guard following their active duty stints, though not at the same time. There they formed a friendship that grew into a business partnership.
“Every drill, all we talked about was going into business someday,” Poe said.
Said Watson, “A lot of people tell us, ‘You guys are best friends, and you shouldn’t mix business and friendship.’ But for us it’s worked out very well.”
Their first venture together was a tanning salon on Island Avenue called Beach Bums. They built it into a successful operation, then set out to do bigger and better things.
In 2003, they sold Beach Bums, put the money aside for operating capital and went in search of financing to buy the La Grande Domino’s.
They bought the business from Droege in 2005, marking the beginning of a giant quest to own 100 stores throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“The goal has always been to own 100 stores,” Watson said.
Both men gave up the Guard so they could devote more time to business and professional development. Watson worked as the front man at the La Grande store, running it day-to-day. Poe continued working for Safeway, climbing the corporate ladder and holding a variety of management positions in stores around the region.
The La Grande Domino’s survived and thrived. In 2006, the partners rolled the dice again, buying the Baker City Domino’s store. Then, in August of this year, they added outlets in The Dalles and Hood River.
That leaves 96 stores to buy. They have no doubt they will do it someday.
“We’re on track for reaching our goal,” Poe said. “We’re always talking to other owners. A lot of them are near retirement age, and they’ve kind of adopted us as successors.”
Watson said three of the four stores are performing up to expectations, and work is ongoing to bolster the fourth.
Poe, who lives in Clackamas, made a leap of faith recently, giving up his Safeway job to help manage the Domino’s enterprises. He took a cut in pay to do it, but so far, he’s not sorry.
“At Domino’s, I don’t have 100 chiefs working above me. There’s not that added stress of an hierarchy. You can think and act for yourself,” he said.
While the new job offers more freedom, it sometimes takes freedom away, he added.
“If somebody calls in sick and there’s nobody else to cover, then you’re it,” he said.
In all, 75 people work at the four stores. Watson said he and his partner are placing emphasis on attracting good employees and helping them advance.
In the future, they hope to create opportunities for owner-operators.
“We’re trying to find the right mix of personnel so we can grow,” Watson said. “In La Grande, we’ve got kids studying for business degrees, and they don’t see that in two or three years they can launch themselves into corporate jobs at Domino’s.”
Added Poe, “We’re looking for people who want to step up and do something great for themselves.”
Bringing together a competent staff is but one of many challenges Watson and Poe see in the short term.
Building and expanding a business in the midst of a severe economic downturn is among them.
Competitive pricing is one key, and good marketing another, said Poe.
“We’d like to change the perception that we’re fast food,” he said. “We’re a delivery service. We’re not selling something that comes out a bag. We’re trying to build a quality pizza at a quality price in a quality amount of time.”
The partners aren’t sure when they will expand again, though they do say they plan to double the number of their stores with their next move.
Watson and his wife, Heather, have a 5-year-old daughter, Alaina, and twins girls on the way. Poe and his wife, Heather, are parents of a 3-year-old son, Zach, and a 5-month-old daughter, Zaida.
Both men are working hard and looking ahead. They hope what they do now