By Nathaniel Bott
Clinton County Chatter Staff Reporter
ST. JOHNS — Strolling down the quaint downtown of St. Johns, visitors will see an abundance of local-owned small businesses and restaurants. There may be a tattoo parlor, a few barber shops, and landmarks such as a courthouse and library, trademarks of a county seat town.
The United States Census Bureau puts the population of St. Johns at 7,971; just shy of 8,000 residents. With fast-food chains lining the outskirts surrounding the main downtown strip on North Clinton Avenue, few options of a big name franchise exist in the heart of downtown St. Johns.
That’s where Hungry Howie’s comes in.
“We really like the town and we want to be there,” Michele Follman, an area director for Hungry Howie’s, said. “We fought a little harder than the other guys who went out of business. As far as downtown goes, we are the only one.”
Follman is the area director for Hungry Howie’s, and her area consists of nine locations in Clinton County and the Lansing area. For smaller towns like St. Johns, Follman stays active in the community to show Hungry Howie’s engagement to the city.
“I am a member of the chamber, and I try to get my manager to come to chamber meetings with me,” Follman said. “Our main push in smaller towns is to be as involved as possible, so people see that we are a franchise of a big corporation but we still love our small town and want to be a big part of it.”
That manager is Victoria Huntoon, and she stays in close contact with Follman to make sure the business is running as efficiently as possible. Being in the store, Huntoon sees a variety of customers who she engages with on a personal level.
“One thing the corporation likes to do is get us into small towns just so we can get out there more and build up some business,” Huntoon said. “We get quite a bit of people who walk-in, and it certainly varies on the day.”
Huntoon said that days like Sunday bring in more elderly people coming from church, but the rest of the week sees different people of all age demographics, like Brandon Hiar and Jeremiah Piper, two local kids who are a part of the St. Johns public schools system.
“We get Hungry Howie’s all the time, for dinner or after school as a treat or something,” Hiar said. “I like their pizza a lot, it’s usually the pizza we get.”
Follman’s job revolves around making sure her employees and managers connect with their customers. Since Hungry Howie’s is a small business in itself, due to the company being franchised owned rather than corporately owned, Follman said it is crucial that small town customers feel welcomed and remembered.
“The owner is from a small town, and we like that feel of being able to get to know our customers,” Follman said. “If you are a regular customer when you walk through, it’s not have you ordered, it’s hey Mr. Smith how are you doing tonight, let me grab your order for you. That’s our biggest thing, usually the towns are small enough that you get to know your customers well enough.”