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RJ’Z Express reopens with new Godfather’s

Randy Walter and his partners have rebuilt their RJ’Z Express convenience store at the intersection of Highway 1 and Main Street in Solon. The new store, with a Godfather’s Pizza franchise, opened in mid-April. (photo by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– Randy Walter is happy to be back open.
The co-owner of the RJ’Z Express convenience store waited five months to reopen his new building, and now it’s here.
Walter and his partners John Himmelsbach and Tom Zumsande made the decision to tear down the existing building in order to expand its retail and food opportunities.
“Being locally owned, we wanted to serve the Solon community better,” Walter said.
The business closed at the end of November and the walls came down in December.
The new structure almost triples the previous square footage, providing space for a walk-in beer cooler, a full kitchen and an upstairs office with storage.
The full kitchen will feature the same menu offered at the RJ’Z location on the southwest side of Iowa City, which features hand-breaded tenderloins, steakburgers and sub sandwiches, but the biggest change in the menu is the addition of a Godfather’s Pizza franchise.
“Their reputation and name is known nationwide,” Walter said.
The 40-year-old family-owned pizza chain, headquartered in Omaha, Neb., has more than 600 locations in more than 40 states, including traditional dine-in restaurants and express outlets.
The RJ’Z trio visited with the owner of stores in Walford and Swisher, John Frese, and asked about his experience incorporating Godfather’s into his local British Petroleum (BP) stations.
Encouraged by his feedback, Walter and Zumsande attended franchice training in Omaha, Neb.
“We’ve always been Godfather’s Pizza fans, and that helped,” he said.
RJ’Z reopened April 15, but the pizza oven didn’t start cranking out Godfather’s Pizza until May 5.
“Construction was just one week behind,” Walter said. “We definitely got great weather to do it, and everything turned out just how we wanted it to.”
The store will continue to offer a no-fee ATM, garbage stickers, liquid propane, fire wood and hunting and fishing licenses, and the unisex restroom has been replaced with men’s and women’s bathrooms.
The diesel pump has been moved under the canopy and the air hose has taken it’s place, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the gasoline in the tanks, he said.
“We know there’s a lot of people who like the BP gas, which is a tremendous fuel,” Walter said. “They have a very high-quality gas.”
BP’s detergent additive helps keep car engines clean, but the company also offers great money-back savings to customers through a rewards program, he said.
All you need is a rewards card to receive discounts at the pump, and Walter said he’d be happy to explain the program to anyone who walks into the store.
Walter, 51, is a native of Norway, and as such he grew up playing baseball, something he continued at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) and even in some regional semi-pro leagues.
Walter, Himmelsbach and Zumsande grew up together as part of Norway’s Class of 1982, and they recently gathered their old baseball team back together in April for the 50-and-Over National Baseball Tournament in Las Vegas.
“We took our high school team from the early ‘80s to Vegas and won it,” he said. “It was pretty crazy.”
He’s still sore.
The three formed RJ’Z almost 10 years ago when Walter was employed at the Farmers Savings Bank in Walford.
He studied management and finance at UNI, and after 15 years as a systems architect at Genencor International (now a division of DuPont Industrial Biosciences), he joined the banking industry.
It was while he was at the Farmers Savings Bank that a convenience store on the south side of Iowa City went into default. It became Walter’s job to sell the property.
That’s when RJ’Z was born.
Walter convinced his former classmates, Himmelsbach (a farmer) and Zumsande (an employee at Genencor) to join him in purchasing the store.
“We wanted to get into a business that we could hopefully someday have a supplemental income,” he said.
Three years later, they purchased the Solon Mustang Market from Sam and Sammi Grabin.
“The business was successful in Iowa City and we decided we would like to grow,” he said. When the three partners learned the Mustang Market was up for sale, they came up to Solon, checked out the site and made an offer.
Walter didn’t start working at the stores until two years ago, after Farmers Savings Bank was sold, and the partners decided someone needed to be more closely involved in the daily operations of RJ’Z.
Walter has mostly worked at the Iowa City location, but now he’s spending a lot of time in Solon, where his kids attend school. Addison is a first grader, while twins Isabel and Lily will start kindergarten in the fall.