Start with a good credit base, then add toppings and cheese

John Stretson, CEO of Stoner's Pizza Joint, used good credit and the right card to achieve success


John Stretson is the CEO of Stoner’s Pizza Joint and despite no restaurant experience, he helped the company reach great heights by making savvy financial choices. Read on to find out how he used business credit cards to turn an interest in franchising into a thriving business.

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John Stretson, CEO of Stoner’s Pizza Joint

Companies with a proven track record of profitability can be attractive to entrepreneurs, especially when all it takes to become an owner is to pay a franchise fee and follow the corporate strategy. The franchise model fits that profile.

John Stetson has been fascinated with the concept of franchising for as long as he can remember. At first, Stetson was focused on the big nationals, such as Jimmy John’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, but the capital requirement was high and time-sensitive. Then he learned about Stoner’s Pizza Joint.

“The cost was significantly less than 90% of other restaurants,” says Stetson. “I liked the name, too. It came from the first location which had a stone oven that we use to cook the pizza. I opened my first restaurant in 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I’m by trade an investor and financier, so having only one just wasn’t going to do it for me. I wanted ten. By 2020 I had nine, the largest number per franchisee. I’m now the CEO, and today we are opening our 21st restaurant, with two more opening up in August.”

Going full force into the company matched Stetson’s personality and background. When he was a kid, he was so interested in the stock market that his grandfather gave him shares in Microsoft for his 12th birthday. In college, he was an economics major. After graduation, he went into mergers, acquisitions and investment management. This led to him eventually becoming a venture capitalist.

Here’s how Stetson, who had no experience in the restaurant business, was able to ascend so quickly. Good credit and the right card were part of the plan.

Check out all the answers from our credit card experts.

Ask Erica a question.

Can you take us back to the first Stoner’s Pizza location?

Sure! First, I had to pay a franchise fee of $25,000. That’s a hefty check to write up front.

For the location, I took over a pizza shop that went under due to poor management. My thought process was that people in the area knew it as a pizza location and if I could rebrand and provide a quality product, it could be successful.

There were some issues, though. I had budgeted $25,000 for renovation and it turned out to be $75,000! I underestimated the cost of equipment. I used high-quality finishes, high-quality countertops, and all new equipment. My wife liked the build-out aspect of the business and had fun decorating with the theme. I just overdid it, spending $200,000 on the first restaurant. After that, I learned and spent half that amount on each of the other locations.

How have you been using credit cards for the business?

I use credit cards to pay for business expenses. Some offer 0 percent APR for a limited time. This way I can leave a balance until the interest kicks in and then I pay the balance off.

The two cards I have right now are the Capital One Spark Cash Select* and the American Express Blue Business Cash™ Card. In addition to the interest-free deal, these cards have amazing rewards. I put almost everything on them, including utilities, postal service fees and mass mailings. Actually, every bill I have accepts credit cards.

I also chose these cards because they came with bonuses. The Capital One card gave me $500 after I charged $4,500 in the first three months and the American Express gave me $250 after charging $3,000 in three months.

I put the cash I earned from statement credits back into my business. I could use it in other ways, but it is better to put the money back into the business.

How do you handle your finances and credit instruments now?

During COVID-19, I leveraged available government money and applied for small business loans. There is equipment financing, too, that’s good to take advantage of. For example, the company we use for our point of sale system offers no-interest financing. A mistake I made in the beginning was to pay for it with cash, but financing is better. The less capital outlay up front means I can use the cash I have to grow the business.

What is your perspective on maintaining good credit?

It’s absolutely important to have strong credit. No matter what card you’re applying for, they will look at your scores and base the decision on that. I learned this as a college student when I was in my finance classes, but also early on in my career. How cheap can you get access to money? How cheap will the debt be? A small percentage off of an interest rate can make a huge difference at the end of the year. A good score helps to get accepted and also helps to get a large credit line with a low-interest rate.

What are the future plans for Stoner’s Pizza?

Very soon, a couple of stores are opening, but we are actively seeking new markets. We are currently in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and are now expanding to Colorado. Pizza is recession-proof. It’s stood the test of time. It’s quick and easy. Your three-year-old loves it, as does your grandparent.

Looking back, is there anything you’d like to do over?

I’d like to have not spent everything I did in the first unit! I found there’s always a cheaper way to do something without having to sacrifice quality. An oven that is a couple of years old is half the price of a new one and can be just as good.

I also wouldn’t start Stoner’s from the ground up and do a full build-out. Today, I look for restaurants that have gone out of business and use them as new locations because I can cut costs back dramatically since most of the build-out is already in place, such as the hood, grease trap, and equipment.

Can you offer any advice to emerging entrepreneurs?

As for franchises, the beauty of them for a small business owner is that the company gives you the tools and foundation you need to succeed. For someone like myself who has never been in the restaurant business, I didn’t know about food costs and other metrics, but I’m very good at following a playbook. So I would say consider a franchise as an option.

However, I can’t stress enough to do your research and conduct due diligence before launching your business. You can’t predict everything that may happen in the future, but you can try to be prepared for anything.

Is there anything you learned about credit cards that you want to share?

It all comes down to having a great plan and a budget. If you know your credit card has a $15,000 limit, don’t go out and use it on something you can’t pay for with the cash from your wallet. Using a bank’s money is a good thing but it’s not a blank check. Always use it wisely. It needs to be based on your budget.

Take advantage of a rewards card when it offers free money, too. Get the best card that fits your needs. If you travel a lot, the rewards should be for hotels or flights. For me, a cash back card fits my needs. But be aware of the annual fees, because some can be high.

*Note, the Capital One Spark Cash Select now comes in two different variations, the Capital One Spark Cash Select – $500 Cash Bonus and the Capital One Spark Cash Select – 0% Intro APR for 12 Months.

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