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Posted on Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 5:55 a.m.

Saline entrepreneur turns around a 'neglected' Benito's Pizza outlet

By Julie Edgar


Nick Wallen, owner of Benito's Pizza in Saline, reaches for a 24-inch pizza order for a customer last week.

Melanie Maxwell |

Nick Wallen got married, bought a house, became a father (and is expecting another in the summer), and bought into a pizza franchise — at the ripe old age of 23.

The Saline resident and 2005 graduate of Saline High School is clearly mature beyond his years, but a prime reference point for Wallen is still high school. He is proud that, as a member of DECA, an independent marketing program for students, he created a 20-page proposal for an employee training program at a hypothetical pizzeria that won a state competition.

It still stings a bit that he didn't win at the national level, but he didn't give up. Entrepreneurship — and pizza — seemed to be in the cards. So after graduation, Wallen went on to earn an associate's degree from EMU in business management.

A few years later, Wallen became new owner of a Benito's Pizza store in his hometown. He hadn't planned on leaving a management job — at a Domino's Pizza store nearby — but opportunity came knocking. He saw that the store, one of the company's 10 corporate locations, had been neglected. He approached the Livonia-based company and convinced it to sell the location to someone who would turn it around — himself.

The company was happy to sell to someone who knows the Saline market, he says. And it was a great deal.

"The store we bought had been here for 10 years. The value you get from buying an existing business is like purchasing a store at 50 percent off," Wallen said.

Benito's has 25 locations in Michigan and one in Arizona.

Wallen invested $70,000 to buy the 2,000-square-foot store and then left it to his wife, Amy, to give the interior a facelift. It cost a few thousand more to repaint the walls, refinish the furniture, redo the menu in chalkboard style and hang some nice pictures to turn the Michigan Avenue store into a wireless Internet hotspot.

Most of his business is delivery, but he'd like to make Benito's even cozier to encourage sit-down diners. He opened his doors on Feb. 28. A grand opening is planned for May 1.

Wallen says Benito's is distinctive for a few reasons: it offers the Big Benito, a 24-inch pizza for $20, and all toppings are prepared fresh every day. The restaurant also offers pasta, salads, sub sandwiches and chicken wings.


A deep-dish pepperoni pizza at Benito's.

Melanie Maxwell |

"One of the things that drew me to Benito's was attention to detail and quality of the products," he said. "We cut our ingredients fresh daily. We're here in the morning preparing. You don't find that at other franchises in the area."

More essential to its success are happy employees, Wallen says. He employs 10, most of them part-timers who are students at Washtenaw Community College or EMU. Some are longtime friends, like his senior assistant manager, Joe Sheridan, a high school football buddy and former colleague at Domino's. He's been vital in getting the business up and running, Wallen said.

"The biggest thing I learned in business management is that good employees are your best asset," he said. "I make sure to bring in good people, local people I know. In pizza, you're only as good as the guy next to you. If I'm making pizza and the phone rings, you need someone to grab the phones and hop on the oven so you make sure your service times are good."

Wallen said he offers competitive wages and flexible schedules in keeping with his "family first" approach.

Sales were up 15 percent to 20 percent in March, Wallen said, and he expects monthly receipts to be at the upper end of the $30,000 to $40,000 range.

So far, he says, he's been getting positive feedback.

"The customers are excited about the changes. My staff is in proper uniforms, it's clean. It's exactly what you want when you walk into a restaurant," Wallen said.

Julie Edgar is a freelance writer for



Tue, Apr 26, 2011 : 2:07 a.m.

Nick, lots of luck to you on your new enterprize. Blood sweat and tears go into anything that is worthy. I know you come from a very tough bloodline and if anyone can make a go of this, you can. I work at the Saline Ford plant and I am hearing good things about your pizza. People that havn't bought Benitos in years are now buy and complimenting the pizza that is delivered from your store. Keep up the good work and don't stand for "that's close enough" from your employees. You want to be the very best at what you do to stand out.

John B.

Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 11:29 p.m.

Where do I sign up to buy a business for $70K that grosses $40K per month at a 75% gross profit margin? Wow. I'll take two, please.

Jimmy McNulty

Tue, Apr 26, 2011 : 11:18 a.m.

Yeah, sales do not equal profits! Where did you go to business school?


Tue, Apr 26, 2011 : 2:11 a.m.

