Mark Crane opened his first pizza shop in 1982 and had one customer the first day. Crane sold him a pizza for $3.26.
"That was the only pizza I made the whole day," he recalls. "I had a Dodge Duster and was driving home. I said to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ Then it sunk in that I had to figure something out."
This weekend, with the Super Bowl on Sunday, Mark’s Pizzeria Inc. expects to sell 30,000 pizzas and two tractor-trailer loads of chicken wings.
"This weekend is the busiest weekend of the year, and it’s the most exciting weekend of the year," Crane says. "Everybody looks forward to it."
Crane, in his 30th year of business, owns six Mark’s Pizzeria stores. He is a partial owner of 30 of 38 he has franchised. Six locations are planned for 2012-among them Avon, Batavia and Geneseo in the Rochester market-with another six to 10 in each of the next four years.
"This year, I think there’s a good chance that we’re going to open somewhere in North Carolina, either Raleigh or Charlotte," Crane says.
"Once we figure out how to do them out of state, we’ve got people who want to open in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. We’re already in Florida. We’ve got a lot of interest in Virginia. We’ve got them on the books. We have people lined up to go. But we’re still trying to finish up around here."
Mark’s has more than 1,000 employees, including 400 full time, at locations stretching from Niagara to Onondaga counties in Upstate New York. A location in Oswego is among the six planned for this year. The six stores he owns directly employ 150 to 200, he says.
"Mark is taking his brand and trying to make it not just an Upstate New York thing but an East Coast thing," says Michael Russo, managing director at the Brighton office of Freed Maxick & Battaglia CPAs P.C., who oversees Crane’s accounting.
"He’s got a great product. He’s in Florida and is trying to fill in the states in between."
A recently opened Mark’s south of Tampa is the first out of state since Crane franchised a location in Summerville, S.C., nine years ago because a prospective owner wanted to live there. That store has since closed, but Crane is considering a second try in that area.
Out-of-state challenges are logistical, he said, primarily getting pizza ingredients to the shops in a timely manner. Crane contracts with Illinois-based US Foods to ship fresh products to Florida.
"I get really involved in making the deals out of state," Crane says. "It took me a year to get the food figured out, like how we were going to transport our food to Florida. Now when I do Georgia, it will be easy.
"Our pizza is about quality and service. Everything is fresh. We make the dough every day. It’s not frozen. The cheese is never frozen."
Mark’s has 14 locations in Monroe County, including one at its headquarters on Route 31 in Perinton. The company moved its training operations there more than three years ago from Palmyra. Its advertising agency, Internet & Media Professionals Inc., has an office on the second floor.
There are seven stores in Onondaga County, six in Wayne County and five in Ontario County.
"This company has grown from within," Crane says. "As guys come into the company-they could’ve started when they were 15 years old; they could’ve started when they were 40-they decide how far they want to move up.
"When they decide they want to be part of the company, and they want to be vested, they buy in and end up getting the store. It’s not like you can call me up and say, ‘Hey, I want to buy a store.’ It don’t work like that."
Owners operate independently but must adhere to company policies.
"They still have to follow all the same rules," Crane says. "The franchise gets royalties. That’s how the franchise continues to do the mass marketing. Everybody pays for it together."
Crane does not disclose company revenues.
"Our business is growing by 10 percent a year, excluding new stores," he says. "We shoot for 10 percent growth a year. We’ve hit it for the last three years. This year we just barely made it."
With six new shops to come this year, revenues are projected to increase 7 percent, Crane says. New locations usually become profitable in three to four years, he says, depending on whether the company rents or owns the building.
The business has come a long way in 30 years, including at least three milestone moments. The first was its first anniversary.
"Everybody told me that if you can make it to a year, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to be able to make it," Crane says. "It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but to me, I made it."
He turned a profit that year, but not by much.
"I was 21 years old," he says. "I lived at home. I didn’t need a lot of money.
"But that’s what really motivated me to never stop working, because I remember how hard I worked. That’s what motivates me even now."
