Collegiate business plan comes to reality as pizza restaurant

A pizza restaurant that got its start as a prize-winning entry in a student business-plan competition opened its doors for real last week.

MJ's Pizzeria got its start as a brainstorm by a team led by James Blood, a Truckee Meadows Community College student, during the annual Donald W. Reynolds Governor's Cup Business Plan Competition in the spring of 2009.

The proposal: A restaurant with a menu that would include vegan and gluten-free pizzas along with more traditional offerings.

Judges thought the idea was good enough that the team won a $5,000 award for third place in the competition among collegians statewide.

The money was helpful, Blood said last week, but the psychological boost from the award was even more powerful.

"We got a lot of good feedback. It showed us that we were ready to play with the big boys," says Blood, who graduated from TMCC with a culinary degree and now serves as president of MJ's Pizzeria.

The 24-year-old entrepreneur also landed some valuable connections through the competition as the proposal for MJ's Pizzeria caught the eye of executives of C4CUBE, the business incubator in downtown Reno.

The incubator sheltered MJ's Pizzeria during its organizational phase, and the cash-short Blood provided janitorial services as well as pizza for C4CUBE events in exchange for space and counsel.

While restaurants are unusual occupants of business incubators, C4CUBE executives were impressed with Blood's commitment, persistence and vision, says Norman Smith, executive director C4CUBE.

Those are attributes, Smith says, that are critical to the region's efforts to generate new employment. MJ's employs about 15, half of them fulltime.

The key counsel that Blood received at C4CUBE: Scale down the restaurant proposed in the collegiate business plan contest. Instead of a sit-down restaurant and bar requiring $150,000 or more for start-up capital, Blood was encouraged to develop a concept that relies on carryout and delivery.

He did, and that's exactly what he opened at 3940 Spring Drive, a couple of doors north of the intersection of Longley and Peckham lanes.

Another key piece of advice: Go see the Nevada Microenterprise Initiative, which specializes in loans and training for the smallest of entrepreneurs. Blood, who'd gone nowhere when he'd applied for bank loans, got the funds he needed through a loan from the Microenterprise Initiative.

A little luck helped. The storefront that Blood leased previously was occupied by a Domino's Pizza location, dramatically reducing the investment in new equipment and restaurant-oriented facilities.

Still, Blood says the competitive advantage he dreamed up for the collegiate plan availability of gluten-free and vegan pizzas remains at the heart of the new restaurant.

And if it works, the MJ's Pizzeria president says he'll still get his sit-down restaurant someday maybe as the centerpiece of a national pizza chain.

MJ's is one of a handful of Governor's Cup business plans that have come to reality, says Dave Archer, chief executive officer of Nevada's Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. The center oversees the annual competition.

Three retail concepts developed by collegians are in operation in southern Nevada and the Phoenix area, and a manufacturing management company envisioned by a 2006 entry now has offices in Berkeley and China.


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