Career Air Force couple breaks into the pie business

Dan Ramirez' car is a rolling billboard for his pizza joints. BY BOB YESBEK
July 30, 2013

Daniel Ramirez was only 16 when he got a job at a busy McDonald’s franchise in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. On one fateful day, the owner of that (and six other) McDonald’s visited the store. The young employee was not shy as he approached the businessman and asked him outright, “How did you get started?” To Daniel’s surprise, the big boss sat down and spoke to him for an hour-and-a-half. He never forgot that day, but it would take a career in the military for him to finally put that advice to use.

Daniel retired from the Air Force after 22 years of service. His wife, Marryann, spent 24 years there. They met while they were deployed in the Netherlands and have been married for 22 years. As retirement approached, Daniel and Marryann began to research franchises, hoping to find a trusted, quality brand that could jump-start their second careers among the self-employed. Daniel apparently inherited the need to be his own boss, catching the entrepreneurial bug from his dad who left a successful career in Florida with Sears, Roebuck & Company to open his own operation selling tires. His business included exporting tires to Colombia in South America, and he was ranked in the Fortune 500 listing of Latin-owned businesses.

Ramirez found a franchisor’s website that offered state-by-state suggestions as to where that company wanted to locate a store. When he clicked “Delaware,” up popped the town where he had lived when he worked at Dover Air Force Base! It wasn’t long before Daniel and Marryann’s first Papa John’s pizza franchise opened up in Camden – and it only took 14 months for them to earn the distinction of being No. 1 in sales for the entire state.

Last year, the week after Thanksgiving marked the opening of their second location right here in Rehoboth Beach. Long-time locals may remember a previous Papa John’s in that same plaza several years ago, but that one wasn’t owned by Daniel and Marryann. As a restaurant writer, I always look for certain things on my first visit, and at the very top of the list is cleanliness. Even though they had just finished a busy lunch rush, with eight or nine drivers scurrying around town dropping off pizzas here and there, the place looked like it hadn’t even opened yet. The old saying, “You could eat off the floor” came as close to being true as I have ever seen.

I asked Daniel why he chose Papa John’s, and he cited the company’s efforts to use fresh mushrooms (from in and around Kennett Square, Pa, of course), sauce made with tomatoes from one individual farm in California, and black olives from a single orchard in Spain. Never-frozen dough doesn’t hurt either. Compared to Pizza Hut’s 11,000-plus locations worldwide, Papa John’s 4,000 seem rather paltry. But it gives franchisees incentive to try harder and to get creative with their promotions. A prime example is the smartphone app designed to make pizza procurement positively painless. You can order and pay with or without an account, and receive coupons and special promotions including PapaPoints to earn free pizzas.

Daniel and Marryann are genuinely proud to be part of the community, and love to donate pizzas where pizzas are needed and appreciated. The Camden location donates 30 pizzas to a community dodgeball program for local kids, as well as providing pies for Habitat for Humanity workers.

No, this isn’t a commercial for Papa John’s. I didn’t even get a free slice (though Dan did offer). But I admire hands-on owners, and the Ramirez’ spotless store, along with Daniel’s down-to-earth personality (and, let’s face it, the really cool car) all add up to something I thought you might want to know about.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.