A second milestone came in 1985 when Crane opened his second shop, in Marion, Wayne County.
The third milestone came 10 years later when he registered Mark’s Pizzeria with the U.S. government as a franchise company. He had 11 stores in Wayne and Monroe counties by then.
"That was a huge milestone," Crane says, "because then people looked at Mark’s Pizzeria and said, ‘These guys are for real.’"
Crane’s first full-time job after graduating from Fairport High School in 1979 was as a factory worker at Taylor Instruments Inc. He worked there for two years until getting laid off because of company transitions.
Not long afterward, an uncle, Frank Tantello, and the late Anthony LaPietra-then owner of the Garlock House in Palmyra-asked Crane to help them run the restaurant.
"I always liked cooking," Crane says. "I’d visit my friends in Cortland a lot, and they had this pizzeria down there. We used to always go to it, and it seemed like a lot of fun to be in the pizza business."
His interest in cooking came from watching his mother and grandmother when he was young.
"I didn’t really cook a lot as a kid, but my grandmother and my mother were both great cooks," Crane says. "I would always watch my grandmother make homemade macaroni, and she’d make us pizza and all kinds of stuff. I’d just watch her, and I loved it. She always let me help her out when I was little."
LaPietra and Tantello helped Crane develop his first pizza place, in the Garlock House building.
"I got the hands-on construction," Crane says. "I got the business certificate. From the ground up, I just started doing every little bit of it. Once I opened the door and sold my first couple of pizzas, that’s when it got really fun. I got to really experiment and come up with my own recipes."
That first day of business, however, was disappointing.
"My mom said, ‘How’d it go?’" Crane recalls. "I said, ‘It didn’t go too good.’
"I opened without doing any marketing. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was 20 years old. I opened, and nobody came in."
He arrived early the next morning, a Wednesday, and asked any acquaintances he could find to let the community know he was open for business.
He made $20 that Wednesday and $30 on Thursday.
"Tony’s place was really a bar, and a restaurant," Crane says. "You had to walk by me to get to his restaurant. After the restaurant shut down at 10 o’clock, he’d have bands.
"So then Friday came, and I was selling slices for 50 cents. ‘That’s pretty cheap,’ Tony said.
"I was cutting them in eight pieces and getting $4 for the pie. I said, ‘Well, I’ll just let them try it, and I can raise the price later.’"
The bar had around 200 customers, Crane recalls.
"That’s how I got to know everybody in Palmyra," he says. "They’d go by and say, ‘Hey, pizza man.’ By the end of the night, everybody is having fun and they’re a little bit intoxicated, so they come by and I have all these pizzas made up. They’d all be getting slices.
"I might’ve made $200 or $250, and I remember how excited I was. But it’s 50 cents a slice, and you’re not making a lot of money. Saturday night came and it was the same thing."
Business dropped off again on Sunday. The trend continued for the next three days.
"On Wednesday, I grabbed my little sister, who was 13 at the time, and I got a piece of paper and folded it in half," Crane says. "I made ‘Mark’s Pizzeria, now open’ and said a couple of things and put a dollar coupon in there.
"We had 50 of them, and we put them on cars. Guess what? People called."
Three months later, business had increased significantly. Three months after that, Crane decided to look for his own location.
"I wanted to get out of the little cove," he says. "It was really little."
He bought a condemned building on East Main Street in the middle of the village for $22,000 and moved there within 10 months.
"That’s when I had my first true pizza shop, with my own sit-down," he says. "That was 1983."
The Marion location opened two years later, followed by one in Macedon in 1986.
A year after becoming a franchisor, in 1996, Crane hired Jeffrey Pullano as his chief financial officer. Freed Maxick’s Russo has handled the company’s accounting for 25 years.
"He’s really the glue to make sure we don’t have big problems," Crane says of Russo, who comes to the Perinton offices once a week. "He works directly with Jeff."
