ORANGE CITY, Iowa -- As the political world breathlessly watched the nail-biting finish to Iowa's presidential caucuses last Tuesday night, a Northwest Iowa-based pizza chain caught the attention of the Internet.
The Twitter hashtag #PizzaRanch became a "trending topic," one of the most discussed items on the social-media site at any given moment.
"What is this Pizza Ranch they keep talking about?" one out-of-state tweet asked.
The Western-themed restaurants, known for their buffets of pizza, broasted chicken and salads, became a favorite stop for Republican hopefuls as they criss-crossed the state.
In his caucus night speech, Rick Santorum, who finished within eight votes of a seemingly improbable victory, mentioned his frequent travels to the chain.
"This has been an incredible journey, 99 counties, 381 town hall meetings... 36 Pizza Ranches," the former Pennsylvania senator told his supporters, who interrupted him with laughter. "You'll notice I'm not buttoning my coat for a reason."
Pizza Ranch's prominence in this year's race attracted widespread national media attention. The Los Angeles Times, for example, published a story in late December with the headline, "Easy as pie: Iowa's campaign trail runs through Pizza Ranch."
During their campaign coverage, network and cable news channels frequently mentioned Pizza Ranch, providing the regional chain with valuable free publicity, said Daniel Bliss, of Universal Information Services, an Omaha-based firm that monitors and analyzes media coverage.
Since Aug. 1, broadcast mentions of Pizza Ranch reached audiences totaling 32 million viewers, according to a report Universal Information Services compiled this week. The amount of air time the company received was equivalent to about $862,000 in paid advertising, Bliss said.
During that period, the number of times the company was mentioned in broadcasts nearly equalled those during the prior 18 months, he said.
"It's really been fun to watch a local company garner that much coverage and be mentioned so often," Bliss said.
A Pizza Ranch representative declined the Journal's invitation last week to comment on the national publicity the caucuses brought to the business. Company president and co-founder Adrie Groeneweg also did not immediately return calls to the Journal.
Pizza Ranches have become a popular destination for politicians for a number of reasons. For starters, many of the 77 Iowa locations are in county seats and other smaller rural towns where candidates need to visit, but there are few other options for holding a public event.
The restaurants also don't charge for the use of their meeting rooms, which are sized right for most candidates, particularly candidates just starting out.
Even if just a few dozen people show up, the venue still looks full, said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican, a website that covers state politics.
"If you can put 40-50 people in the back room of a Pizza Ranch, you have a pretty good political event," Robinson said.
The events introduce some voters to Pizza Ranch for the first time and often result in added lunch or dinner business. Larger crowds, however, can make it difficult for the restaurant to go about business as usual.
In the final weekend leading up to the caucuses, for example, Santorum, surging in the polls, attracted crowds of 200 people or more to Pizza Ranches in the central Iowa cities of Altoona, Boone and Newton.
"He took over the entire restaurant," recalled Robinson, who attended the meetings. "It was packed. I've been to a lot of events at Pizza Ranches, but I've never been to one where we're standing on the salad bar."
Besides handy locations, Pizza Ranch's Christian-oriented mission, which it calls a business ministry, also appeals to GOP candidates looking to reach out to conservative voters, who make up a large percentage of the caucus electorate. The privately held company's vision is "to glorify God by positively impacting the world we live in," according to its website.
During the 2008 campaign, Pizza Ranches turned into a home away from home for Mike Huckabee, who scored a surprise caucus victory in 2008 on the strength of evangelical support. Sioux City conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who chaired Huckabee's campaign in Iowa, started taking the former Arkansas governor around to the restaurants to introduce him to local residents.
"It's great food. It's affordable, and it's a noncontroversial place for people to meet," said Vander Plaats, who now heads the Family Leader. Last year, he led a statewide unity tour, sponsored by the conservative group, that made stops at 69 Pizza Ranches.
Vander Plaats is a high school friend of Groeneweg, who helped launch Pizza Ranch at age 19. From a single restaurant in Hull, Iowa, the business has grown into more than 150 locations in nine states. It's the largest pizza chain in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Three years ago, the business moved its headquarters from downtown Hull to nearby Orange City. The 20,000-square-foot complex, on the south edge of Orange City, houses more than three dozen accounting staffers and franchise consultants, as well as a research and development kitchen, a lecture hall and classrooms for Pizza Ranch University, where both new and old franchisees and managers train on new products.