There's an age-old quip about candidates on the campaign trail "shaking hands and kissing babies," but who could have predicted that sitting down to pizza and fried chicken would make that list, too?
Apparently, it is so.
In Iowa in the last six months alone, there have been more than 35 Pizza Ranch stops by presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.
Bachmann is the most frequent Pizza Ranch visitor tallying more than 21 stops herself, sometimes two to three different locations a day.
Why? Is it the friend chicken? The all-you-can-eat buffet? Or is there some greater meaning to a candidate stopping by this western-themed pizza joint.
Surfing the Pizza Ranch website might give you pause when answering that question. According to PizzaRanch.com, the restaurant's vision is "to glorify God by positively impacting the world we live in." It's mission, "to establish every Pizza Ranch as a business ministry opportunity." Pizza Ranch corporate officials declined to comment for the story.
But it would make sense that some of the biggest conservatives would make Pizza Ranch their stumping grounds, wouldn't it? Not so says Eric Woolson, Michele Bachmann's Iowa campaign manager.
"They have a meeting room that fits most folks, it's easy to book and is the right size for most events," Woolson said. "That's really the appeal. Again, it's the right size and it's a place most folks recognize."
Location Trumps Food Offerings
Woolson's right. There are 74 Pizza Ranch locations in Iowa, most in small towns that may not have a lot of other dining options. They offer meeting rooms sans fees and the pizza — and more importantly, the fried chicken — has quite a following.
But is there more to it than that? Dennis Goldford thinks so.
"The Pizza Ranch venue gives new meaning to the term 'PR' campaign," said Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University. "It's a very convenient location where, presumably, the people who go there know what Pizza Ranch is about. It's a good place to find like-minded people who are open to this kind of message."
Russ Weis, the owner and general manager of the , said anyone can reserve the meeting space there, even presidential candidates. He said the company's vision and mission does not dictate who can use the facility.
"Yes, we're a Christian-based company, but we don't discriminate," he said. "That wouldn't be good."
More importantly, Weis said, his restaurant caters to hard-working people who want the most value for their dollar. He says it's the middle class that candidates should be talking to when it comes to boning up on what is needed to reform the economy.
"You know, it's tough for most everybody right now," Weis said. "We see that with our customers. We try to add value to their meal so they're getting everything they want to eat. I hope that if a candidate comes in here, they see who is eating here and they can do something about their problems."
Weis' restaurant hosted two visits from Santorum earlier this year and is scheduled to host an appearance by Mitt Romney at 5:45 p.m. on Thursday.
Romney is also scheduled to appear at Pizza Ranches in LeMars, Mason City and this week.
Todd Pearce, a manager at the Cedar Falls Pizza Ranch, said he was completely unaware of any plans for Romney to stop by this week.
"If Mitt Romney's coming, he hasn't cleared it with me," he said.