While many big pizza companies have shuttered locations in the past two years, 30-year-old premium pizza buffet concept Pizza Ranch is diligently, even quietly, building on its 150-plus franchised stores by spreading into Midwestern markets such as northern Illinois, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
“We’ve had a really strong past couple of years for sales,” said Adrie Groeneweg, who founded the company when he was just 19. “Any time there’s been a downturn in the economy, it’s never really affected us.”
That’s a grand statement, though all-you-can-eat, value-oriented buffets have done better in this recession than other style restaurants: The NRA’s Hudson Riehle told ABC News last year that people like buffets not only for value, but also for the control it offers them over what they eat.
Ingredients for a premium buffet
Pizza Ranch has taken a few steps to augment its place in the restaurant industry. For one, it has positioned itself in the narrow category of “premium buffet,” which it shares with Stevi B’s and a few smaller pizza chains.
For Pizza Ranch, this translates into more attention being paid to the food offerings. For example, patrons can actually find seasonal ingredients on the menu. Recently the company offered a farmers’ market salad and a barbecue bacon cheeseburger pizza, capitalizing on foodies’ latest crazes, according to Marilyn Mayberry, director of franchise development.
Another way the company differentiates itself within the pizza category is by its buffet-inspired service model. Patrons can get a fresh, hot pizza delivered to their table in as many slices as they want.
“When a customer comes to the counter, we ask them, ‘What would you like?’ And we make it for them, and give them as many pieces as they want," Mayberry said.
The premium buffet model isn’t the only attribute that creates demand for the brand. Pizza Ranch's original “Tip Night” program has franchisees requesting stores for more reasons than making money.
In this program, local charities and community members can volunteer to staff the restaurant to raise money for their specific cause. The volunteer organization will do mainly front-of-house tasks, such as bussing tables or delivering pizza and serving drinks for the special night, which occurs once a week. Tips from the occassion go to the cause at hand. Some stores even donate a percentage of the night’s sales.
Perhaps what is surprising about this community-oriented promotion is how often it occurs, and the fact that so many franchisees have agreed to participate in the optional program.
“Every year, more come on board,” said Gwen Lahrs, chief advertising and marketing manager for the brand. “We have eight to 12 stores booked three to six months out for charities wanting to participate in the program.”
The approach pays off in more ways than one.
“I get to talk with the franchise candidates, and they say, ‘Our community needs a Pizza Ranch,’” said Mayberry. “That’s how they view it.”