Pizza Ranch is about as old as the Iowa caucuses, making it perhaps the best prism through which to view the evolution of the nomination process, particularly on the Republican side. Adrie Groeneweg, then 19, founded the first restaurant in Hull, Iowa, in 1981, just five years after the first of the modern-day caucuses in 1976.
Pizza Ranch’s offerings play to the basest and simplest of the American palate. The joke on the campaign trail in Iowa, as
Casey DeSantis and others have quipped, goes something like this: The best fried chicken comes from a pizza place (Pizza Ranch), and the best pizza comes from a gas station (Casey’s). If the chain’s pizza is aimed at Middle American appetites, so too are its cultural leanings. In 2004, Pizza Ranch issued a mission statement that wrapped itself in Christianese, proclaiming itself as a place that
existed “to glorify God by positively impacting the world.”
As Pizza Ranch grew, and big box stores and chains hollowed out the old downtown main streets in the rural stretches of the state, its mission, in part, responded to those social changes: Provide people a place where the local groups could meet. “This is the center of where they go to socialize, and they have their meetings and some church groups have their meetings, maybe the Rotary Club, business groups or where you go after a Little League baseball championship,” Chip Saltsman, a GOP operative with a perpetual grizzled five o’clock shadow, told me in June. We were sitting at a Pizza Ranch in Waukee, a Des Moines suburb, as Pence, his longtime friend and the then-presidential candidate he was guiding around Iowa, worked the room. “And so it’s kind of a hub for everything.” No crowd building or national notoriety required from the campaign or the candidate.
In 2007, Saltsman found himself barnstorming small communities across Iowa as his then-boss Huckabee was campaigning for president, and after just two or three stops the Pizza Ranch strategy dawned on them. “Every time we would go to a small town, they would always have a Pizza Ranch,” Huckabee told me recently. “And they always had a small meeting room that could handle anywhere from 20 to 60 people. And if you bought pizza, you got to use the meeting room. And it became the most affordable way to be able to go to a place that everyone knew where it was.”
Des Moines Register caught on quickly, and began tracking campaign stops at the establishment. Groeneweg became more overtly political, too, donating $1,000 to his frequent customer. Huckabee would end up besting Mitt Romney by nearly 11,000 votes, a little more than 9 percentage points that year.