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Local Pizza Invention Hits Big Time

By Tony Kindelspire - The Daily Times-Call

Who says working for a corporation saps your creativity? Dale Roberts has always been something of a tinkerer. Since May 2001, when he bought Longmont’s Blackjack Pizza franchise with his wife, Debbie, Roberts has come up with several pizza creations. His latest, the Mediterranean Chicken Pizza, caught the attention of his corporate bosses and now is featured in all 45 of the company’s stores.

“It’s not the first pizza I’ve added to my menu that was a little bit strange,” said Roberts, taking a mid-afternoon break at his “small, high-volume” franchise last week.

It was actually another of Roberts’ creations that brought Blackjack President Mike Gaston and Mark Malsam, the Westminster-based company’s director of operations, to Roberts’ store recently.

“He came up and was actually interested in my chicken pesto pizza,” Roberts said of the visit. “After trying about three pieces of (my other pizzas), how appealing is another piece of pizza? But he took one bite and said, ‘That’s it! That’s our pizza!’”

Gaston confirmed the story: “I just thought (the pesto) sounded good, but after trying the Med I was ecstatic.”

Roberts’ creation is now on the menu at all 45 Blackjack stores in five states, and television commercials featuring the Mediterranean Chicken will debut Monday.

“I just think it’s a premium product,” Gaston said. “I think the mixture of the olive oil and the garlic, and the roasted chicken breast … if I was ordering a pizza today, that’s what I’d order.”

It’s not the first time Roberts has drawn the attention of corporate headquarters. In 2001, his store was runner-up for “rookie franchise of the year.”

The next year, Roberts received a plaque from Blackjack for “sales increase of the year,” 13.2 percent over the previous year.

He also was acknowledged for an all-time record month in October 2002.

“We’ve been up in sales as a company for years, but Dale, in the past couple of years, has turned the Longmont store into one of the top-producing stores in the company,” Gaston said.

Blackjack started as a single store in Federal Heights in 1983.

Though its 45 stores don’t even put it on the map with places such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s — each with hundreds of franchises all over the country — Blackjack is starting to gain a foothold regionally in the $30 billion-a-year pizza business.

Dale’s history in pizza stretches almost as far back as Blackjack itself.

He’s been in the business 17 years.

He even worked for competitor Domino’s for seven-plus years, but he said he couldn’t be happier these days with his own franchise.

Roberts said his store sells about 3,000 pies a week, in addition to the 1,500 smaller, individual pies that he makes as part of his contract with the St. Vrain Valley School District.

His wife, Debbie, even teaches a “pizza class” that’s part of the after-school curriculum at local elementary schools.

“We have a little more freedom to play around with things,” Roberts said, referring to his employer of nearly 10 years. Before buying the Longmont store, he used to manage one of the Blackjacks in Boulder.

“Dale has been in the pizza business for years, and it’s really worked out well for him to finally get a chance to open his own business,” Gaston said. “Most months, he’s in the top three (in sales) in residential stores.”

Gaston said Blackjack’s growth over the past 21 years has been “slow and steady,” and while they are by no means a national name — yet — he said it’s people like Roberts who help give his company a competitive edge.

“He’s caught my eye numerous times,” Gaston said. “He’s an energetic young guy.

“And that’s probably the biggest satisfaction I have in my role. Seeing people get in there and go on to become manager and then finally getting the chance to own their own store, and really doing it well.”

And to answer the obvious question: No, Roberts said, he won’t get a “piece of the pie” every time somebody orders a Mediterranean Chicken.

“There’s no royalty gain from it,” Roberts said. “Just the feather in the cap.”