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Paying it forward: Army vet buys pizza shop where he was mentored as a teen, hoping to do the same

Posted at 11:26 PM, Sep 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-08 09:40:23-04

AURORA, Colo. – There must be something in the pizza dough at Black Jack Pizza on East Alameda, because it's had a positive, life-changing impact on many people who have walked through its doors.

That includes 39-year old Ronald Burdette, an Army veteran who recently purchased the shop, with the aim of mentoring young employees the way he was mentored by the previous owner.

Burdette told Denver7 that he applied for a job at Black Jack when he was 15 years old.

He had another job, but felt he had been mistreated.

"They had me cleaning the floors on my hands and knees with napkins," he said. "At the time, I didn't know what was going on, but another lady there did, and she created a pretty big uproar."

Burdette said that on his way home, he walked past Black Jack and noticed a "now hiring" sign in the window.

"I walked in a little distraught," he said. "The owner, Ed Jeffords, picked up on something not being quite right."

"(Ron) came into the store and asked for an application, but he could barely see over the counter," Jeffords chuckled. "He was an eager and ready-to-get-after-it young fella."

Jeffords hired teen on the spot.

"He started teaching me a work ethic," Burdette said. "He started teaching me responsibility, discipline and consequences. He gave me the structure that I didn't have at home."

"Ron was just a sponge," Jeffords said. "He soaked in the entire atmosphere of the store."

After working at Black Jack for 3 years, the young teen joined the Marines.

Four years later, he switched to the Army, where he served for an additional 16 years, and then retired.

He credits Jeffords' mentorship for his success.

Kept in Contact

Jeffords told Denver7 that Burdette always kept in contact and occasionally asked him about the pizza shop and whether he wanted to sell it. He said he always told him he wasn't ready.

That recently changed, as did some events in Jeffords' life.

Jeffords called his former employee and asked if he wanted to purchase the shop.

Burdette said yes.

Pizza Shop's Impact More than Monetary

"I know the hundreds of youth that this Black Jack has changed, mentored, taught and sent out to the community," he said.

Halimah Abushahma, the current general manager, is one of them.

"I lost my father when I was 12 years old," she said. "He was murdered in my house."

Abushahma told Denver7 that Jeffords helped her, just like he helped Burdette.

"I didn't even realize he was a father figure until just a few years ago," she said. "He helped me cope with the loss of my father."

Employee Jasmine Retland has honed her mentoring skills at Black Jack.

"I'm actually in a mentor program at my school," she said, "mentoring freshmen and sophomores, to make sure they have a good foundation and stability, and know that somebody is there for them."

Burdette said Abushahma's and Retland's experience shows that the pizza shop has more value than just monetary.

That's part of the lesson he want to impart.

"I don't look at life as the money that you make, or the property that you own," he said. "I look at is as the lives that you have affected."

He said the shop is like a second family to many of the people who work there.

"I know the shop's value in the community, in the youth and in the people that it raised," he said.

Paying it Forward

After spending 20 years in the military, Burdette said he wants to pay it forward to others.

In addition to mentoring youth, he wants to provide discounts to those in the military, and to first responders.

He told Denver7 that military, firefighters, police and paramedics, in uniform, will get a discount on regular-priced carryout orders from his shop on East Alameda.

The maximum discount is $40, with wings, ice cream and drinks excluded.