Four decades ago, a quartet of men with little or no experience in the food industry embarked on a venture to create a quick-serve deli business.
They called it The Hungry Hobo.
Today, the local company operates 12 stores throughout the Quad-Cities with another on the way and has become a hometown favorite for generations of customers.
In celebration of the 40th anniversary, a few changes are coming to The Hungry Hobo — new packaging, promotions, uniforms and a website.
“While we’re still in the process of trying to expand our concept in eastern Iowa, we also wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate our 40th anniversary throughout 2013,” said Pryce T. Boeye, president and chief executive officer.
The Hungry Hobo chain was created in 1973 by brothers Jim and Joe Gende; their brother-in-law, Tom Spero; and a mutual friend, Ray Pearson. Jim Gende remains one of the owners; Spero is retired, and Joe Gende and Pearson are no longer living.
The restaurants specialize in sliced-to-order and grilled sandwiches, baked potatoes with a variety of toppings, chef-prepared soups, shredded-lettuce salads, and desserts that are baked daily in the Hobo Bakery.
Back in 1973, Jim Gende was a Moline attorney. Joe Gende was an engineer in California. Spero was married to Jim and Joe’s sister, Evelyn, and worked in marketing for an electrical company in California. Pearson, also of Moline, was a representative for Michelin Tires.
The four men converted several Little King franchise restaurants they owned in Moline, Davenport and Rock Island to their rebranded Hungry Hobo stores.
Joe Gende was president and CEO until his death in 1991, when Spero became president and CEO. In 2001, Pearson retired and sold his share of the company to Spero and Boeye. In 2004, Spero retired and sold his portion to Boeye, who became president and CEO.
There were some bumps in the road to success, Jim Gende said recently, explaining how The Hungry Hobo came to be.
“You are aware of the risks and accept the challenges,” Gende, 79, said. “But you either take on the challenge or you don’t do it.”
Gende said in 1969, he read about a new chain of submarine sandwich restaurants based in New Jersey called Little King. He and Pearson were thinking about becoming franchise owners.
“Ray and I flew to New Jersey to talk to them about getting an area distributorship,” he said. “We had a good part of northern Illinois and eventually some of Iowa. The first store opened in Moline and we should have never opened that site. There was no parking, really, and cars zooming by. But the store succeeded and we did well.”
That store was on 23rd Avenue, now Avenue of the Cities. Then came Main Street in downtown Davenport, followed by 18th Avenue in Rock Island, the same location where a Hungry Hobo is located today.
“We were on our own and basically amateurs,” Gende said.
Gende said they eventually had more than 10 Little King franchises in places such as Iowa City, Des Moines, Peoria, Kewanee, Galesburg and Des Plaines, Ill.
When the company that owned the Little King corporation filed for bankruptcy, Gende said he and Pearson decided to move forward and create their own brand. But they needed help.
Joe Gende was a mechanical engineer, married and living in California. “He decided he did not want to raise his children out there,” Jim said. So, Joe and his family moved back home to the Quad-Cities. He soon became the third owner and company president.
As the Gendes and Pearson began to strategize about how to develop their own style and company, Spero got involved.
“Joe said ‘We need Tom,’” Jim said.
“They gave me a call and inquired if I would be interested in moving my family and getting involved in a small operation,” Spero said from his home in Florida. “When I arrived, I took over the operation. We changed the name, changed the menu somewhat. We improved the quality, some locations, everything. It was completely revamped.”
Spero said the name change involved coming up with a name “as far away from ‘king’ as possible.” A hobo and a king were on opposite ends of the spectrum, they reasoned.
Jim Gende never worked behind the counter. But the other three men were hands-on.
Spero said a vital concern was finding the right bread for the sandwich. At first, they used bread from a local bakery. “But it wasn’t quite the quality we were looking for.
“We got a recipe from a fellow who was an old-time baker. He developed a recipe for us. It was an old recipe, from the turn of the century, that he had in his file. We wanted a French-style bread, but soft. He recommended a soft-crusted bread, all done from scratch.”
The partners bought a warehouse in downtown Rock Island and began producing their own bread and desserts.
New products were rolled out along the way. “The baked potatoes became a phenomenon,” Spero said of that addition.
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With the recession of the early 1980s, which was fueled by a rash of Quad-City manufacturing plant closings, Spero said a shift in focus became necessary for survival.
“There was major change in our customer base,” he said. “Our customer base was the blue-collar worker. Some of our busier times were just prior to the night shift.”
But when the bottom fell out of manufacturing, The Hungry Hobo owners set their sights on families. It worked.
For Boeye, buying into The Hungry Hobo offered an opportunity to return to the Quad-Cities after working for PepsiCo’s restaurant division. He held positions with Taco Bell in Irvine, Calif., and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville.
“I had said if the opportunity ever came up for a local restaurant in the area, I would be interested,” he said. “Then my dad said the original owners of The Hungry Hobo wanted to get out and I realized the concept had tremendous potential.”
So, he and his family moved home. Boeye works at the company’s central headquarters at 2322 3rd Ave., Rock Island. The 13,000-square-foot building is divided into a combination of bakery, commissary and office space. Two company vans head out every day with fresh bread and other baked goods.
Last year, Kris Beardsley, Spero’s son-in-law, bought into the business and became vice president of sales and operations.
“It is a good fit,” Jim Gende said. “The two young guys think alike. They are hard workers. Their views are very compatible.”
“On a macro level, the sandwich category has really exploded over the last 10 or 15 years,” Boeye said of the competition. “We have been able to keep our fair share, if not grow it. On a micro level, when someone new opens down the street, we might see a slight dip at first. But then we can even get stronger, sometimes.”
Since Boeye took over, all 12 locations have either been remodeled or moved to new locations. Negotiations are under way for a 13th store, he added.
That new store will be located on the outskirts of the immediate Quad-Cities.
Boeye said the next long-term venture could be to add drive-through lanes to the stores.