If there’s one thread that runs through John Griffey’s success story as a Dunkin’ franchisee, it is family—particularly if you include the extended family he’s developed during his two decades in the business.
“It really is a family business,” says Griffey. “Myself and my wife Jean, Jim and Judy Yoakum, the Zepka family in Connecticut, and the Ramos family in Florida.” That “family” currently owns and operates nearly 20 locations in Connecticut and Florida, with more on the way.
Coming out of junior college, Griffey’s Uncle Jim – who would later become his business partner – encouraged him to enter the Marriott hotel management-training program in Washington, D.C. Griffey took the suggestion, moved from his hometown in Florida, and began his career in the Roy Rogers fast food division of Host Marriott. He worked in a variety of positions throughout his 15-year career, ultimately running all their travel center restaurants on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The group included Bob’s Big Boy, Roy Rogers, and other national QSRs.
A chance conversation between his Uncle Jim and Ted Crew at an Army-Navy football game in the 1990’s is what led him to Dunkin’. Crew is the owner of Great American Donuts, which now owns and operates over 50 Dunkin’ locations in the state of Connecticut.
“Ted was looking for a young guy to run a couple of restaurants and my uncle knew I was ready to leave Marriott,” says Griffey. “So I talked to Ted, took the job and moved to Connecticut. He had two restaurants at the time and that’s how I was introduced to the Dunkin’ world.”
The introduction was about as far as he would go with Dunkin’ for a few years, however. Two months after taking the job, Crew asked Griffey if he would like to run a string of truck stop restaurants stretching from Florida to Fresno. Griffey was a natural fit for the challenge, but Crew still needed someone to operate his Dunkin’ restaurants. Griffey recommended his close friend and colleague from Host Marriott, Doug Zepka, who learned the ropes at Dunkin’ and helped Crew grow his business over the next few years, while Griffey ran the truck stop restaurants.
By 2000, Griffey sensed it was time for a change. He spoke to Uncle Jim about providing financing for Griffey and his wife Jean to buy their own restaurants; Uncle Jim agreed to help, backing the purchase of two Dunkin’ restaurants in Simsbury, Connecticut.
“He was the money man and we were the people who ran ‘em,” says Griffey, who also brought Doug along to help run the stores. “We were in there at 4 o’clock in the morning, running the cash register, baking, cooking, serving customers. We were in the business hands-on for probably the first five years, until we got large enough so we could hire some folks to do that for us.”
Doug’s wife Liz joined the operation not long after the first stores opened, and for the next half dozen years, Griffey added one or two restaurants per year, growing the Connecticut business to 16 locations at one point. Along the way, they added Brian Ramos, a former Krispy Kreme manager, to bolster the management team. In 2005, Uncle Jim and his wife Judy, who had been active behind-the-scenes partners in the business, moved back home to Vilano Beach, Florida.
While visiting his aunt and uncle on vacation in 2009, Griffey and Jean began thinking about returning to his hometown of St. Augustine. Later that same year, they purchased a pair of stores from a franchisee who had declared bankruptcy, opening the first Florida store in February of 2010. Ramos, who was now married with children, had become an integral part of the team in Connecticut, and he and his wife Beth agreed to run the stores for Griffey, moving to Florida before the first store was even purchased.
Griffey has followed the same growth formula in Florida as Connecticut, steadily adding stores until he reached the current tally of 11 in St. John’s County – with an SDA agreement to add three more by 2023. With three of the families now located in Florida, it was time to begin paring back the number of stores in Connecticut, so in 2012, they began selling them off, reducing the total to seven up north.
“We just felt at the time that it wasn’t really fair to leave Doug up there to run 16 stores,” Griffey says with a laugh. “And that’s also when we really started to grow in Florida.”
The Griffeys and Ramoses weren’t the only members of the extended family to migrate to the Sunshine State. In fact, much of the Florida management team are transplants from Connecticut, a testament to the family environment and the winning business philosophy that Griffey has followed since day one: Treat people the way you want to be treated and hire your people from within.
“Our best managers were once hourly employees for us, so it is very, very rare that we have a need to go outside of our system to hire a manager,” Griffey says. “What we try to do is move the hourly employees into supervisory roles, and when we have a management position open, we promote from within. In Connecticut we just don’t lose managers. We have people that have been with us since the day we bought the business in 2000.”
Justin Finley, who went to work for the company when he was 16, is now an area manager in St. Augustine. His step-brother, Kevin Hazzard, who also began working for the Griffeys at age 16, is a store manager in the same city.
“He used to walk to work at the Winsted (CT) Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning. We would give him breakfast, and my wife Jean would drive him to school,” says Griffey.
Another key to the success of Griffey’s business model is that all of the families have a real stake in the business—one that extends beyond the bonds of family and friendship. “Our philosophy is pretty simple. When I’m in Florida, and somebody is running our business in Connecticut, you might say, ‘I want you to run it like it’s yours,” says Griffey. “Well, you don’t really run it like it’s yours unless it’s yours; that’s just a fact.”
So when the Griffeys and the Yoakums first established their business in Connecticut, Doug Zepka was given an immediate equity stake. That equity eventually grew to nearly one-third of the Connecticut operations.
“We did the same thing with Brian in Florida and it’s worked out well for us,” says Griffey, who sold a 70 percent stake in the Connecticut stores to Zepka in 2018.
In addition, all of the administrative and operational functions are handled by members of one of the families. While John, Doug and Brian are primarily involved with the operational side of the business, Jean Griffey writes every check, Liz Zepka handles all of the payroll and HR functions in Connecticut, and Beth Ramos does the same in Florida.
“So we don’t have to worry about some things that other [franchisees] do,” says Griffey. “Our system may not work for everybody, but it’s been very successful for us.”
During his career, Griffey has also been active on Dunkin’ committees, serving on the South Central RAC in Florida, as well as the People’s Subcommittee of the BAC. And when Dunkin’ wanted to roll out the Next-Gen concept in Florida, they reached out to Griffey.
“We had a store on the drawing board, so when the brand came to me about two years ago and asked if we’d consider making this the Next-Gen store, we just said ‘yes’,” Griffey says. “I have the reputation of being a pretty straight shooter, and they know that. I am of the belief that I would rather be involved and try to provide feedback than to just sit back, let it happen and then just complain.”
Griffey opened that store in August, 2018, and he says it’s been a hit. Built from the ground up, the new store sports a first-of-its-kind stucco exterior, an interior design featuring an open layout and plenty of natural light. He likes the innovative tap system for cold beverages that he says resembles a brew pub.
“It’s a gorgeous store and the customers absolutely love it,” says Griffey.
Griffey is involved with the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation, as well as another high-profile charity whose roots are in Northeast Florida. The Tesori Family Foundation, founded by former PGA Tour player and current PGA Tour caddie Paul Tesori, which supports families with children with Downs Syndrome and other special needs. Last August, Griffey’s company, St. Johns Donuts, donated $1 for every dozen donuts sold in their Florida network, and Griffey presented Tesori a check for $18,000 in September.
The spirit of giving extends to Griffey’s workers as well. He and Jean provide assistance to long-term employees if they find themselves in financial difficulties. In one case, they helped a couple re-finance their home. He also understands the value of retaining employees in this challenging labor market, which is why he offers competitive wages, health benefits and paid vacations to full-time employees.
“We just try to treat people the right way—the way we’d want to be treated,” explains Griffey. “We provide some opportunities for growth, and Doug and Liz are great people and Brian and Beth are great people. So it really is like a family.”