Instructor opens business with help of students


Curtis Almeter

Photo illustration by Curtis Almeter

“It ain’t every day a nutty professor starts a business with students and lets the students run the business.”

JJ Spurlin is an associate professor of criminal justice at Missouri Southern. He’s also now a business owner.

“That’s what it is,” he said. “It’s a simple concept.”

JJ’s Woodfire Pizza, located at 1612 S Madison in Webb City, opened three weeks ago, created from a dream Spurlin had about giving back to his students.

Spurlin lost one of his homes in the May 22 tornado.

Luckily, that home was well-insured and provided him with enough money that he had planned to make a sizable donation to the University. Instead, he decided to use the money to give back to students.

“The more I thought about it, I wanted it to be a straight line right to the student body because Southern had done a lot for me,” he said.

That’s when it hit him: Start a business with the help of students and let those same students run the business. It was a novel idea, something he had certainly never been involved with before.

Better yet, it was the opportunity he’d been looking for. By opening a business and allowing students to help run it, he could impact their lives by giving them jobs and real world experience.

“It was something that I really wanted to do for myself as well, but I wanted to do it with the kids,” he said. “I wanted to do it for them. With them, though them, for them.”

That thought has been a sort of motto through the entire process of getting the business off the ground.

Spurlin hand-picked the students he wanted to help him through the process, making sure to choose students who could balance the additional workload on top of their school schedule. In all, he chose seven students to join him in the journey.

Britni Stanley, junior criminal  justice major, is one of those students. When she was first asked to be a part of the business, she thought her professor had lost his mind.

“Wow, I just told him I didn’t want anything to do with the restaurant business because it wasn’t going to look good on my professional résumé, and now he’s asking me to start a restaurant with him,” she said. “I kind of wanted to cut my tongue off at that point. ”Stanely comes from an Italian family. She said food is big in her family, so she knows what she’s looking for in a quality restaurant.

“I’ve just always loved the atmosphere of a really nice, good customer service, friendly atmosphere restaurant,” she said.

Knowing what they liked in restaurants was a big piece of the beginning steps for these students as they helped Spurlin build toward the launch of JJ’s Woodfire Pizza in January. Each student was paid a consulting fee, and through meetings and a lot of hard work, the group started to come up with a coherent plan.

“None of us have been in business,” Spurlin said. “Most of us are criminal justice majors, then we have one respiratory therapist. Of course then we used the resources from the institution here, the small business, business development center here at Missouri Southern. It’s just been a fantastic resource.”

Spurlin said those resources at the University helped him set up the LLC, plans for the restaurant, marketing ideas and even the federal and state tax identification numbers.

“I’m just trying to be as humble as I possibly can,” he said. “I’ve never necessarily ran my own business where I  had to concentrate on that aspect of it. The learning curve is huge when you’re doing it for yourself, you know.”

Though his students first thought him crazy for such an idea, those he asked to join the project quickly realized what Spurlin was onto. Once he explained the plan in detail, their interest took an upswing.

“There’s something about, for lack of a better word, the ignorance of youth,” he said. “It’s so positive, and the sky’s absolutely the limit, within reason.”

Within a week of initial talks, his students believed in the business. More importantly, they believed in Spurlin’s vision.

It wasn’t about getting rich by any stretch. It was about helping students get some work experience while putting some money in their pockets as well as re-connecting with a community so torn apart by the tornado that took the home Spurlin lost.

“We’ve really inundated ourselves into the community, and when we say that, we don’t say it lightly,” Spurlin said. “From the schools to, we’ll shop the local farmer’s market, to local business, to the art clubs all around, we say it, and we stand by it.”

To be clear, Spurlin didn’t start the business to get away from Missouri Southern. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

He’s got a background in child abuse investigations, something helpful for his current job as an associate professor of criminal justice, but that’s a job that can really take a toll on a person spiritually and emotionally.

Seeing what he’d seen in that job is what makes him appreciate working with his students, both on campus and off.

“When you come from that and that kind of job, it’s just a miserable job,”  he said. “Basing it on that, you’ve got to just be thankful every day that God gave you the opportunity to be out here doing something like this, working with kids. It’s just refreshing. When you have that basis of reality on how tough life really is out there, then you’re doing this. .. I mean this is just like the neatest thing ever, so there’s a genuine love of it. I’m at Missouri Southern doing this because I love it.”

That passion for teaching and helping these students in any way possible has carved a special place for Spurlin in his students’ hearts. Stanley called him a friend just as much as he is a professor or boss.

“He wants us to succeed,” she said. “That’s his number one goal, that we, his students, his ‘kids’ as he calls us, he wants us to succeed and do well. He always says whether he makes money or not, we’re going to be making some money at least for six months.”