Carlos Martinez got his start in 1988 as a Domino’s driver with a bad sense of direction. His pizzas almost never made it to a front door in 30 minutes.
A supervisor decided to move Martinez inside to help make the pies, and he eventually climbed the management ranks to supervise a dozen Domino’s stores in western Broward County.
Pizza was so good to Martinez that he borrowed money from a family friend in 2004 to buy his own franchise in Lauderhill. Then came one in Pompano in 2007. That deal almost sunk him.
Despite selling some of the best-known discount pizza in the country, Martinez saw his sales drop to the point that he couldn’t afford his monthly loan payments.
“I thought pretty much that was it,’’ the 51-year-old father of three recalled of his nearly 30 years in the pizza business. “It was really hairy for a while.”
Martinez survived, and sales have rebounded enough that he is paying down the mountain of debt he acquired as part of a refinancing arrangement that brought temporary relief from a lender.
His brush with disaster in the economy’s darkest days — and his survival — help explain the status of business growth nearly six years after the official start of the recession in December 2007.
The latest Census data show South Florida only this year returned back to the pre-recession number of operating businesses. In the first quarter of 2013, the number of business establishments in Broward remained about 2 percent below a peak set in March 2008, while Miami-Dade hit a new record in early 2013 and now is about 1 percent better than its high in 2008. Combined, it was enough to put the region slightly ahead of where it was before 2008, as the Great Recession was gaining steam.
Between 2008 and 2010, the region saw the number of business establishments drop by 8,500, a nearly 6 percent decline. Now the count stands at about 157,000, compared to 154,000 in 2008.
“There is a Darwinian dimension to recessions. They really weed out businesses that were marginal,’’ said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. “When you feel the stress of a bad economy, that’s the real test. You come out stronger on the other end of it.”
While the recession pushed him to the brink, Martinez describes the recovery as moving him back on track. He wants to buy own five franchises eventually, and Martinez said sales are growing enough that he can see buying his third by 2015.
Dressed in shorts and a Domino’s sport shirt and cap, Martinez sits in the cramped back office of his Pompano store reviewing a clipboard with his manager’s handwritten sales tallies from the night before. Sales are up a few percentage points from the same day of the week in 2012. But it’s another statistic that encourages Martinez even more: the portion of cash sales.
During the darkest days of the recession in 2008 and 2009, Martinez saw his credit-card transactions soar. At one point, 70 percent of pizza sales went on credit cards. “People just didn’t have money,’’ he said. “They were buying food on credit.”
Now the credit-card sales have crept back down to about 40 percent of Martinez’s business. He’s seeing the average ticket price go up too, with customers more susceptible to the “up-sells” that are crucial to profitability: along with one pizza, say, for $8, how about a side of breadsticks ($4.49), wings ($5.99), or a lava cake ($1.99), too?