Emerging Concepts | July 2011 | By Judy Kneiszel

One to Watch: Pizza Ranch

Iowa-based pizza concept thrives on buffet style.

Pizza Ranch features many types of specialty pies.
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Adrie Groeneweg grew up with Pizza Ranch, but not as a customer. Rather, Groeneweg started the company when he was just 19 years old, and both he and the concept have come of age together.

“I was just out of high school and working full time for a welder and part time for a pizza place,” Groeneweg says. “I’d come home from the pizza place and tell my dad how busy they were.”

That was in Hull, Iowa, a town of about 1,900 people in the northwest corner of the state, which Groeneweg and his dad thought could support a second pizza restaurant. So they found an old 4,000-square-foot building to renovate, and $16,000 worth of used equipment to purchase. Groeneweg’s dad signed for a business loan.

“This was in the early ’80s, so the interest on that loan was 17.5 percent,” Groeneweg says.

Signing for a loan at such a high rate showed how much faith the older Groeneweg had in his son’s ability to succeed, despite the fact that neither one of them had experience in the restaurant business beyond Groeneweg’s part-time job. His faith was not misguided, however, as the first location was so successful that a second was added in 1984, and the concept has continued to grow continuously over the last 27 years.

“I was a kid who liked to cook, so I played around with sauce and dough recipes and came up with something I liked,” Groeneweg says. “And there’s something about my palate where the food I create is the food most people like to eat. Everything has my touch on it with our food. We’re famous for our pizza, but have quite a name for our broasted chicken, too. Between the two we really hit every age group.”

The menu has expanded beyond Groeneweg’s original recipe to include thin-crust, pan-style, and gluten-free pizzas.

Specialty pizzas at Pizza Ranch include the Roundup, with beef, pepperoni, Italian sausage, onions, mushrooms, and black olives; and the Stampede, with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, Italian sausage, beef, mushrooms, green and black olives, onions, and green peppers. The Tuscan Roma with spinach, tomatoes, and Alfredo sauce is a popular contemporary offering.

“The original sauce recipe hasn’t changed, but we’ve added an Alfredo sauce option,” Groeneweg says. “We’ve also added wraps and a pretty substantial salad bar that we didn’t have when we started.”

The biggest evolution since that first Pizza Ranch opened was becoming primarily a buffet concept.

PIZZA RANCH

President/founder: Adrie Groeneweg

HQ: Orange City, Iowa

Year Started: 1981

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total Units: 157

Franchise Units: 156

www.pizzaranch.com

“We always had a noon buffet and a Tuesday night buffet, and when we started getting into bigger communities customers were asking for buffet every night,” Groeneweg says. “We stayed away from that as long as we could because we didn’t think buffets had the best reputation.”

But Pizza Ranch proved that theory wrong when it started offering a nightly buffet about 10 years ago.

Now Groeneweg says buffet diners account for 75 percent of a Pizza Ranch location’s business, and that number continues to grow. The remainder of the business is split evenly between delivery and carryout. All locations have drive-up windows.

“Rarely does anyone order off the menu,” he says. “Customers have the option, but that’s pretty unusual.”

One reason ordering off the menu is so infrequent is that customers don’t have to settle for whatever happens to be out on the buffet when they arrive at the restaurant.

“We have what we call ‘The Buffet Your Way,’” Groeneweg says. “We ask customers if there is a specific pizza they would like. Then we’ll make it, bring it to the table, and let them take as many pieces as they want. About half of our customers make a special request.”

He says pepperoni pizza is ordered the most, but they do get “some interesting choices from people.” In addition, Pizza Ranch tries to present interesting choices of its own in the form of a new pizza every quarter. The company recently featured a Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza.

While prices vary slightly by location, Groeneweg says, the buffet typically costs $9 at lunchtime and $10 for dinner. The ticket average is boosted by carryout and delivery, and comes in at about $16.

Soft drinks are included in the buffet price.

“We want people to come in and know the price of buffet is all they will pay and there are no extra costs,” Groeneweg says. “Customers appreciate that.”

In addition to pizza, chicken, and a salad bar, diners also enjoy dessert from the Pizza Ranch buffet, including Cactus Bread coffee cake. Newer locations also have soft-serve ice cream.

Pizza Ranch has opened four new locations in 2011, and has plans for 11 more before year’s end. There are 157 Pizza Ranch locations spread across Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

“We’ve been opening 12–15 a year, and starting next year we are going to try to open 25 a year,” Groeneweg says.

Part of the Pizza Ranch growth plan is to open more corporate stores. This will lend credibility to suggestions the corporation makes to franchisees, Groeneweg says.

“It will allow us to be more hands on, and if we find something has worked for us, it puts more weight behind the idea,” he says. “We don’t want franchisees saying, ‘You don’t have your own store, how do you know?’”