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Parker John’s BBQ & Pizza celebrates 15 years in business

With the opening of its sixth location, this time in Appleton, owners said they have no plans of slowing down

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February 24, 2023

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – What started out as a craving has since flourished into a continually growing chain of restaurants in Northeast Wisconsin known as Parker John’s BBQ & Pizza.

“Jen wanted pizza, and there was no place in Kiel to get pizza,” Aaron Sloma, co-owner of Parker John’s BBQ & Pizza, said.

Aaron, along with his wife Jennifer, started the now six-restaurant chain in 2008 in Kiel – where the two put down roots to raise their family.

“I grew up in Reedsville, Jen is from Iowa,” he said. “We moved to the Kiel area in 2006.”

At the time, the pair owned a supper club in Kiel.

One night after a long day at work, Aaron said Jen had a craving for pizza delivery, however, there weren’t any delivery options available in the small town.

So, the Slomas decided they would open one themselves.

The idea became reality in October 2008 with the opening of Parker John’s Pizza.

With two kiddos themselves, Aaron said the restaurant was definitely geared toward kids.

Then the 2008 recession hit.

“The recession took its toll on plenty of restaurants,” he said. “We watched our in-house numbers go down, but our delivery was always a successful part of the business – that’s what kept us going.”

Parker John’s is owned and operated by Aaron and Jennifer Sloma, pictured here with their two children Parker John (who is the namesake of the restaurant) and Ava. Submitted Photo

Plugging along, Aaron said three years to the day after Parker John’s Pizza – which is named after the pair’s eldest child – opened, Jen suggested the restaurant start offering BBQ in addition to pizza.

“We had worked in Kansas City for three years prior to moving back to Wisconsin, so we had some ideas on how to do barbecue,” he said. “So, we took the few discretionary dollars we had, bought a smoker, closed the inside of the restaurant for two weeks and rebranded it as Parker John’s BBQ & Pizza.”

Aaron said the rebrand and new offerings sparked a revitalization of in-house business, which never slowed.

“It just blew up,” he said. “Every year we will be up in sales, and it just never stopped.”

Aaron said the success the restaurant had with the addition of BBQ led to ideas of expansion.

“We felt like we had something that had some weight to it, and we could probably grow it,” he said.

The first expansion brought the Slomas to a property on the river in Sheboygan.

“We knew there was a site on the riverfront in Sheboygan that was going to be available,” he said. “It was a restaurant for decades. The city condemned the building and planned to tear it down. Jen and I met with the city and we agreed to terms to put our second Parker John’s restaurant on the river in Sheboygan.”

During the architectural and permitting process on the Sheboygan location, Aaron said a property in Menasha came on the market, which he said, “was too good to pass up.”

“We bought Menasha while Sheboygan was being built,” he said. “It only took us about two months to flip that. So, I think we bought it in like July and we were open by September. So, Menasha became the second Parker John’s – opening in September 2016. And then in March 2017, we opened up Sheboygan.”

Aaron said opening the second and third Parker John’s locations within six months of each other was a bit crazy.

“I mean, I wouldn’t do that now,” Aaron laughed. “And we have way more people now supporting us for management.”

During that time, Aaron said they sold the Kiel supper club.

“We had been there 10 years, but we knew if we wanted to concentrate on growing Parker John’s, we had to let that go,” he said.

At the same time, Aaron said the pair also owned a restaurant called the Log Cabin in Howards Grove.

“So, we had the three Parker John’s and we had Log Cabin – we were content,” he said.

Aaron said they didn’t start looking at expanding to Green Bay until 2019.

“We looked at multiple locations – some downtown, others closer to the stadium,” he said. “The location we’re in now, the realtor we had talked to in the past knew this was going to potentially hit the market. So, we actually bought it before it hit the market.”

Unfortunately, Aaron said the week the Green Bay Parker John’s location was set to open, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc throughout the world, so everything was shut down.

