PALM HARBOR — Hungry Howie's Pizza & Subs founder James Hearn used to slip unannounced and unrecognized into one of the chain's 550 locations, where he would quietly place an order.
He wanted to see for himself how ordinary customers were being treated.
Hearn, 71, a Palm Harbor resident since 1982, died from a sudden illness on Tuesday.
"It was a complete shock," said Barry Devine, Hungry Howie's marketing director. "He had just beaten cancer with his usual unassuming manner and great sense of humor. This illness came out of nowhere."
Hungry Howie's, the nation's 11th-largest pizza company, grew from a small hamburger joint that Mr. Hearn bought in 1973 in a Detroit suburb. Mr. Hearn was raised in nearby Dearborn, Mich., but he didn't like the cold and wasn't fond of Michigan winters. After opening a dozen locations in Michigan over nine years, he fulfilled a lifelong dream and moved to Florida.
"He was very unassuming. He was the most laid-back individual I've ever met and had business dealings with," said Devine, who met with Mr. Hearn weekly for 28 years. "He had a knack for taking some of the most complicated issues and making them simple."
The chain grew to more than 200 Florida locations, with 550 nationwide. In the mid 1980s, it introduced flavored pizza crust, an innovation that Hungry Howie's is still known for.
Still, Mr. Hearn stayed humble, driving Chevy Astro vans and eating lunch at Taco Bell. He was known to personally deliver pizzas from several Hungry Howie's locations in north Pinellas County.
Terry Morrow, a longtime Hungry Howie's franchise owner in Lakeland, said, "He would just show up. It could be 10:30 on a Tuesday night, and he would come in and begin to help and talk. If he stayed till close, he'd help mop my floors."
Kevin Green, a longtime friend and franchise owner in Seminole, said, "The one thing Jim insisted upon all of his franchisees was that we work, and work hard in our units. Making pizzas and exceeding customer expectations is not done behind a desk, and Jim always reminded us of that by example."
The funeral service is 10 a.m. today at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church, 2405 Phillippe Parkway, Safety Harbor.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.