November 13, 2013 - By Meg Peters
Review Staff Writer
A couple of Rochester boys took a pizza stick and made it locally famous.
From Rochester they expanded to Troy, and then again to their newest limb in Lake Orion.
The Hills Express located at 325 S. Broadway is a carry-out or dine in joint that John Pewinski and Jason Nies officially opened a little more than two weeks ago, modeled after the "big animal," The Hills Bar and Grille in Rochester.
"We came up with the idea to kind of shrink down the concept a little bit. Kind of change our business plan, make it a little bit smaller, smaller overhead, take some of our more popular menu items and bring them up. Kind of fine- tune everything to run it a little more efficiently," Pewinski said. "The one in Rochester is the big animal, it's hard to tame some times."
Both businesses are only a ten minute drive from one another, far enough away that they are not going to be "cannibalizing" each other as far as customers, Pewinski said.
When Pewinski and Nies and a couple other guys introduced the pizza stick to Rochester, it exploded. They are hoping for similar effects in Lake Orion and Orion Township.
"That was the driving force for actually coming up with this concept, because they're so popular down in Rochester. It's by far once of our biggest sellers," he continued.
Similar to a calzone, stuffings like meat, spinach, tomato, mozzarella and other items can be put into a crust and baked in the oven.
"Hopefully it will turn into the name of a hot-spot," Nies added.
Pizza sticks are only one of the quick and easy items on the menu. The steal of the day could be the slab of ribs for $17.99, but most other items— burgers, chicken sandwiches, pizzas, salads, sweet potato fries, onion rings, homemade soup—are close to $10.
Their idea is for fast dining, in and out service. If the order is placed over the phone, Pewinski said by the time you drove to the restaurant it would be ready. In- house orders can take five to 15 minutes depending on the order.
The Hills Express is also introducing a new item for Lake Orion: 'The Bomber,' an oven-baked sub.
Before the Hills Express opened, a pizza business equipped with pizza ovens leased that space, leading the Hills to the more expansive menu.
"A local guy, a small guy can provide as many options as possible without it getting too crazy, so that's what we want to do," Pewinski said. "It's just an obvious transition into utilizing the equipment that we have back there."
Both Rochester and Lake Orion are close-knit communities, he said, another reason the team chose Lake Orion.
"Communities gravitate to the next door neighbor that owns the restaurant down the street. I think they are going to support that guy," Pewinski said.
His best friend lives on the lake, he has been coming here for years to visit comrades and says Lake Orion is a hard working community that caters to what they are trying to do.
"We're both local guys so we bring our business to a certain area and we are providing jobs, especially with the kids. We can provide a flexible schedule to put the money in their pocket to do things they want to do outside of school or work. Have a sense of self-worth, and independence before they have to move out and go to college. We get a kick out of that," Pewinski said.
The Hills Bar and Grill has about 50 employees. Troy's The Hill's City Grille employs around 35. They are expecting around 10 to 12 employees for the Lake Orion location.
"To help sustain success, name branding is important. You need to get out into different areas. That's why we branched out into Troy. We've branched now up into Lake Orion," Pewinski said. "I can't tell you how many people have come in here, in Lake Orion, and asked us if we are affiliated with that place up in Rochester. Absolutely we are. Obviously the name is traveling around a little bit, so if we can get presence here in Lake Orion, then make a presence in Oxford, Clarkston, and then who knows where that leads," he said.