I don't see how you think it can be a 75% profit. Nick has building overhead, franchise fees, workers comp, unemployment ins., employee costs, uniform cost, product costs. It takes really hard work to do what he is doing. Now let's see you take two of these. I doubt you are up for the hard work. Sounds like you want it delivered to you.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 7:41 p.m.

Best of luck to you Nick, if I'm ever over there I'll have to stop in for a pie


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 3:50 p.m.

A very inpspirational story of what education and hard work can accomplish. However, I wonder how many readers out there feel his employees should be union and all of his profits turned over to Washington and Lansing.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 10:22 p.m.

I am sure the bank would not lend money to Nick Wallen on his looks alone. Obviuosly, he impressed them them with his business plan with the probablity he would also make money for the bank. FFEJ, I have the feeling you think anybody who walks into a bank with a business plan like "thinking liberal thoughts" should get a six figure loan. That is not business, that is welfare.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 7:48 p.m.

ffe, seriously? I can tell you from first-hand experience that those workers took very little pride in their work environment. Regardless of the building improvements, employees should take pride in maintaining a clean dining area, bathroom, and kitchen. Have you ever been to Miller's in Dearborn? It's an old, old bar..but employees keep it inviting. Sometimes, a business owner has to make the tough decision that makes financial sense for the longevity of the business so the employees can maintain their jobs.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 6:16 p.m.

Education and hard work are not the problem. Getting the $70,000 is. - The former employees wish they had a union since they got no severance pay just a "see you later" Not the managers fault if the owner wouldn't spend money on the building. This is why unions are needed ...To protect the workers from bad owners.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 6:09 p.m.

In Ann Arbor, I would say the last-thing that they want is a person who takes financial risks to benefit by actually making a profit. That would be too capitalistic for them.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 3:43 p.m.

Great story. Benitos is great take out Pizza...NOw for eat in I must say... Too bad Jon Doms had to go bye bye for eat-in Pizza. I had my first bite of Pizza there at age five. Now that Ford is on a rebound maybe someone will bring back Jon-Doms and their one of a kind Pizza.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 2:18 p.m.

I loved Benitos Pizza in Saline. I used to order from them...let's just say way too much. The young manager at the time was very good, pleasant and helpful. However, if he wasn't there, the orders were always messed up and the food quality was very inconsistent. Therefore, I stopped ordering from there over a year ago. I hope Nick reads these comments (a good entrepreneur should)...I understand it is difficult to get the most consistent effort out of part-time college kids, but get the right people on board with better training along with your good recipes and you will succeed and I (and other customers) will come back, I promise. The Ann Arbor-Saline area desperately needs good pizza. Most all of it is garbage. Benito's has a great sauce recipe and flavored crust is excellent. I look forward to trying it soon.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 7:10 p.m.

Joseph, Thank you for taking the time to inform me about your previous experiences you've had at Benito's Pizza. It's because of customers like you, that we can continue to learn and improve on our product and service. I can assure you that our new staff has been thoroughly trained to provide our customers with a great overall experience at Benito's Pizza. Thank you for giving Benito's Pizza another try, you will not be disappointed!


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 2:15 p.m.

Nice feel good story...But, How many 23 yr old fathers with college and probobly student loans can drop $70,000 on a business ? These stories always leave out that part. How many can even borrow that kind of money from a bank these days? Capital and Credit make the world go around.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 3:53 p.m.

That is beside the point on whether he got the start-up money from a bank or family. It is obvious he is putting the money it to good use.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 2 p.m.

This is a great story - best of luck to Nick, Amy and the two other owners (yes, two other locals also helped buy the place).


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 12:29 p.m.

This is the kind of person that will help turn Michigan around. Small business owners are the key to our success. Excellent job.

L. C. Burgundy

Tue, Apr 26, 2011 : 1:23 a.m.

Laurie, how many jobs and how much wealth have you created in Michigan? Also, perhaps you have heard of banks or other financial institutions. They have been known to make loans from time to time.


Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 11:16 p.m.

Well Laurie, a 25 year old running a profitable busniess is commendable. Every successful business person started small. What do suggest or better yet, what do you consider commendable? Everyone receiving a government check? That is successful in the eyes of a liberal.

Laurie Burg

Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 7:09 p.m.

oops, need to correct that. ALL the jobs aren't part time ... he gave a good full time job to his best friend :-)

Laurie Burg

Mon, Apr 25, 2011 : 7:07 p.m.

woo hoo! 10 part time jobs with no benefits! yee ha, Michigan is on the way! where does a 23 year borrow $70,000? it's so easy to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when someone gives you the boots ;-)