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Pizza Ranch grows into eight states
Tara Leusink prepares a pepperoni pizza for the lunch buffet at the Pizza Ranch in Hull, Iowa. (Photo by Russ Oechslin)

ORANGE CITY, Iowa -- Growing from a single restaurant at Hull, Iowa, in 1981, Pizza Ranch Inc. moved its restaurant support center to Orange City last year to better serve its 140 restaurants that are now spread across eight states, and to accommodate what founder and CEO Ardie Groeneweg sees as taking new store openings from 12 to 20 or more each year.

Orange City was the natural place for the relocation as Groeneweg has lived here since opening his second restaurant. And many employees also were making the daily commute from Orange City to Hull. Facilities in Hull were just too small and too spread out with offices in three buildings on both sides of Main Street.

The new 20,000 square foot facility on the south edge of Orange City not only houses offices of more than three dozen accounting staff and franchise consultants, but a research and development kitchen and a lecture hall and classrooms for Pizza Ranch University where both new and old franchisees and managers train on new products.

The training also includes and what Pizza Ranch brand manager Jonathan Moss calls "legendary customer service -- something that people talk about after they experience it and have been 'wowed.'

"Every single customer is to get a friendly greeting with eye contact and a smile," Moss explains. "We're not just taking their money. We set the tone right away that they're in for a friendly experience.

"We get thousands of comment cards that talk about our friendly service. It's like they thought service was dead, then they come to Pizza Ranch and this is better service than they see in five-star restaurants."

Yet, he stresses, Pizza Ranch is a family restaurant with 70 percent of its business fitting in the "dine-in" category with only 18 percent delivery and 12 percent carry-out.

Ninety percent of the dine-in business is buffet. "And, buffet has really transformed who we are as a company. It increases family dining. Most of the industry has gotten out of the family dining experience," Moss notes. "Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's and especially the take 'n' bakes are focusing on delivery and out-the-door pizza sales, not on the dining-out experience.

"As people are getting busier and busier, that's where the buffet really fits in -- lunch in less than 30 minutes and back to work," Moss said.

Like the old cafes

Pizza Ranch history reflects its small town beginnings as the central hub of the community. "It's almost like the cafe of old, if you will, where if you want to see somebody, you go to the Pizza Ranch and if you're there for an hour you'll see about anybody you want to see," Moss adds.

But, he admits, over the last five years Pizza Ranch has morphed its brand, including a new logo and new store designs.

"Fundamentally it is the buffet that has taken Pizza Ranch to the next level, with buffets offered in most stores each noon and night, except in smaller markets.

The smaller stores do buffet at noon and generally a couple nights a week in places like Hull, Akron, Primghar, George and Sanborn in Northwest Iowa. Pizza Ranch has the largest market share of buffet restaurants in Iowa and South Dakota, serving more buffets than any other restaurant, he says.

And Pizza Ranch is second in total market share in the same area, behind only Pizza Hut.

Taking off on a burger chain's idea, Pizza Ranch has "buffet your way. When you come in we'll ask you if there's a particular pizza you like. And if we don't have it on the buffet, we'll gladly make it up for you. Then we will bring you the first slice of that pizza out to your table on a clean plate and serve it to you."

There's also the table visit, Moss continues. "Every table is pre-bussed, and we want our managers to visit every single table to make sure the guests are having a legendary experience."

The fourth thing is simple, he says. It's just two words, "Thank you!" And we invite our customers back.

"It's an old fashioned concept, but who's doing it?"

Striving to make sure its franchisees and their managers better understand the concept, Pizza Ranch University will see about 350 "students" in a one-and-a-half day session next month that will provide a refresher course on Pizza Ranch culture.

While some Pizza Ranch locations are owned by company officials, there are no "company stores." Each is a franchise. And new franchisees are coming mostly from larger communities than Hull, with just under 2,000 population.

Moss says the make-up of the Pizza Ranch franchise community is slowly changing.

"The people who developed Pizza Ranch, the people who brought us to where we are now had the pioneer spirit. They were people who wanted to stay in their community and bring Pizza Ranch to their community while enjoying a great job and giving great jobs to local people."

More entrepreneurial now

The transition is seeing a more entrepreneurial effort in larger communities.

"Newer Pizza Ranch franchisees are probably people who have been in a management position in a corporate business or in a service business like a grocery store -- someone who has experience working with the public, someone who wants to go out on their own, set up something for their family, maybe something their kids can be involved in.

"A lot of them have a dream to open multiple Pizza ranches in their area because they want to give their children or others an opportunity to grow along side them. It's the old fashioned 'American Dream.'"

The founder remembers what it was like 27 years ago.

"I think about how we ran the first store, the first couple stores in Hull and Orange City, our training with some of the first franchises. It would not work today. We would not be successful.

"We were not taking it seriously enough. We served great food. And we treated our customers right. That's a big part of it.

"But the whole thing about even making money -- we didn't weigh anything back then. My hand was the perfect size for everything."

Groeneweg also considers the paperwork and accounting that goes along with it today, along with the marketing.

"Marketing back then wasn't even a $3-off coupon. It was just a $2 coupon in the paper.

"Marketing now involves everything from what we wear as our uniforms to what the store looks like, to our signage out front. Back then (in 1981) it was just a few wooden sticks on a sign."

The Hull store was opened for an investment of "under $100,000 of my dad's and the banker's money in addition to a lot of sweat equity."

But interest in 1981 was hovering around 16 percent. The used equipment they bought came from a Happy Joe's that closed in Arnolds Park.

Often, years ago, he remembers, new restaurants went into old downtown locations without even replacing the carpet.

Today, just the equipment required for the quality control the franchise insists on is "up $100,000 in just the last year and a half," Groeneweg says.

And it costs well over $1 million to open a restaurant, including $20,000 to $25,000 franchise and training fees.

The franchise company reports $91 million in sales for 2007.

Name a second choice

The Pizza Ranch concept was his mother and father's second choice for a name after Pizza Corral, Groeneweg explains, adding that the Corral name was already used elsewhere.

He opened the first location at Hull, his hometown, after working part-time at Pucci's Pizza in Sioux Center after dropping out of college and spending some time in California.

"I told my folks there were a lot of people driving to Pucci's from Hull."

Opening so many stores has been "a lot of fun. And we have great people here working with us."

His greatest joy, Groeneweg says, comes soon after a new store opens.

"When I go to a store, I usually try to get there about a month to six weeks after it opens. I spend maybe half a day there. And there are times when I leave I think, 'Boy I hope it works.' It doesn't happen very often now. But 10 years ago it did.

"Today, I leave thinking wow we're really becoming something."

Groeneweg still gets his hands into the pizza making at times but not a lot, he says. When he does help out in some of the stores he owns, the staff finds out he actually knows how to make pizza.

"And they're always surprised," he laughs.

But Groeneweg focuses on his employees.

"We have a great company with a lot of great people. And it's a company of strong values. We care about people and our franchisees know it."

With expansion in its new headquarters came additional research and development, marketingand training personnel, too.

"What it feels like for Pizza Ranch right now," explains brand director Moss, "is that it's opening night on Broadway and we've got everything prepared and we're ready to walk out into the spotlight.

"The opportunity is that big," he adds.

"We're doing the necessary infrastructure -- putting all the things into place so we really can sustain the growth. A lot of companies have grown too fast only to suffer the consequences because they couldn't support it."

But the growth is "very organic, very real," Moss says.

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