Many of the Republican presidential candidates have a hefty goal in Iowa ahead of its first-in-nation caucuses: make a campaign stop in all of the state's 99 counties. Along the way, presidential hopefuls are turning to the Iowa-based restaurant chain Pizza Ranch, whose ubiquity and inexpensive cuisine have made it a staple of the caucus campaign trail.
At a recent stop at one of Iowa's newest Pizza Ranches, located in Fort Dodge in the central part of the state, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry shook hands and braved a scrum of reporters and local Republicans while the lunchtime crowd worked its way through the buffet line.
While Pizza Ranch doesn't endorse candidates, restaurant employees are only too happy to tell you about what's on the menu.
"We got the best chicken in town. We have very, very good pizzas ... a very wide variety of pizzas," said Kim Worden, the restaurant's assistant manager.
The chain was founded in 1981 and now has more than 180 locations across the Midwest and Plains states. It's particularly popular with Republican presidential candidates — perhaps because Pizza Ranch's vision statement is "to glorify God by positively impacting the world."
It was 2008 Republican caucus winner and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who first used Pizza Ranch as a campaign stop — he's now making the restaurants part of his 2016 bid for the White House.
At a recent Pizza Ranch stop in the central Iowa town of Jefferson, Huckabee spoke to a group of potential voters in front of a large mural of a family in a covered wagon and a cowboy riding a horse.
"When I visit all 99 counties, I'm not going just because I want to see what the menu is at the Pizza Ranch at every place, although we do love these places, but it's really to answer your questions," said Huckabee.
The mastermind behind the Pizza Ranch campaign strategy is Eric Woolson, who was Huckabee's 2008 Iowa campaign director. He said the chain's conservative Christian values had nothing to do with his decision to hold events there — it was just a cheap and easy place to book.
"They're very accommodating to folks. I think it was a $25 deposit to reserve it and I think also if you bought one pizza you were able to get your deposit back," said Woolson. "It was just one of those rooms where whether you had six people or 46 people it was just the right size room where the press wouldn't come in and say gosh, where is everybody?"
Woolson now works for the campaign of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who hasn't yet held any events at a Pizza Ranch. Democrats have also used the chain as a campaign stop in the past — though none have held events there so far in this election cycle.
At the Fort Dodge Pizza Ranch, may of the locals watched the media circus around Perry with amusement.
"You never know who you're going to meet," said assistant manager Worden.
Among these heating lamps and sneeze guards, you could just meet the next president.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Republican presidential candidates have a long road ahead of them before the caucuses are held in Iowa. And they're going to eat a lot of greasy meals along the way. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters brings us this story of a popular campaign stop known for pizza, chicken and God.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pepperoni or hamburger?
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: Welcome to one of the newest Pizza Ranches in Iowa. On this lunch hour, around 70 people pack in to the restaurant's event room in Fort Dodge in central Iowa. They're here to listen to GOP presidential candidate and former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Kim Worden is this location's assistant manager. She's quick to point out Pizza Ranch does not endorse candidates, but they will tell you what's good for lunch.
KIM WORDEN: We got the best chicken in town. We have very, very good pizzas - a very wide variety of pizzas.
MASTERS: It was 2008 Republican caucus winner and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who pioneered the Pizza Ranch campaign strategy. He's using them again in his 2016 bid for the White House, like a recent stop in the central Iowa town of Jefferson. Huckabee speaks in front of a large mural of a family in a covered wagon and a cowboy riding a horse.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE HUCKABEE: When I visit all 99 counties, I'm not going just because I want to see what the menu at the Pizza Ranch is at every place, although we do love these places, but it's really to answer your questions.
MASTERS: Eric Woolson was Huckabee's Iowa campaign director leading up to the 2008 caucuses. He says when he was the only staffer he was just looking for a quick and easy place to book. He noticed there were Pizza Ranches all over the state.
ERIC WOOLSON: They are very accommodating to folks. I think it was a $25 deposit to reserve it. And I think also if you bought one pizza, you were able to get your deposit back.
MASTERS: Pizza Ranch is particularly popular with Republican presidential candidates, perhaps because the chain's vision statement is to glorify God by positively impacting the world. But Woolson says the restaurant's Christian roots were never the main attraction.
WOOLSON: It was just one of those rooms where, whether you had six people or 46 people, it was just the right size room where the press wouldn't come in and say, gosh, where is everybody?
MASTERS: Democrats have also used the chain as a campaign stop - just not this go around. Back at the Fort Dodge Pizza Ranch, after Rick Perry delivers his stump speech, he works the crowd of potential supporters and tousles a kid's hair.
RICK PERRY: So where are you in school?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Fort Dodge Middle School.
MASTERS: While the normal lunch crowd works the buffet line, a scrum of reporters and locals encircle the potential candidate. So I asked the restaurant's assistant manager Kim Worden, come for the pizza and chicken, stay for the candidates?
WORDEN: There you go. There you go. You never know who you're going to meet.
MASTERS: You could meet the next president among these heating lamps and sneeze guards. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.