REGIONAL—It’s been 40 years since Adrie Groeneweg rounded up enough cash to open the first Pizza Ranch in Hull.
“Yet, it seems like it just started not that long ago,” said Groeneweg, the founder and chief executive officer of the Western-themed chain eatery that has more than 200 sites in 15 states.
When the Hull native was 19 years old, he split his time welding and working at a pizza parlor in Sioux Center. He noticed several people from his hometown frequented that restaurant and conceived the idea of starting a pizza place in Hull.
With encouragement and financial backing from his father, Bill, Groeneweg converted a building on Main Street into the first Pizza Ranch location, which opened for business on Dec. 21, 1981.
The pizzeria pioneer lived at home with his family during the business’ first year of operations, which Groeneweg said was a good thing since the money he earned from the restaurant mostly went to paying bills.
“That’s just the way it works when people start new businesses,” he said.
As the pizza shop gained traction in the area, a second location was added in Orange City in 1983 with help from investors there.
The following year, Groeneweg got a call from a businessman in Minnesota interested in buying the pizza recipe from him. Groeneweg declined the offer but instead asked if the caller would be interested in having a Pizza Ranch franchise. He agreed, and the first franchise location opened in 1984 in Mountain Lake, MN.
“Then six years later, we had 50 stores,” Groeneweg said. “It was crazy.”
At that time, he said the company’s niche was establishing locations in small communities of 5,000 people or fewer.
Throughout the first 15 years of Pizza Ranch’s journey, Groeneweg mainly worked in the Hull and Orange City sites. He later found himself being on the road to visit new stores as they opened.
He also likes pitching in to help with day-to-day tasks when he stops by Pizza Ranch branches.
“They look at me, and they’re like, ‘You know how to make pizzas?’ It’s like, ‘Well, I’ve done — I don’t know how many — but I know I’ve made thousands of them,’” Groeneweg said.
He reflected on how the company has survived challenges throughout its 40-year history and has been able to come out stronger, pointing to the coronavirus pandemic during the past year and a half as a recent example.
Jon Moss, the company’s senior vice president and chief brand officer, noted how COVID-19 has been the most challenging period he has experienced in his more than 20 years working for Pizza Ranch.
Since Pizza Ranch primarily functions as a dine-in buffet eatery, the business had to switch over to providing to-go orders and more delivery when the pandemic hit to keep workers and customers safe. Other pandemic-related obstacles Pizza Ranch is navigating include workforce and supply-chain disruptions.
“You can go to any Pizza Ranch, almost, today and you can find that most of them are hiring,” Moss said.
Throughout the pandemic, however, Moss said Pizza Ranches — especially around N’West Iowa — have continued to enjoy strong support from their surrounding communities.
The company’s response to the pandemic and leadership under Groeneweg also contributed to the 60-year-old chief executive being named the Iowa Restaurant Association’s 2021 Restaurateur of the Year in November.
“That’s how God works too: A disaster happens, and then in the end, you become stronger than what you were and that’s exactly what happened. That’s why they honored me with that,” Groeneweg said.
When it comes to Pizza Ranch’s future, Groeneweg said he’s looking forward to seeing his sons — Spencer, Ross and Trent — continue to grow as leaders within the organization. Spencer works as a district manager while the other two work as store general managers in Orange City and Worthington, MN, respectively.
Another goal Groeneweg would like the company to eventually reach is opening its 500th store. When that milestone is achieved, he said “it’ll be a whole different game again.”
He repeated a phrase he often tells prospective franchise owners when they visit Pizza Ranch’s corporate headquarters in Orange City: “Even though we’re 40 years old, it still feels like we’re just getting started.”