Hours before the doors open at Partners II Pizza, Marilyn Royal is on the job, reviewing sales, schedules, reports, and payroll, ordering food and supplies, preparing Peachtree City’s iconic restaurant for the day.
She’s immersed in the nitty gritty operations, conferring with managers, discussing where extra help may be required or other concerns of the day. She looks around to see what needs attention and will sweep the floor or clean a restroom if needed.
When the doors open, she’ll wander around the restaurant visiting with customers, help run the register, tend the salad bar, give the cooks a hand in the kitchen, sweep the floor again.
While she’s running the day-to-day, husband Jim Royal is upstairs handling the accounting and bookwork. They’ve perfected this division of labor over three decades. A classic Mom and Pop, he’s behind the scenes, she’s out front.
They usually take a break in the afternoon. At home, Marilyn starts dinner, which she cooks five nights a week.
“I go home and get everything I need chopped so when I get home, I’ve got only one or two things left to do to get dinner done in 30 minutes.”
The day before our interview, she cooked chicken thighs and roasted Brussel sprouts.
They’re back in the store in time for the shift change, making sure everyone is there and knows what to expect. When that’s handled, they make their way down the Aberdeen Shopping Center walkway to Y-Knots, the neighborhood bar they also own. There, they make sure everything is working and ready for the evening’s business.
Back at home, it’s dinner and discussion time, because even though they may be together all day, there’s hardly time to talk. Important conversations usually happen offsite.
Marilyn often monitors sales from home in the evening and will adjust staffing as needed. If business is slow, she’ll text directions to send a few people home.
The 69-year-old entrepreneur insists there’s no secret to running a successful restaurant. In fact, she says, only two ingredients are required: enthusiasm and sacrifice.
“You just have to want to,” she says, “and you have to be able to sacrifice some other things to make it happen.”
Marilyn has been a part of the operation since she began working part-time at Partners II in 1984. Four years before, she and her husband, Ron Moore, and their two daughters had moved to the Atlanta area, where he was selling beverages to the airlines. The family chose to live in Peachtree City because they had become friends with Jim and Connie Royal when both couples lived in Florida.
“The only people I know in Georgia are Jim and Connie Royal,” Marilyn told Ron, “so we’re going to have to live where they do.”
Not long after the move, Ron was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Marilyn spent the next five years caregiving and “growing up,” she says. When she went to work part-time at Partners, she ran the register, helped with inventory, and did some data entry.
She had no restaurant experience to offer, but told the Royals, “I’ve got to do something. All I want to do is push buttons.”
The couple of hours a day she spent at the restaurant provided a break from caregiving.
Two years later, widowed at age 36, she began working more hours at Partners, but not yet full-time. Her daughters, still young, would come to the restaurant every day after school. Partners was a second home and a big part of their lives.
Meanwhile, Jim and Connie divorced. Eventually, Marilyn and Jim began dating.
The couple married in 1991, “right here at the restaurant,” Marilyn said. Former Peachtree City Mayor Fred Brown officiated.
More than a hundred people came for the ceremony, which took place in one of the dining rooms while the rest of the restaurant was still open for business. When people came in that night, the hostess would ask, “Are you here for the wedding or to eat?”
A few jokesters had Domino’s pizza delivered to the reception.
Jim and Marilyn are celebrating 28 years of marriage this year. Two years ago, Partners celebrated its 40th anniversary.
Restaurant profit margins average six percent, which means a $12 pizza, if you’re lucky, sends about 72 cents to the bottom line. Making it pay for more than 40 years is a feat. Partners is not only the longest-serving food establishment in Peachtree City, but it’s also one of the oldest local businesses of any kind. We’ve all consumed a lot of pizza to make that work.
Marilyn has worked tirelessly, side-by-side with Jim, to grow the restaurant. A pizza dive that began with 45 seats and 10 pizza toppings now has 340 seats in three dining rooms where nationally award-winning pizzas are served every day. They’ve expanded from the original location in Aberdeen Village to opening stores at Braelinn Shopping Center in Peachtree City and in Summergrove in Newnan. They’ve also franchised stores in Fayetteville, Tyrone, and Woodstock.
In addition to owning Y-Knots, they also own the Aberdeen Shopping Center.
Yet, with all this cred, Marilyn doesn’t think of herself as a successful business person.
“I just love to come to work,” she says.
And come to work she does, bringing a legendary work ethic to the store every day.
“I try not to do anything today I can put off ’til tomorrow,” Jim says. “Marilyn, on the other hand, wants to do it now.”
She leads by example.
“She is one of the hardest working people I have ever met,” long-time employee Molly Connell says. “She is the backbone of a seven-day-a-week operation. Her work ethic is nearly indescribable. And it is contagious. People see her stepping in to help, getting things done, taking care of her customers. It creates a sense of purpose, and folks follow her, emulating her. That is one of the reasons she is so successful.”
Even her accountant finds her remarkable.
“Marilyn is the type of business owner that will do whatever is needed,” Dale Geeslin, CPA and managing member of the Geeslin Group, says. “She will run back-up in the kitchen, bus tables, and clean out the storm drain before flooding.”
Forty-five minutes into the late afternoon interview for this story, we took a break so that she could personally deliver pizza to McIntosh High School.
Marilyn credits her parents with passing down their work ethic. Her father was an electrician, her mother secretary to a bank president. Marilyn’s first job was as a bank teller.
“Watching my parents, my dad worked six days a week just to get by. I thought that’s what I need to do.”
