Pizza Ranch and Dunkin’ Donuts come to town11/14/2012
Two iconic restaurant companies have been moving into the Des Moines metro area after decades of avoiding it. Both provided interesting footnotes in the 2012 election.
Pizza Ranch is the largest regional pizza company in Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas. Until recently it focused exclusively on small towns. Political notoriety came when all but one Republican candidate campaigned at a Pizza Ranch. A New York Times investigation found that only Mitt Romney had vetted the company to discover that a former “founder” (the firm later stripped him of his founding status) had done hard time for sexually abusing employees. Romney thought such history contradicted the company’s Christian mission “we serve while equipping our employees with tools to lead happy, productive lives.”
In a slow-moving line at Waukee’s Pizza Ranch, I could barely avoid bumping into signs. In Exodus, the Lord says, “If they don’t pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second.” Or the second dozen. At the end of the line, I was given several opportunities to sign up for bargain clubs, and to take surveys, etc. My cashier was performing both tasks, explaining the pace of the line.
While menu service was offered, an “all you can eat” buffet (always less than $10) provided a better deal. Eight kinds of savory pizza and three dessert pizza pies were offered. The former included both thin and thick crusts and fresh-tasting marinara. A chicken buffet included Asian sesame, barbecue and “broasted” pieces. The latter were not particularly crisp but were tender and moist to the bone. A green bean casserole was made with fresh green beans and mushrooms, not canned products. Potato chowder and chicken gravy also tasted more scratch-made than at other local buffets. A salad bar was below average for the genre though lacking much variety and even basics like vinaigrette.
Dessert offered seasonal choices such as pumpkin pie pizza, plus soft ice cream. Interactive Coca-Cola Free Style machines mixed 100 flavors. Service appeared keen about interpreting signs. While replenishing the chicken buffet, a chef told me he’d been cooking nothing but legs for half an hour because he’d been told that more than 30 kids were in line. Friendly hosts walked the floor making sure customers were happy while picking up dirty plates. Gluten-free menus were available.
Founded in 1950, Dunkin’ Donuts (DD) expanded throughout the eastern third of the U.S. until it was sold to England’s Allied Domecq and later to French booze conglomerate Pernod Ricard. After that most expansion was international until DD was acquired by three U.S. investors including Bain Capital, a company Romney founded infamous for exporting jobs. Last year DD offered stock to finance doubling its domestic stores. Drew Cownie leads a group that will open 12 in western and central Iowa. Each will support about 50 jobs. Another franchisee is opening eight DDs in Iowa.
Because more than half of DD’s $6 billion annual sales are in coffee, Starbucks and McDonalds are now considered competitors. Those three control nearly 70 percent of U.S. restaurant coffee sales. DD is so particular about consistency of its restaurant coffee that an elaborate reverse osmosis system makes sure that West Des Moines water tastes like water in other DD towns. To my tongue, DD coffee was light tasting, even weak compared to Starbucks’. Cownie thinks coffee taste is an East Coast (DD) vs. West Coast (Starbucks) thing.
Doughnuts and other pastries came in both yeast roll and cake forms. Among the latter, a French cruller stood out tasting like a glazed éclair. I particularly liked a smoked sausage sandwich on an English muffin and crispy, herbed hash brown potatoes. CV