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From principal’s office to the pizza guy

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Jeff Liotard will open his second Mt. Mike’s Pizza location in Manteca — and his sixth overall — at the new shopping center anchored by Save Mart targeted to break ground later this year on the sou...

DENNIS WYATT/The Bulletin/

POSTED January 24, 2018 12:56 a.m.

Jeff Liotard dominated the line as a tackle playing both ways for the Ripon High Indians in 1983.
So much that during a game in Patterson that the Tigers coach sent in a substitute with orders to goad No. 73 into fighting in a bid to get him tossed out of the game.
Liotard obliged and got ejected by officials.
The following Monday as practice ended, Ripon head coach Don Widmer barked out Liotard’s name.
Liotard knew what was coming — repeated sets of 10 yards of sprints then followed by 10 yards of bear crawls until he covered 500 yards. The 6-foot-5 Liotard didn’t accept the punishment. Instead he did 1,000 yards of sprints and bear crawls. And then when Widmer told him to hit the showers, Liotard said he couldn’t because he still had two miles to run.
It wasn’t what Widmer would expect from a player he punished.
It speaks volumes about the 52-year-old Liotard who — along with wife Tevani — will soon own their fifth and sixth Mt. Mike’s Pizza including one targeted to break ground in late fall as part of the new shopping center anchored by Save Mart at Atherton Drive and South Main Street in South Manteca.
He’s the same guy who once went into bankruptcy and then instead of seeking relief from debts paid every cent back.
He’s the same guy when almost everyone else was panicking at the depth of the Great Recession opened not one but three Chilaberries Frozen Yogurt shops — one in Manteca and two in Tracy.
He’s the same guy who has made 50 trips to Central America as part of a Manteca Rotary international service project that has provided 80,000 people so far with eye glasses. Liotard also has been involved with providing functional prosthetic hands for those needing them in the region and is currently working on an endeavor through Assist International based in Ripon to equip Central American hospitals with tech equipment American medical facilities are discarding.
He’s the same guy who has opened his restaurant on Thanksgiving Day for the past eight years and then coordinated the Manteca Rotary and Sunrise Kiwanis preparation of a community Thanksgiving meal that fed 2,400 people last year. Liotard also heads up the Manteca Rotary Super Bowl Sunday omelet breakfast coming up on Feb. 4 at the MRPS Hall that typically serves over 1,100 people and works with the service club to prepare food for Phil Waterford’s Manteca Ford’s annual Christmas Eve breakfast.

Liotard never doubted
he would be successful
Not bad considering his elementary school principal — Leo Zuber — once told him of Ripon elementary school top five “problem” students for getting into the trouble that he topped the list.
“I never thought that I was not going to be successful,” Liotard said Tuesday at his original Mt. Mike’s location in the Save Mart shopping center at Louise Avenue and North Main in Manteca.
Liotard who jokes that he doesn’t read books, never intended to go to college and never did.
While it is true as an 8-year-old he bought comic books, he didn’t read them.
“I don’t like comic books,” Liotard said.
What he “liked” were the ads in the back with a coupon encouraging kids to send money in to buy seeds that they could sell and keep the profits.
He sold a lot of seeds and was able to buy a lot of stuff.
“I got hooked on being an entrepreneur back then,” he said.
While he didn’t know exactly what he’d do after high school, owning a pizza parlor let alone six wasn’t on the radar. That’s why it is ironic that he repeatedly was turned down by Bob Wiley —owner of the Ripon Pizza Plus — every time he inquired about a new job opening that as posted.
“All I knew was I wanted to make money, a lot of money,” Liotard recalled as a 19-year-old Ripon High graduate back in 1984.
He started hitting the bricks looking for jobs. The list includes working for Johnson Controls in Livermore making seats for the Chevy Nova, laboring with All Season Landscaping based in Ripon, 15 years with Simpson Paper Mill that has since been resurrected as Diamond Pet Food in Ripon, as well as a stint where he had his own almond and walnut “shaking” business.

Liotard sealed his best
deal on April 17, 1990
It was during that time that Liotard made what he called the smartest and best move of his life — he became infatuated at first sight and then fell in love with a girl he drove past while visiting a friend in Manteca. The girl was in her family’s front yard mowing the lawn barefoot with no problem that her feet were stained green from walking on the freshly cut grass blades.
Liotard remembered thinking to himself that any girl who didn’t mind getting her feet green in moist grass was the girl for him.
Liotard came across the girl again when he found out she was working at the drive-thru window at the original McDonald’s location in Manteca that was between where Panera Bread and Manteca Bowl & Family Fun Center are today. She got his phone number. Long story short, they were married on April 17, 1990.
He credits his wife Tevani with not only making it possible for him to succeed but working alongside him doing paperwork and payroll after finishing up her “day job” over the years as a Manteca Unified educator and, for a number of years, Sierra High volleyball coach and Modesto Junior College volleyball coach.
Eleven years after he was married Liotard sat down to dinner with his wife and daughters, Jaslynn and Mahlynn, and said he had an announcement to make.
He told them he was buying the Mt. Mike’s franchise that had been in Manteca since 1983.
“I remember Jaslynn who was 8 at the time popping out her eyes and saying, ‘Oh my, gosh! I’m going to be so popular’.”
They took ownership of Mt. Mike’s in February of 2001.
After that he expanded into Angels Camp but quickly learned he wasn’t going to necessarily conquer the world without setbacks.
“It was a humbling experience,” Liotard said of having to pull out of Angels Camp.

