Reporting from Mount Pleasant, Iowa — Iowa is not, as many Republican presidential hopefuls are finding out, just the land of mom-and-pop coffee shops, quaint town squares and golden farm fields. It's also the home of Pizza Ranch.
The Iowa-based chain, where the salad bar holds ham chunks and five kinds of mayonnaise-based salads, and covered wagons grace the napkins, has become the de facto stop for conservative candidates traversing the state — in part because there are Pizza Ranches in just about every town.
Michele Bachmann went to 14 Pizza Ranches in one recent week; the "fast casual" restaurant fits with her blink-and-you-miss-it campaign strategy that sometimes includes 11 events a day.
"If there's an event at the Pizza Ranch, nine times out of 10 it's a political event," said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican, a website. "They all seem more than willing to host any candidate coming through town."
The cowboy-themed restaurants, which serve pizza, fried chicken and greens from a "mile-long" salad bar, are popular political destinations because they don't charge for events and are located in the small and mid-sized towns candidates need to visit on their whistle-stop tours through the state.
Conservatives like Pizza Ranch because it's a Christian-oriented restaurant whose mission is "to glorify God by positively impacting the world we live in" and whose charity blog, PizzaRanchServes, often discusses passages from the Bible.
"We call it Christian Pizza because it is a chain that's also a ministry, which does good works in a faith-centered way," said Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University professor.
Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Family Leader, a conservative group in Iowa, said the Pizza Ranch restaurants became more popular for politicians after Mike Huckabee based many of his campaign events at them in 2008 and pulled off a surprise caucus win.
Vander Plaats, who went to high school with Pizza Ranch founder Adrie Groeneweg, stopped at 69 of the restaurants during a 99-county bus tour this year to unite conservative voters.
But Huckabee wasn't the first candidate to stop at the restaurants: Previous campaigners include Dan Quayle and even a couple of Democrats, Howard Dean and John Edwards.
"I wish I could take credit for what's become known as the Pizza Ranch strategy," said Eric Woolson, who managed Huckabee's Iowa campaign in 2008. "But the truth is, necessity is the mother of invention; when you're under the gun trying to schedule a location and find someplace quick and convenient, it works out."
Many Pizza Ranches appeal to upstart candidates because the rooms are small enough that even if just a dozen people show up, they don't look too empty. And candidates know what they're getting into when they schedule an event at a Pizza Ranch: chairs with horseshoes on the back, bathrooms marked "Cowboys" and "Cowgirls," crayons for the kids and murals of cowboys leading covered wagons past golden mountains.
In a rocky economy, candidates can win points by appearing at low-cost restaurants to show that they understand what voters are going through, said Hilary Allen, a planner at Barkley, a Missouri ad agency.
"It's an opportunity to a politician to fit in with the average American, especially in the current economy," she said.
Decades ago, chain restaurants were less prominent in Iowa, and politicians might more frequently have visited diners or public libraries. But as Americans increasingly demand food on the go, even the smallest towns in Iowa and throughout the heartland have become home to franchises and fast-food restaurants.
"There are still some mom-and-pop restaurants, but there's more competition now," said Rich Pirog, who worked in Iowa for 21 years and is now senior associate director of the Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University. "People want pizza and burgers, they want them quick, and they want to be able to do takeout. The chain restaurants are more conducive to that."
The town of Hawarden, for instance, population about 2,400, has a Pizza Ranch and a Subway, which is another popular campaign stop. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad visited many Subway franchises during his reelection campaign, and he says he lost 15 pounds.
Branstad is a Republican, and Republicans tend to be the more frequent visitors to Pizza Ranch.
"Even food has become politicized," said Schmidt, the Iowa State professor.
When asked whether a Democratic candidate had been at any of his three Pizza Ranch franchises, John Mohr wrinkled his forehead and looked at his manager, Natalie.
"No, I don't think we've ever had a Democrat here," he said, as voters crammed into a room with stars and belt buckles on the walls to prepare for a visit from Bachmann.
Soon, Bachmann strode past the salad bar, the Christmas tree topped with a red cowboy hat and the line of stockings tacked to the wall.
"I'm going to repeal 'Obamacare,' repeal Dodd-Frank and get rid of the tax code," she said to a room of a few dozen voters, as a twangy country song played in the background.
Fifteen minutes after Bachmann entered, she was gone, sprinting to her bus followed by aides and the media. Five minutes after that, the restaurant was empty again, except for a pile of blue Bachmann signs, three employees in red shirts and customer Don Hughes, who looked perplexed.
Hughes, holding two pizza boxes, wasn't sure what all the commotion was about.
"I just came to get pizza," he said.