“The week we wanted to open, we couldn’t – the state shut everything down,” he said. “The health department wouldn’t inspect us, so we couldn’t get delivery carry-out off the ground.”

Aaron said the restaurant sat ready to go for 45 days because they couldn’t get a final inspection.

“We opened delivery and carry-out,” he said. “I think two or three weeks later, it got more relaxed, where you could bring people in at 50% occupancy, or whatever it was. And then we were able to open our doors to the public.”

Up next, Aaron said, was Oshkosh.

“We felt Oshkosh was a good market, a market we want to grow into,” he said. “We found a piece of land we thought could be potential to build, and then in talking to the person that owned the land, they happened to own the former Mahoney’s Restaurant. We bought it, and it became Parker John’s.”

Aaron said everything seemed to fall into place with the Oshkosh location.

“We weren’t looking for that location,” he said. “It wasn’t on the market yet. We were interested in the owner’s land, which had already been sold. So, we decided to go tour (the property). We didn’t realize how big it was. The kitchen was perfect for us. We left that meeting saying, ‘Yes, this is going to be the next Parker John’s.’”

Aaron said they began looking right away for the next location. 

“I can’t stop… even though Jen asks me to,” he laughed.

Aaron said they started looking at locations in the Grafton/Mequon areas, as well as Stevens Point.

But a call to the general manager of the Menasha location led them to a property on Appleton’s north side.

“And here we go again,” Aaron said. 

Opening only weeks ago, Parker John’s in Appleton, located at 2331 Evergreen Dr., is the couple’s sixth location.

“We bought the former Beefeaters property in June 2022,” he said. “Beefeaters was an English pub, and it was way different than what we do in a Parker John’s, both interior and exterior. We knew it was going to be a considerable remodel, rather than just walking in making some minor aesthetic changes and rebranding.”

Aaron said the Parker John’s paddock concession stand at Road America is, in his mind, the restaurant’s seventh location.

“It’s basically like a restaurant at Road America,” he said. “It’s a full-time, full-season concession stand – we’re open close to 90 days out there.”
Aaron said Parker John’s also has multiple sites at EAA each year. 

Aaron Sloma said all Parker John’s sides and barbecue sauces are made from scratch. The restaurant also slow-smokes its meat in-house. Submitted Photo

The restaurant locations also do a considerable amount of catering events each year.

Aaron said the successful growth Parker John’s has had led to them selling The Log Cabin earlier this year.

“We knew as Parker John’s continued to grow, and we continued to expand, managing multiple locations with one concept is a lot easier than trying to manage a one-off as well,” he said. “We had The Log Cabin for almost nine years, but it was time to let that go.”

Each location unique
Aaron said they “hang our hats pretty high” when it comes to the food at Parker John’s.

“All our sides are made from scratch,” he said. “We make our own barbecue sauces.”

And of course, the meats, which are slow-smoked daily in Parker John’s smokers. 

Though the food and concept of each Parker John’s are the same as the next, Aaron said each location’s decor is unique to itself.

“We make multiple trips to barn sales, auctions and antique malls,” he said. “We try to make each of these locations unique, so you’re not walking into a corporate restaurant where they all look exactly the same. We try to do something different and unique in each one.”

This, Aaron said, often happens organically.

“When we built the Parker John’s in Sheboygan, we built it with a mezzanine overlooking the bar area, which at the time was super cool,” he said. “(In the Appleton location), we have a huge carved pig seat you see right when you walk in. It’s almost eight feet tall and carved out of an ash tree. We also have flying pigs – (created by local artist 3D Steve).”

Different people every day
Working much of his adult life in the restaurant business, Aaron said he likes the hustle and bustle the restaurant industry offers.

“This is all I’ve ever done,” he said. “I started working in fast food at 15. I fell in love with restaurants. I like the excitement of the restaurant and different people every day. It was something I knew I wanted to do.”

Aaron attended Fox Valley Technical College in Oshkosh for hospitality and tourism management.

