BY CARMEN SIERING
When Jeff Mease and Lennie Busch fell in love while students at Indiana University in the 1980s, they couldn’t have imagined that decades later they would be partners in one of the most successful businesses in Bloomington. As co-owners of One World Enterprises, Jeff and Lennie reign over Pizza X, Lennie’s Restaurant and Brewpub, Bloomington Brewing Company, One World Catering & Events, and the newly opened One World KitchenShare. They also own a 69-acre farm west of Bloomington where they are raising water buffaloes and heritage-breed pigs and growing organic hops.
Their story might not be nearly as interesting if these college sweethearts had gone on to marry and live happily ever after. As it happened, in 1983 they did marry, but 10 years later they divorced, just as One World Enterprises was taking off. So how is it that their business partnership survived and has enjoyed so much success?
“It’s sort of a yin-yang thing,” says Lennie, One World’s CFO. “He does the vision, I make sure the trains run on time. Jeff comes up with these . . .”
“ . . . harebrained ideas,” says Jeff, the company’s CEO, finishing Lennie’s sentence. “Occasionally they work.”
“Usually they work!” they say in unison, laughing.
The first “harebrained idea” Jeff came up with was working as a delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza when he was a college sophomore.
Lennie had a 1976 Chevette and agreed to let Jeff use it for deliveries. “The deal was I would keep her car in gas and take her out to dinner on Sunday nights because the dorms didn’t serve dinner,” he says.
Working for Domino’s, Jeff saw the beauty of its systems. “In those days, Domino’s had two stores in Bloomington, and they ran circles around everybody,” he says. Domino’s was streamlined, efficient, and made a good product. But Jeff, who had worked in his father’s grocery store, saw something else about the large franchise, too.
“I’d grown up in this unique environment where I could really see what Domino’s was missing, and that was the local connection,” he says. “It was clear to me that Domino’s couldn’t do that. They just couldn’t do it, and we could do it.” Things like promotions during the week of Little 500.
At age 19, Jeff got his father to co-sign a loan and opened Pizza Express. He and Lennie knew their market — Jeff was still an IU student [he never graduated], Lennie had just graduated. They sold at a loss for
a while, but the business grew. Soon they opened a second location. Then, in 1989, they opened Lennie’s and put a lot of time and money into making it successful, too. By the early ’90s, One World was on its way. That’s when they realized their personal relationship was on shaky ground.
Oddly enough, while the two had always shared equally in the running of their business ventures, it wasn’t until they were splitting up that Lennie became a full partner in One World. Jeff says that course correction seemed to come naturally during the divorce proceedings. “By the time we actually got to the legal paperwork, we were friends and decided we were going to be 50-50 partners, that we had no interest in having any sort of fighting with attorneys, and we ended up finding an attorney to just write it up.”
“Our attorney did say, ‘I know both of you, and we’re all friends, but somebody’s got to divorce somebody,’” Lennie says, grinning. “So we flipped a coin, and I won, so I divorced him!”
Lennie has since remarried. She and her husband, Tom, have a daughter, Lizzy, who will be 13 on October 23.
After the divorce, the business continued to thrive. In 1994, Bloomington Brewing Company, Monroe County’s first brewery, opened. Pizza Express became Pizza X in 2008, and now has five locations. Later, they added One World Catering & Events. Their latest venture is One World KitchenShare, a 24/7/365 rental kitchen. In a sense, it has taken them full circle.
“The barriers to entry in the food service industry are so much higher than they were when we started Pizza Express,” Lennie says. They see KitchenShare as a way to lower those barriers for others while investing in their own future.
Jeff explains that KitchenShare allows them to rent space to other food service businesses, who put in private kitchens, then share everything from a loading dock and trash pickup to Wi-Fi and a lunch room. “It’s a co-work model, and everybody wins,” he says.
As for their own future, that’s part of the plan, too. “We win because we own the building and eventually Lennie and I can retire. Way, way, way down the road after we’ve paid off the bank,” he says with a grin.