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SMYRNA – Ark Patel's bait-and-tackle store sells more than nightcrawlers and fishing lures. Besides plenty of typical convenience-store items such as drinks and snacks, he also serves up fresh, hot Hunt Brothers Pizza.

On Florence Road near J. Percy Priest Lake, almost in the shadow of the giant Nissan auto-assembly plant, his Ed's Bait & Tackle seems an unlikely place to find this Italian favorite. But there's no other pizza nearby, so Patel says demand for the product is high.

"People seem to really like it, and we get a lot of business from Nissan employees who stop in to get a slice on their way to work," Patel said.

Patel's shop here and his separate full-service convenience store a few miles away on Couchville Pike are among more than 7,000 mostly rural locations nationwide that prepare and sell the pizzas, which come from the Nashville-based Hunt Brothers Pizza.

The brothers — Charlie, Jim, Lonnie and Don — have been providing pizza for convenience and specialty outlets for more than 40 years.

It's a family enterprise that also includes Don's son Britt, whose Nashville-based Britt Hunt Co., is the largest distributor of Hunt Brothers pizza.

Britt Hunt services more than 3,000 customers in 14 states. Most are convenience stores, but they also include bowling alleys, skating rinks, marinas, campgrounds, sports venues and others.

"We provide a turn-key operation so the stores can bake and sell the pizzas on their premises, wherever they are, and they're usually in places where pizza is hard to find," said Britt Hunt, whose grandfathers were both in the restaurant business. One operated his namesake Jimmy Kelly's restaurant in Nashville for years.

Britt Hunt founded The Britt Hunt Co. in Nashville in 1992 to distribute Hunt Brothers premade pizza to convenience stores and other outlets. (Photo: G. Chambers Williams III / The Tennessean )

Also on the Hunt Brothers menu are chicken wings – bone-in and bone-free bites – served "Southern style and spicy," Hunt said.

Britt Hunt's operation is so big that he has 16 regional distribution centers and a fleet of more than 100 trucks that deliver the pizza daily.

His dad and uncles have been in the wholesale pizza business for decades, but didn't start the Hunt Brothers brand until 1991, Britt Hunt said. In 1992, they approached him about running a distributorship, and the Britt Hunt Co. was formed.

"They wanted to make the product and manage the brand, and have someone else distribute it," Hunt said.

He's not the only distributor — there are several more, including ones in Kentucky and Indiana run by other members of the Hunt family.

The Britt Hunt Co. now has 160 employees, including 38 at its Nashville headquarters and the rest at various distribution centers.

Hunt is intent on expanding his operations — and the Hunt Brothers pizza brand — well beyond its current base mostly the Southeast and Midwest, he said.

"We want to focus on growth, especially out West and in the Northeast," he said. "Our niche is rural areas where people don't have access to the big pizza chains."

Convenience store operators are the key targets, he said, because they're looking for ways to move beyond their typical main products — gas, beer and cigarettes.

"Margins on those items have gone down, so the operators are looking for new profit opportunities, and prepared foods are one of the most popular additions," Hunt said.

Hunt offers a variety of pizza kiosks to convenience stores, ranging from small — about 56 square feet of space — to more than 100 square feet.

The pizzas are offered in two forms: 12-inch round regular-crust, and 12-inch square thin-crust. The first one is $9.99, and if you buy two, the second is $8.99; all extra toppings are added at no additional cost.

A "Hunk A Pizza" — one-fourth of a whole one — is $2.89, or two for $5.49.

The seller can make a profit of up to 50 percent, and the company charges no franchise fees.

The pizza is made at contract kitchens and flash-frozen for shipment, but it isn't cooked until it gets to the store. Hunt provides stores with a conveyor oven that runs a whole pizza through in just over six minutes at 550 degrees. Active yeast in the dough keeps working up through the baking process, giving the pizza its fresh-from-the-oven taste, Hunt said.

He's also moving into the military market, having just opened his first pizza kiosk at Ft. Campbell.

"We see tremendous growth potential with the military bases," Hunt said.

Reach G. Chambers Williams III at 615-259-8076 and on Twitter @gchambers3.

By the numbers

7,000

Number of Hunt Brothers pizza locations

3,000

Number of customers of Britt Hunt Co., which distributes Hunt Brothers pizza

160

Number of Britt Hunt Co., employees

Hunt Brothers Pizza

The pizzas come in three sizes:

12-inch round regular-crust, $9.99,

12-inch square thin-crust, is $9.99

"Hunk A Pizza," one-fourth the size, $2.89

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