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A dream delivered: Couple’s pursuit of pizza parlor proprietorship realized

DeLonnes and Russ Klug met at Pizza Hut and after more than 30 years, the two now are owners of the Dickinson and Williston branches of the massive chain. (Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press)1 / 2
Alex Klug, one of five children to Russ and DeLonnes Klug, pulls a fresh pie from the oven. Alex said that passion for pizza runs in the Klug bloodline. (Iain Woessner / The Dickinson Press)2 / 2

Russ Klug's dream began in 1982.

Fresh-faced and still in high school, Klug started work at the Dickinson Pizza Hut, unsuspecting that after close to four decades, he would be the owner of the local franchise.

"Shortly after I started working, I dunno, something clicked," Klug said. "I thought 'this might be what I'm doing' for(ever). I love it. This has been my dream."

Klug and his wife DeLonnes became the owners of the Pizza Hut restaurants in Dickinson and Williston last year. While the restaurants bare the corporate logo, the Klugs are franchisees, which affords them more freedom and some independence—at the cost of more paperwork.

"At the beginning, it's a challenge. This was all new to us, we had to learn everything, we're doing all our own bookwork," Klug said. "I would rather own it the way we do then just be working for the corporation (though). Yeah, we have to follow their rules, but there's a lot more flexibility on our part than if you are a corporate-owned store."

For Klug, this freedom allows him to manage his businesses in a hands-on manner. Having started in the pizza business, Klug's come up over the years—he says he's basically seen it all. Even now, Klug doesn't see himself as above picking up a dishrag and pitching in.

"I'm still making pizzas. If I go up to Williston and they need dishes washed, I'll go wash dishes. I guess the way I look at it is, just being the owner doesn't mean I can't help out where needed," Klug said. "A lot of the employees will ... come to me and say 'wow, that's impressive and you own the stores and are washing dishes.' And it's like, well, you guys need help and I'm helping. If you don't do it, you lose touch."

That's meaningful to Klug. Though he considers the Pizza Hut brand to be a benefit to their bottom line, a large corporate owner can easily lose touch with the staff at the local level.

"When I was managing, I was hands-on. That's how all my managers are, they're hands-on; whereas in corporate, you're often sitting behind a desk," Klug said. "A lot of them don't know what's going on."

A long wait

Klug has worked at multiple Pizza Hut locations around Dickinson, as the franchise opened and closed stores over its years here, but he's been the manager of the current location on State Avenue since it opened, and has long wanted to be its owner.

"This one I've been managing it from day one," he said. "About five years after we started the delivery store, I actually went to the owner and said 'I'd like to buy it.' He said 'I'm not ready to sell it at this time, but maybe someday.' I didn't think I'd have to wait 30 years, but I did."

The wait was long enough that when destiny finally turned in Klug's favor in March 2017, he found he had to hit the ground running. The corporate ownership of Pizza Hut had to first interview the Klugs together, then it had to put Russ through training programs to make sure he knew how the back-end of the business worked.

"We knew nothing (about) all the paperwork. We had to go interview in Texas to get approved by 'em. We had to go to Pizza Hut to get approved," DeLonnes recalled, noting the interview was more casual than they expected. "We dressed up, he had a shirt-and-tie and I was in church clothes and we come there and they're in jeans and polo shirts."

DeLonnes said Russ was in a weeklong training program in Texas during their opening week, which made things even more challenging. Like her husband, DeLonnes has worked at Pizza Hut in the past, as a waitress.

In fact, that's where they met.

"It was the day of our annual Christmas party with McDonalds, because the McDonald's owner and the previous Pizza Hut owner were best friends," Russ said. "We went out to the place, we decorated, got it ready to go and I was just going to drop her off and I finally said 'can I pick you up and take you to the Christmas party?' So Pizza Hut has been in our blood for a very long time."

In the blood

Together the two have five children. One of those, son Alex Klug, works at the Dickinson location, and he spoke to how the zest for pizza is strong in the family.

"This has been in my family ever since I was born," Alex said. "I always kind of joke about how our bloodstream is made of pizza sauce, because this is all we know. My dad worked here for almost 40 years now and finally, to become an owner, is one of his lifelong dreams. It's pretty cool that it finally happened.

Russ' leadership-by-doing is defined by his work ethic, which he attributes to the example set by his father.

"My dad, he worked hard. He worked two jobs, he worked during the day and then he laid floors and installed carpet and linoleum at night," Russ said. "So I think you're just brought up ... that you have to work hard."

Russ demonstrated that same dedication during his career, at times working two jobs.

"When we got married, I started cutting grass for people," Russ said. "So I'd come to work in the morning, I'd get the store set up and ready to go, then I'd go home, cut grass for two, three, four hours, then go back to work and work 5 to close."

Hard work is one thing, but there's always limits—in Dickinson, a pizza parlor has a bit more risk than other parts of the world, thanks to at times severe and inclement weather. In both summer and especially winter, Klug has to weigh the risk and reward of allowing his drivers to brave the elements.

"(The challenge is) to finally make the decision to close. As a manager, I wanted to close right away. As an owner now, you think 'well, maybe we can go a little longer,'" Klug said. "I tell people, you're looking through a whole 'nother set of glasses."

Getting there and beyond

Klug said he feels like he's made it.

"I think I've gotten there. But there's more we want to do," He said. "We're looking into some stuff—when this whole thing started, when I was down in Texas they were asking 'do you want to open more' and I'm sitting there thinking 'I haven't even been in the store I own yet.' I'm down here, so I said no, the three is fine. But, I guess you never know."

For now, work is underway to combine the two locations in Williston into location, and the door is always open for future growth. Yet Klug knows the answer to life's most pressing of questions: what does he want on his pizza?

"Pepperoni and jalapeno," Klug said. Delonnes preferred more of a classic: thin-and-crispy pepperoni.

"It might be boring, but that's what I like," she said.