SGT. PEPPERONI’S PIZZA STORE
Celebrating nine years with owners who believe in the power of community
By Amy Senk | Contributor
FALL 2022 ISSUE
Photos credit courtesy of Sgt. Pepperoni's Pizza Store
September is a big month for Sgt. Pepperoni’s Pizza Store and its four-family ownership team. In 2013, they took over the 46-year-old restaurant at 2300 S.E. Bristol St., upgrading both the building and the menu. They’ve since expanded and are having success at new locations in Aliso Viejo and Irvine.
Family and community are important to the Sgt. Pepperoni’s family and owners Jeff and Erica Roberts, Andy and Grace Hong, Ellen and Rob Dodman, and Jennifer and Stan Frazier (the former drummer and songwriter for Sugar Ray). Their entire three-restaurant enterprise is personal, and the connections go back to the original Sgt. Pepperoni’s pizza place, which opened in 1976.
“After every soccer tournament, after every football game, after swim meets, we went to Sgt. Pepperoni’s,” Jeff says. “I grew up there.”
Once after a swim meet when he was 8, his older brother was showing off for his buddies and dropped red pepper flakes down Jeff’s pants. He laughs now but cried then, and he says nothing has changed over the years when it comes to families and kids.
“The same things go on today in our restaurant,” he says of the pepper incident. “That’s what’s so unique. How many places can you go into where the same things are going on that occurred when we were children, 40-plus years ago?”
The Roberts family ended up living in a home just 500 yards from the restaurant and would get pizza there after games and tournaments. He’d take his daughters, but the place had faded.
“It was a very tired restaurant and needed some love,” he says. “It wasn’t for sale, but, unsolicited, I approached the owner one day about buying.”
The owner thought about it for about five months before calling Jeff back. He immediately hopped on his skateboard for a meeting, then he and Erica reached out to their friends, Andy and Grace. Later, Ellen and Rob joined the team, and finally Stan and Jennifer.
“It’s just amazing how everybody has sort of naturally taken on a role,” Jeff says.
His wife, Erica, for example, brought a lifetime of restaurant experience and has specialized in bringing their dessert menu to life. Stan, who won the BBC America show “Chef Race,” lends his culinary talents and food flair, and Jennifer serves as the social media director. Meanwhile, Ellen is their “banking wizard,” Rob (aka “MC Spreadsheet”) offers his experience as CFO of Winchell’s Donuts, and Grace handles human resources and benefits.
In the beginning, the self-funded team each contributed to getting the newly improved Sgt. Pepperoni’s up and running.
“In the first week, it was all of us in there cleaning the bathrooms and getting prepared for construction and doing the demo and staying seven days straight for a remodel,” Jeff says.
Business was great, and the team decided to open a second location in Aliso Viejo. They signed the lease in November 2019, with construction to begin in February 2020.
“When Covid hit, that was the darkest time for us as a restaurant,” he says. Employees, including some in management, quit. Indoor dining was banned. The new restaurant’s future was in jeopardy.
“Every member of our ownership group was pitching in,” Jeff says. “We were all there just to keep the doors open. When the dining area had to close, we really had to work on pivoting to delivery. We came up with a make-your-own pizza kit. We had to get really creative.”
Within a few months, dining restrictions eased, and business picked up at both locations. In 2021, the group had an unsolicited invitation from the Irvine Company to open a third location at Campus Plaza across from UC Irvine.
“While many were kind of hunkering down during the pandemic and just trying to get by and decide what was going to be next, we were bullish on a concept we had, that people loved,” Jeff says. “We went for it. We expanded in the pandemic and opened two new shops, and I’m proud to say that they’re now beacons in the community.”
The owners are proud of their engagement with each community where Sgt. Pepperoni’s has a presence, from hiring local high school students to organizing events with UC Irvine athletic coaches acting as “beertenders.” They support schools’ team fundraisers with in-store events and make donations to various foundations.
“We feel very fortunate to be a part of a great community and have an opportunity to serve,” Jeff says. “We’re thankful.”
And while October may be national pizza month, at Sgt. Pepperoni’s, September will always be one of the most important times of the year. In September 2022, the team will celebrate the ninth year of raising money for CHOC Hospital and Julian’s LEGO Corner, named for and inspired by Julian Dunn, a Newport Beach student who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008 and died five years later. Julian loved LEGO sets, so money raised for Julian’s LEGO Corner at CHOC provides new kits for hospitalized kids.
Julian and his family were neighbors of the Roberts, and their children attended school together.
Jeff and Erica’s daughter, Lauren, held lemonade stands in support of her friend growing up and later launched a high school project called Sweet Things for a Sweet Cause. It eventually led to fundraising for Julian’s LEGO Corner through desserts sold at Sgt. Pepperoni’s.
Raising awareness and funds has since become a September tradition. This month, all profits from the restaurant’s cheesecakes (New York and Oreo), cookies, brownies and s’mores-like Wow Bars will go to Julian’s LEGO Corner, as well as proceeds from the pizza of the month — a cauliflower crust with your choice of toppings, inspired by fitness guru Da Rulk.
Jeff said they’ve raised more than $100,000 over the years, and his goal this year is another $50,000.
“Every year, it just grows in awareness,” he says. “Every September, we’re going to support CHOC Hospital and Julian’s LEGO Corner and the memory of Julian. Every year, for the rest of our adult lives and for the rest of our existence, we will spend our efforts and energies to bring other people into the fold as well in support of Julian’s LEGO Corner, the Dunn family and the kids at CHOC. “
Helping sick kids while marking the ninth anniversary of their restaurant ownership fills Jeff and the others with a deep sense of gratitude.
“Four families united and put together this campaign to bring Sgt. Pepperoni’s back to life,” Jeff says. “And as we sit here, nine years later, there’s nothing that brings us more joy than to sit in our restaurant any evening of the week and watch the place just fill up, [with] a line out the door [and] families celebrating around what we think is the best pizza in America.”