Asked if he felt like a success when Mark’s became a franchised company, Crane says: "I felt like I had to keep my butt working because I had to take care of a lot of people. I was always looking at it as having the next guy ready to go. I had to keep moving because I didn’t want to slow anybody up. Somebody is always training and ready to go."
The pace slowed in 2006 with the death of his brother Jeffrey, 45, who had loaned Mark $5,000 to buy the Palmyra building and eventually supervised three Mark’s locations.
"That messed with my head because he was like my best friend," Crane says. "From 2005 to 2009, I wasn’t sure what to think. The momentum stopped because if I stop, everybody stops. It really shouldn’t be like that, but it just did because that’s the way I had it set up."
The momentum is back now, he says.
"I stay hands-on with all the managers and assistant managers," Crane says. "I take care of all the questions and any fires that need to be put out. My thing is to continually teach these kids and adults what our mission is: quality and service.
"My main thing is continuing to let them know that if we don’t take care of our customers, somebody else will."
Off the job
Crane spends his spare time with his family. That includes his wife, Colleen, whom he met when she came to his Palmyra store in the late 1980s.
"She was with a friend of mine," Crane says. "It was kind of a blind date. We got married in 1990, about a year and a half later."
The couple has four children: daughters Jenna, 17, and Danielle, 16, and sons Mark Thomas, 12, and Jack, 10.
"We try to stay balanced," Crane says. "We have a lot going on with the kids. Both girls play soccer. The boys play soccer and lacrosse. There are a lot of family activities going on all the time.
"My hobbies are probably my kids. Whatever they’re into, I’m into."
He also is involved in cancer fundraising. The Mark’s Pizzeria Golf Tournament has been held annually for 17 years, with some $400,000 going to the St. Mary’s Cancer Center of Unity Health and St. Mary’s Hospice of Lifetime Care.
"Both my parents died of cancer," Crane says. "I have the golf tournament every year to raise money for cancer and to help people out that need medicines."
Last year, Crane donated $200,000 to Fairport High School to put lights around the school’s athletic field. He was also a major donor to the Palmyra Community Center for a new basketball court.
"When I think of Mark Crane, I think of him as a Fairport grad, a dad, a businessman and a philanthropist," Fairport Central School District superintendent Jon Hunter says.
Crane’s donation covered most of the roughly $250,000 cost of installing four light standards.
"We saw this as a community project," Hunter says. "We garnered a lot of funds from all sorts of people in the community. But the driving force behind this was Mark, not just with his gift but with his ability to organize so people could see the vision and the difference it would make for the kids and for the community."
The lights have created more flexibility in scheduling games and practices and night games in football. The physical education program goes out on the turf during the school day for health and fitness programs.
Crane also gave money and time to building a road at Camp Babcock-Hovey, a Boy Scout facility in Ovid, Seneca County.
"It wasn’t just a financial donation," says John Kennedy. "He was out there driving a bulldozer."
Kennedy has been a close friend of Crane for 13 years.
"He’s an exceptionally generous man," Kennedy says. "When you say somebody is a generous man, people commonly go right to the money factor. But he’s generous with his time.
"You have to be careful about what you say to him. I was putting a fence up around the pool area at my house, and I told him I was doing it. He showed up the next day to help me get it done."
As his business has grown, Crane has cut back on his workload, if only comparatively.
"I’ve been scaling down," he says. "I don’t work Saturday and Sunday too much anymore. I’m giving more responsibility to some of the younger guys, but I’m still in the game.
"I’d still love to be making the pizzas every day, but my hands are so sore from doing it all those years. I made millions of pizzas-my hands are shot."
Title: Founder and president, Mark’s Pizzeria Inc.
Education: Fairport High School, 1979
Family: Wife, Colleen; daughters Jenna, 17, and Danielle, 16; sons Mark Thomas, 12, and Jack, 10
Hobbies: Family activities
Quote: "The way I was brought up, work is work. That’s what we do. The Cranes work. Seven days a week was not a problem, and I never got sick of the work. Even now, I still work. If I don’t work 60 hours, I’m not working.