McLain Hoogland, President, is the fourth generation of his family to lead under the umbrella of Highland Ventures (HV), in the Hoogland Restaurant Group (HRG). The group was founded in 2012, inspired by a previously successful endeavor the family had owned in the 1990s, and one of myriad operations under its wing.
McLain’s great-grandfather started the HV legacy in Springfield, Illinois, with Mid States Appliance (MSA), a middle market company that his grandfather ended up taking over. By the time his dad joined, there were a number of other small ventures involved but MSA remained the mainstay. As it grew it became a wholesale business for suppliers and was chiefly responsible for getting Sony into Sears, among other major retail chains. In 1978, HV was one of the first in the US to enter the video rental sector with Family Video, of which McLain’s father became the President.
“Over the next 30 years that grew into a 900-unit video store chain. We were actually the third biggest in the US for a period of years, behind Blockbuster and Hollywood Video,” McLain states. “During that period we built up our current real estate portfolio, of around 700 commercial properties, until 2010 when Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy. Despite Family Video lasting until 2021, my dad started to see the end of the tunnel and decided to revisit the restaurant sector. We had a really successful pizza company called Pop’s Pizza back in the 90s, but it became too much of a distraction from the video business.
Pizza perfection “We landed on Marco’s Pizza (MP) after a franchisee moved into one of our spaces down in Murfreesboro, TN, and we couldn’t help but notice the likeness between its model and the one we had adopted for Family Video: great products, excellent customer service, and a real sense of authenticity. We started opening up MP branches in 2012 and within five years had 125 under our ownership. I joined the operations side of HV in 2016, when I left the Marine Corps, and kind of got thrown into HRG to fix this side of the company. I had enough time to close some poorly placed units and replace them with stronger positions before the pandemic hit, which blew up our business in the best kind of way.”
The menu at MP is a succinct collection of high-quality pizzas, sides and subs. The pizzas come loaded with the brand’s signature three-cheese blend on a number of different crust styles, and play host to a range of topping-combinations, such as: All Meat, with pepperoni, ham, Italian sausage and bacon, Deluxe, which swaps out the ham and bacon for mushrooms and green peppers, Garden, a vegetarian option, and many others. The sides include Cheezybreads, salads and chicken wings or dippers, as well as sweet Cinnasquares for dessert.
“If I could only eat one of our pizzas for the rest of my life, it would be between two of them,” McLain continues. “Either our Deluxe, or the White Cheezy. It has a white, garlic-parmesan-sauce base, our regular cheese blend and then it comes with tomatoes, bacon, onions and feta. It’s just awesome. It’s one of our best sellers. For a long time it won best pizza every year for MP.
“For me, pizza represents a sense of community as it’s always been a family-oriented meal. Everyone’s got a preference, but you still ultimately find a way to share it, whether it’s all meat or half and half, or you’ve got to get two smaller ones so you can get a gluten-free option as well. Everyone loves pizza, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like it, so I always try to impress on our staff that you’re literally making or breaking somebody’s day with what you serve them. It’s a last-minute thing that you can order and collect within 20 minutes that will feed your entire family, and maybe even provide leftovers for the following day.
“Besides attending business school, my background is in operations, training and people management from being an infantry officer in the Marine Corps,” McLain explains. “However, I’ve found the structure
of the restaurant business to be very similar, with the linear chain of command and repetitive nature of the procedures. I feel that restaurants are very simple enterprises, as long as you are focused on training your people and providing great customer service. I found my true passion in the opportunities we can offer our employees, in terms of career progression. It’s one of those industries where you can succeed on merit, rather than just academia, and rise from a driver up to a multi-unit manager. I like to reward those who work hard.
A fresh approach
“Consistency is the key to our success. In quality and taste but also in people, training and leadership. We make our dough daily, which only lasts around 60 hours once it’s been set to prove, and still use only fresh toppings and ingredients. With the product nailed down, I have complete confidence that we can hit 300 units in five years’ time. The current rate of growth has been 25 locations every year, so we need to alter our approach. Internally, priming our workforce is a key factor adopted from Family Video, where we had 32 years of uninterrupted growth year-on-year. By the end, almost everyone at the top had risen from an entry position.
“We’ve just moved our corporate office down to Nashville, TN, from Chicago, with the aim of expanding our footprint within the region,” he concludes. “Going forward, there’s around 20 different markets that I’ve shortlisted for maximization, in which we currently have five units. Our talented multi-unit operators are capable of managing six-to-ten spots, depending on their geographical placement, which means we’re in a prime position to almost double our coverage without a great deal of overhead. We love the brand and have a really good partner in MP, so if something is working, then why stop?”