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My piece of the pie at Panago Pizza

Photos courtesy Panago

By Steve Onyshko
I have been with Panago Pizza for more than 20 years now, having started out as a part-time employee before buying into the business as a co-franchisee and helping to build a ‘mini-empire’ of locations in Edmonton. My partners and I currently own and operate six franchises and plan to open more in the future.

Making some part-time dough
I was born and raised here in Edmonton. At school, my favourite subjects were math and sciences. I always planned on becoming a schoolteacher one day, as both of my parents had done.

Little did I know my life plans would change course as soon as I started my first job. I was just 15 years old when I started to work at a Panago franchise. I had applied for the job because one of my best friends at high school was working there and I thought it would be a good way to hang out, earn some money and eat some pizza! In the end, six or seven of us from the same school worked there and helped build up the business together.

Moving from part-time during the school year to full-time in the summer, I did anything that was asked of me, from cleaning dishes to making salads to slapping pizza dough to cooking pies. There was a lot of opportunity to keep busy in a franchise that had been open for less than a year at that point. The work was both fun and challenging.

Back then, I was young and eager for more responsibility. Whenever the owners needed people to handle the closing shifts, I always offered to take them on, as they meant more hours and more money.

Indeed, the co-franchisees—Mario Przybyla and Bob Gillard—knew they were lucky to have us stay on as long as we did. We had a good work ethic and it meant there was less changeover of staff for them to worry about.

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The owners noticed I was willing to take on more responsibility. After one year, I was considered the store’s supervisor. I got to tell other kids—and adults—what to do!

I applied for a part-time job at Panago when I was in high school because it seemed like a good way to hang out with my friends, earn some money and eat some pizza!

The franchise went through a few management changes over the years. By Grade 12, I was—for all intents and purposes—in charge of the store, working under the franchise partners. I continued to manage it while I was studying at the University of Alberta (U of A), earning my teaching degree.

I was studying full-time and working full-time. For three long years, I buckled down and immersed myself in both work and academics.

During this period, I met my future wife, Jen, who worked at a Subway franchise next to our Panago. Thankfully, she was very understanding of my hectic schedule and supportive of reaching my goals.

Joining the partnership
In my fourth and final year at U of A, Mario and Bob asked me if I would be interested in purchasing a 15 per cent share of a partnership for a brand-new Panago location in Riverbend, in the southwest corner of the city. By this point, the Panago team felt like a family and Mario was a mentor to me, having provided helpful advice and encouragement over the past few years. He and Bob had confidence in both my ability and my commitment.

I knew buying in would require even more work, as I would have to be at the new location constantly to help train new staff, build a customer base and initiate community involvement programs. After thinking the offer over very carefully and re-evaluating my life goals, I said yes. I had seen the work-life balance that could be achieved and how much money the co-franchisees made and I wanted a part of that.

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The first store I had worked for, Heritage, used to service the Riverbend area, but as the city grew, there was demand for more franchises for specific neighbourhoods. When I took on the new location, I got a crash course in the human resources (HR) and administrative aspects of owning and running a business, as I quickly learned how to handle hiring, bank deposits and other tasks.

Meanwhile, even as I was immersing myself in achieving success with the new location, I did not want to give up on my teaching degree, even though I realized I would not likely be pursuing a career in education. Instead, I slowed down my studies.

As a result, it took me three years to finish my fourth year of university. I was very proud to earn my teaching degree. My hard work enabled me to complete it without any monetary support from my parents or from student loans. It was important for me to have something I could fall back on. What’s more, I find I’ve been able to apply many of the lessons I learned from my university studies to the everyday aspects of running a franchise.

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