He didn’t let
setback send
him to sidelines
That, however, didn’t stop the guy whose cockiness led him to essentially triple his punishment as a high school football player to show his coach he could handle anything dished out to him. He soon opened locations in Weston Ranch and Lathrop.
Those they sold and he ended up buying The Islander Tavern at the western end of Woodward Avenue. That sold after three years leading to the decision to open three frozen yogurt shops when the country was in the midst of a major economic panic.
Today, besides the Manteca location, Liotard owns the Mt. Mike’s in Ripon that he extensively remodeled. Two more locations are in Livermore on First Street and another on Vasco. They will start work on a third Livermore store in mid-year as well as the second Manteca location in the fall.
He credits much of his success to his 80 employees that they treat like family.
Liotard noted the tax reform just implemented by Congress is allowing him to make investments in major equipment at his stores plus assist with increasing their franchise footprint by 50 percent.
When all is said and done and the sixth location opens in 2019, he will have 120 employees.
A high energy creative thinker, Liotard says he is in his element launching a new venture such as preparing a restaurant for opening. It also means hours that most wouldn’t consider typical working into the wee hours of the morning.
Liotard noted that the hard work and risk is worth it because Mt. Mike’s has allowed him to change his life, that of his family, and those of complete strangers for better.

A pair of life changing
experiences for Liotard
He recalled in 2002 that he was approached by individuals from St. Anthony’s Catholic Church that wanted to stage a fundraiser for an 8-year-old boy battling lupus.
Liotard said the turnout stunned him and overwhelmed his staff.
“The line was all the way out the door and down to the Chinese restaurant,” he recalled.
Liotard said the massive volume and the struggle workers had to keep up with it was causing some pizzas not to be up to his quality standards.
One individual told him not to worry about it because they were there to help a kid that needed help.
“It was then I realized it (the world) is about more than money,” Liotard said.
That helped set the stage for when he joined Manteca Rotary. Club members Fred Stellhorn, an optometrist, and Mark Oliver needed a third volunteer for the Honduras eye glass project. Liotard volunteered.
He remembers carrying three gunny sacks of eye glasses to the clinic location where Stellhorn gave him a card with instructions and a brief overview of how he was to find glasses to fit patients after Stellhorn examined their eyes.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Liotard said.
His first patient was a 70-year-old woman clutching rosary beads.
Liotard took the readings Stellhorn made and searched through the glasses for a match.
“I put the glasses on her, she looked around and smiled because she could see,” Liotard said.
Then — in a moment that he said ranks right up there with the day he married Tevani and the birth of their two daughters — the woman placed her hand on his.
“This feeling shot through me,” Liotard said. “It was like a soul-to-soul experience.
The eye glasses had managed to change the lives of two people — the 70-year-old woman and Liotard.
Today, 80,000 eye glasses distributed later Liotard is still committed to the project and has expanded into other avenues to help support improved medical care for those in Central America. They already have 6,000 new pairs of eye glasses “stashed” in Honduras for the next trip.
And he’s doing that along with community outreach efforts in Manteca such as the free Thanksgiving meal as well as running four pizza parlors and getting ready to open two more.
He’s particularly fond of the Mt. Mike’s commissary seating format. He notes it encourages people to share tables and often prompts them to start conversations with strangers.
“I like talking to people and listening to them,” Liotard said. “That’s one of the best things about doing this.”

‘When they tell you
no, do it any way’
He said some of the best advice he’s gotten a neighbor and some of the best inspiration from song.
“A neighbor once told me, ‘hesitators are losers’,” Liotard recalled.
At the same time crooner Frank Sinatra has his philosophy fairly well nailed with his ballads “My Way” and “That’s Life.”
He urges young people who graduate today is to make sure they don’t waste time, to take chances, and to seize opportunities. Liotard noted at age 52 he will think of all the things he has yet to do and weighs it against time as it runs its course.
Liotard has his own advice that may not be music to the ears of a high school principal like Zuber who had to keep a campus of 350 or so students running smoothly, but he believes are words to live by.
“Break every rule there is and push them to the limit,” Liotard said. “When they tell you no, do it anyway while conducting yourself in a respectful manner.”
That’s sound advice from the South County pizza guy.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email

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