by Larry Austin
What started as "a little shoebox store" is celebrating 30 years in business this month.
John's Pizza & Subs under the ownership of four Islanders began June 2, 1982, at its original location on Niagara Falls Boulevard. Now with a location on Grand Island Boulevard as well, the restaurant has become an area institution through hard work, attention to detail, and putting quality and service first.
Four of the five original owners - Islanders Gene Mongan, Kurt Raepple, Mark Raepple, Jay Raepple - are still at work. Another original partner, Paul Miller, moved on to pursue other interests.
"When we first got in it, we had a little shoebox store on Niagara Falls Boulevard. We expanded that store twice to what it is now," Kurt Raepple said.
It started with a hungry customer.
Jay Raepple lived in the Town of Tonawanda near John's Pizza and Subs, then owned by the original "John," John Schmitter, who owned the business from 1977 to 1982.
"My brother Jay used to go in and buy pizza and wings there all the time, and John was standing behind the counter one day complaining about how many hours he had to work," Mark Raepple recalled. Jay told Schmitter that he was interested in buying the restaurant if it became available. At the time, Mark and Jay worked as salespeople, Miller was working in computers, and Kurt and Gene were in their teens.
"We talked it over and threw our money in together and purchased a five-seat dining room," Mark Raepple said.
"We expected to just do it as a hobby, a part time job to get a few extra bucks."
Not everyone was on board with the idea initially.
"When we opened up, my grandfather told us that 90 percent of the restaurants go out of business the first one or two years," Mark Raepple said. "We just were adamant about making a go of it."
Then a simple idea paid big dividends when Gene decided to put an awning up at the Niagara Falls Boulevard location.
"Kurt and Gene ran the store for many years, sold Christmas trees outside in the parking lot," Mark said. "Then about two years after we opened, I'd say in about '84, Gene decided to buy an awning for the front of Niagara Falls Boulevard, and business just doubled within a day, started going crazy."
"Then we just went from there."
"It turned out to be a great idea. It caught people's attention and it kind of turned the corner for us at that location," Kurt Raepple said.
The partners built the company on a policy of always putting quality and service first, something Mark said he and Jay carried over from their careers in sales.
The recipe for lasting 30 years in the restaurant business is "paying really close attention to detail," Mongan said, and "focusing on the fundamentals of good food, good service and a clean restaurant. A lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and tears."
"Quality and service are what we're all about," Kurt Raepple added. "We try to buy the best quality products we can possibly buy. We try to train our employees, and hire good people who provide service the best we can."
It's simple, but it's not easy. The restaurant business is tough going, the partners all say.
"There's a lot more to it than collecting money at the counter," Kurt Raepple said during an interview with the Dispatch, an interview conducted as he worked underneath the back porch of the restaurant on Grand Island Boulevard.
"We all work in the store. We're all cooking, we're all delivering, we're all taking care of customers and we're all climbing under decks," Mongan said. "Everything from the financials to the maintenance and in between. That probably has a lot to do with why we've been around for 30 years."
Mongan noted that the company that employs about 100 people at four locations has many workers who have more than 10 years of service.
"We've got some great people working for us, we really do. It's not an accident. We just to try to do right by them, take care of them, and they'll do the same in return," Mongan said.
Part of that company work ethic comes from Mark, Kurt and Jay's father, Alfons Raepple, who though not an owner was a cornerstone of the business in the enterprise's first 25 years before his passing.
Alfons "was instrumental in every single project we've ever done," Mongan said.
Chicken Finger Sub
"Then we came up with our chicken finger sub, which made us world famous almost," Mark Raepple said.
In about 1983, the chicken finger was born.
Gene Mongan said: "We were eating them there at the restaurant in all kinds of configurations, and it was like, 'You know what? We ought to give this a try.' We had a menu board, but I don't think we had enough letters to write it on the menu board. We wrote in on a paper plate and put a thumbtack on it and put it up on the wall. And people would come in and look at it and go, 'What on Earth is a chicken finger sub?'"
It caught the public's attention, so much so that it's an area specialty, unduplicatable elsewhere. Mark Raepple said college kids have been known to come back to the area from school, get off the plane and head straight to the nearest John's. They just walk in here and get a chicken finger sub "because they miss it," he said.
Mark Raepple has even had people come in and ask to have a chicken finger sub mailed to their children in college.
Just don't ask who came up with the idea of the chicken finger sub as that's still in dispute.
Adding the Island Locale
The partners opened the Grand Island location in 1989 after seven years and one expansion at the Niagara Falls Boulevard location.
"It was something we really wanted to do because we're all from Grand Island, and we thought it was a market that we could go into and compete," Mongan said.
Mongan said that working out on Niagara Falls Boulevard "on restaurant row with lots and lots of competition," showed the partners that they could make it in their hometown as well.
"So we thought we could do well on the Island and we have. Since the day we opened that store it's been very successful restaurant," Mongan said.