The family lived in upstate New York when she was born, moving to warmer Florida when she was 9 years old. Growing up, Marilyn was a gymnast, spending hours after school everyday training, becoming Florida’s All Around State Gymnast when she was 12. Later she taught gymnastics. The discipline she learned from the sport likely boosted her work ethic too.
She’s also famous for the way she takes care of employees. Recruiting and keeping good people is a challenge in any business, but for restaurants, it’s imperative and even more problematic.
“If you don’t have them, it’s going to be very difficult to run this business. We’re fortunate enough. We try to take care of people, so it’s not a huge challenge, but it could be because a business this size can’t run on two people. You’ve got to be able to depend on other people.”
Treating people fairly is where the Royals start.
“I can honestly say I’ve never asked an employee to do something that I haven’t already done,” Marilyn says. “That includes cleaning toilets. Sometimes I’ll do it because I hate to even ask them to do it. I’ve cleaned up some messes that I didn’t want anybody else to have to deal with.”
Currently, more than 50 people are on the payroll, but over the years, thousands – most of them high school and college students working part-time – have worked at Partners.
“It’s easier to say who hasn’t worked at Partners than who has,” Marilyn says. “We were just tossing a number around the other day and [someone] said, ‘Do you think it’s been 4,000 kids,’ and I said, ‘Oh my god. Easily. Easily it’s been 4,000.’”
She finds a place for returning college students on the summer schedule, which usually works well because the high school kids are ready for a break.
“Marilyn is wonderful to work for,” Molly says. “She tries to take care of every one of her employees and treats them like family. While the operation of the restaurant comes first, she has found a way to be a friend and mentor while still being the boss.”
Molly played softball with Marilyn’s daughters. She began working for Partners in 1988 during summers, spring and Christmas breaks. When Molly came home to Peachtree City in 1991, she returned to Partners. Even though she works full-time for the City of Peachtree City now, she continues to work part-time for Marilyn to this day.
“I still refer to her as one of my kids, one of the kids that works at Partners,” Marilyn said. “They’re all my kids. I want to know what they did after college. I want to know what they’re doing.”
The invitation to a 35th anniversary reunion of employees included a promise that the statute of limitations had run out on any “stupid stuff” they’d done. Stories were told.
Marilyn is soft-spoken. If she needs to get the team’s attention, she stands on her tiptoes. When that happens, they say, “She’s on her toes! Look out!”
“I let them know if I’m not happy, we gotta change this.”
Retirement isn’t something she and Jim think about. Marilyn says she doesn’t work as hard physically as she has in the past, “but I could if I had to.”
Technology does some of her heavy lifting. Placing food and supply orders online saves time meeting with vendors. Modern software makes monitoring sales and reporting quicker and easier. Communicating with managers and team members is virtually instantaneous.
“We truly have done this so long we don’t know anything else,” Marilyn says. “When we’re closed here and we’re both home for the day we look at each other and say, ‘We could do this every day.’ And I say, ‘How awful!’”
Friends say, “How do you work with your husband?”
“We do not function well when we’re not together,” she explains. “If for some reason I’m not here, he comes down and wanders around the restaurant. If he’s not here, I stay up in the office and don’t get anything done. It’s really very strange.”
They travel some these days, carefully planned short trips to diminish the disruption to business, and they’re looking forward to renovating the shopping center and opening a boutique bowling alley this fall. Beyond that, they plan to continue doing what they do.
Whether or not the drive to get it right, to do it well, is genetic or learned – nature or nurture – it’s hard to miss the fact that all four daughters in the couple’s blended family grew up to be businesswomen. Like Marilyn, they picked up their parents’ work ethic.
Marilyn’s daughter, Taasha Blevins, runs the Summergrove Partners. Jim’s daughter, Tiffany Frieze, runs the Braelinn store. His daughter, Rebecca, owns Grazing Here, Royal Learners, and Royal Animal Refuge. Marilyn’s daughter, Lynsey Benton, and Lynsey’s husband own Atlantic Tape, a packaging company in Peachtree City.
Each of the girls brings a little bit of Marilyn into their businesses.
“What she has taught me about business and life is that hard work pays off and it’s ok to make a mistake,” Taasha says. “It’s how we learn and grow from the mistake is what is important. She has a great work ethic, and I have definitely acquired that from her.”
“She’s who I go to with all of my questions,” Tiffany says. “At least one a day. She’s been doing it for so long. She’s got it worked out. She’s creative. She’s influenced me to make my restaurant as good as possible. I want to look outside the box. I take a lead from her on all of that.”
“I most definitely learned that I always need to be the hardest working person in the room,” Lynsey says. “No matter how successful you are in your company, you have to have a relentless drive and passion. I have seen that in her my whole life and transferred that over into my own family business as well.”
Friends and family all talk about how nurturing, kind, and dependable she is.
Long-time friend Lois Bernard says this:
“No matter what’s going on with Marilyn, if someone needs a question answered or help, she will always put aside what she has going on and help you out. She’s just that girl.”
The woman whose first restaurant job was running the cash register never imagined her life today.
“I never thought I’d be in this position,” she says. “I mean I grew up in a trailer park, that kind of stuff. No college education. I just never thought I’d be doing something like this.”
She’s serious about preserving the tradition that Partners represents.
“I’ve had people come in and say, ‘we just left the airport. This is our first stop we’re making coming back into town. We’ve got to eat here.’”
“It makes you really feel good.”
The woman who doesn’t think of herself as a business person doesn’t have to think about what she should be doing. She just takes care of business.
“Other people are depending on me to have things in position for them. The community depends on Partners.”
The woman who says there is no secret to running a successful restaurant is unaware that she is, in fact, a secret ingredient.