Business Profile: Papa Murphy’s well suited for the Upper Peninsula

R. R. Branstrom | Daily Press Staff at Papa Murphy’s in Escanaba fulfill orders on Friday evening.

EDITOR NOTE: The Daily Press will be featuring a series of articles on local businesses, highlighting their history and what makes them unique. The series will run on a regular basis in the Daily Press.

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ESCANABA — Papa Murphy’s has a style that sets it apart from other pizza vendors. While its take-and-bake business model began on the West Coast and is popular in cities, franchisee Michelle O’Connor believes it is also well suited to more rural and remote areas like the Upper Peninsula, where pick-up or home delivery of fully-prepared meals could mean that products fail to remain hot and fresh by the time they reach the dinner table.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of a Papa Murphy’s, the idea is that a pizza is assembled to a customer’s specifications on raw dough with fresh ingredients and is handed off wrapped, cold, and entirely uncooked. The franchise location is like a grocery store or a sandwich shop in this way. The customer cooks the pizza in their own oven at home, thereby removing travel time from the equation.

“The business model is fantastic for this area, because you don’t always live right where you work,” said Michelle. “Maybe you want to eat later — you work at the hospital, you’re done shift work at 3:00, you grab a pizza, you cook it for your family at six. Or, you know, you’re headed to a football game in the evening and you need something quick when you get home, so you throw your pizza in the fridge and bake it when you’re ready. The concept is brilliant.”

It was a design carried out successfully by Papa Aldo’s Pizza — a chain that began in Hillsboro, Ore. in 1981 — and Murphy’s Pizza, which originated in Petaluma, Calif. in 1984. In 1995, a man named Terry Collins purchased and consolidated the two. Today, Papa Murphy’s is based in Vancouver, Wash. and has over 1,000 franchises in the U.S., Canada, and the United Arab Emirates.

Michelle and Ray O’Connor own all four Papa Murphy’s in the U.P., which are located in Escanaba, Iron Mountain, Marquette, and Houghton. The Escanaba location was the first in the U.P. and opened in 2003 under another owner. The O’Connors opened the one in Iron Mountain in 2005, Marquette in 2006, bought and remodeled the Escanaba location in 2016, and started the Houghton one in 2017.

The O’Connors employ about 50 individuals across the four locations. Most are younger — college or high school students — but some have been on board for a while and fill essential roles, allowing Michelle to focus on marketing, finances, and other administrative aspects of the business while Ray runs his own construction business and performs maintenance at all four stores whenever needed.

“We have multiple crew members willing to travel to other stores and fill in where they are needed, which has really helped keep our doors open over the last couple years,” said Michelle.

Unlike other U.P. businesses that thrive in the summer with the uptick in tourism, Michelle said that business picks up at Papa Murphy’s with the school year and football season. The single busiest day of the year tends to be Halloween, Michelle said. Employee Kara Beauvais said that during the week, Fridays and Tuesdays are busy nights, the latter due to a promotion that runs only on Tuesdays.

Beauvais, who began working at the Escanaba Papa Murphy’s in 2009, more recently has been filling a role akin to that of a regional manager. She said that her job has become more challenging, but that she enjoys it.

“It’s a fun, positive work environment,” Beauvais said. “I enjoy going to work every day.”

When asked how she handles stress when orders pile up — after all, they take orders online, by walk-in and by phone — and helps other workers keep their cool, Beauvais said it comes easy to her.

“I feel like in those situations, people just need someone to sort of give direction and be positive about it. It’s just pizza. … That’s what we do. We’re here to make pizza.”

Michelle, formerly a social worker, said that the part she enjoys most about Papa Murphy’s is engaging with the people.

“The relationships, the young people I get an opportunity to mentor and work with — that’s what I love,” she said. “I truly love relationships and people and that aspect of it.”

Beauvais named the people as her favorite thing, too, adding that she loves working for Michelle.

In addition to pizza, Papa Murphy’s also sells salads, drinks, desserts, and — just introduced this year — single-serving calzones. Just like the pizzas, the calzones are for home baking; licensed like a grocery store instead of a restaurant, Papa Murphy’s is not permitted to sell a cooked product. Other new products include cinnamon monkey bread and garlic monkey bread, which replaced the cinnamon wheel and classic cheesy bread.

While it can’t be anticipated what the franchisor might be concocting for the future just yet, Michelle has some ideas about what customers might see in Iron Mountain and Marquette soon. Both those locations — which opened in ’05 and ’06, respectively — are due for remodel; she said updates to the facilities are expected in the next couple years.


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