“When I finished college, I started working for Heart of America, which owns the Machine Shed in Appleton, but they’re a huge restaurant real estate company based out of Iowa,” he said. “I moved around the Midwest and trouble-shot restaurants. I opened restaurants as a guy that fixed them when something was wrong. We moved seven times in eight years.”

Eventually, Aaron said he and Jen realized they wanted to do their own thing.

He said the couple does everything restaurant-related together.

“Jen went to school to be a pilot – so, completely different from the restaurant business,” he said. “But, she’s grown to love it as much as I do. We do all the decor and set up the restaurants together.”

As the couple celebrates the 15th anniversary of the restaurant, they said they can’t imagine doing anything else.

Aaron said when he and Jen first purchased the supper club in Kiel, “we knew we weren’t going to stop at one.”

“We knew we were going to do more, and then when we learned Parker John’s had legs – did I think it would grow to this?” he said. “When you start putting the pieces of the puzzle together and putting the right people in, good things happen.” 

Aaron said the first thing he and Jen do when thinking about expanding is have a management meeting.

“We have about 35 salaried management staff across the company,” he said. “We’ll pull them all together and say, ‘Okay, this is what we have on our radar, here is what we want to do. We want to do a restaurant at this location, are you guys in?’ Because this is an entire team effort.”

Weathering COVID
Aaron said thankfully, Parker John’s avoided most of the “horror stories” the restaurant industry weathered because of the pandemic.

“You hear the stories of some of these restaurants that used to be open seven days a week and now they’re open five or six days a week,” he said. “Or they’re open seven days a week, and they don’t do dinner like they used to.” 

Aaron said Parker John’s has never had to cut hours. 

“We took an employee-first approach,” he said. “Our goal was to keep everybody employed and give those who felt safe and wanted to work, an opportunity to work.”

Aaron said Parker John’s “kept our foot on the gas while other restaurants were taking their feet off the gas pedal, limiting their hours or maybe closing altogether.”

He said that’s where some of the issues for others arose.

Aaron Sloma said part of the Appleton restaurant’s decor includes pigs “flying” from the ceiling. Submitted Photo

“We learned the restaurants that came back and reopened later, had the problem of staffing and bringing their original staff back,” he said. “They needed to make money, so they went and worked somewhere else.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Aaron said Parker John’s retained 85-90% of their staff company-wide.

“It’s all about culture,” he said. “The culture we’ve grown, people that come work for us figure out quickly what we are about. We respect work-life balance and want people to love their jobs.”

In-house delivery
Aaron said its in-house delivery services set Parker John’s apart from other restaurants. 

“We control our own delivery,” he said. “We staff our delivery drivers and have our own cars. We don’t hire third-party delivery services.”

Aaron said Parker John’s chose this route because “we want to control the food from the kitchen to the customer.”

“We’ve been delivering since before third-party delivering was a thing,” he said. “And I’m not saying they’re bad, but Jen and I feel more comfortable having our people handling our food, and it’s delivered in a Parker John’s-branded car.”

More locations?
Aaron said Parker John’s is definitely not done growing yet – when that will happen is still up in the air.

He said he “promised” Jen a two-year break before opening any new Parker John’s locations.

“We’ll take two years to let the dust settle,” he said. “But, in my head – two years means we can buy something in a year and then not open it for another year. So, that would be February 2025.”

When expansion does happen, Aaron said the couple has its eye on the Sun Prairie and Grafton/Mequon areas as possible locations for the next Parker John’s.

“One of those two cities will probably be the next one,” he said. “That’s the goal – to continue to grow the brand.”

One of the things Aaron said Parker John’s prides itself on is being involved in the community where it resides.

“We make it a point, and management knows, they need to be good stewards of the communities Parker John’s restaurants are located in,” he said. “They do fundraisers for schools and try to work with them. The staff in some locations volunteer time with different organizations in their city.”

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