By Amanda Getchel
Muncie pizza business has complicated history Indiana; Midwest is a hot bed for pizza franchises
Indiana is a prime location for pizza businesses to get their start, and at least five “mid-size”-to-national franchises have found their start in the Hoosier State.
Pizza King, which has eight restaurants in Muncie, is one franchise that has a complicated history that started more than 50 years ago by two brothers in Lafayette and makes it one of the three oldest pizza chains in the United States. Ironically they all started in the 1950s.
Brett Prather, Pizza King’s vice president of marketing, said the brothers argued about which one would be in control of the business. So one moved to Muncie while the other stayed in Lafayette. After the move, the two divided the state in half, which caused one to own the Pizza Kings on the eastern side of the state and the other to own the Pizza Kings on the western side of the state, he said.
Prather said the Lafayette Pizza King was the first restaurant to open in 1954 with the Muncie business opening four years later. Prather’s dad helped open the first Muncie restaurant on Tillotson Avenue across from where it is located now.
When he was 8-years-old, Prather said he helped wash dishes because they were short a dishwasher while employees were busy flipping dough in the air, taking orders and answering phones.
“I would stand on a milk crate because I wasn’t tall enough to get to the sink,” he said.
Prather, 44, is now in charge of the 44 Pizza King restaurants in eastern Indiana.
He said as more restaurants opened and the business expanded, other people also opened pizza businesses throughout the country with the same name. He said his father looked into buying the name rights and challenging each restaurant that took the Pizza King name, but the cost was too great.
Because they decided not to pursue the name rights, Prather said not all Pizza Kings originated from the original brothers in Lafayette and Muncie. The different owners and concepts also are another reason why Pizza Kings in different cities and states have different menus and flavors, he said.
“There’s a little difference in taste because they’re buying the product from different places,” Prather said. “Pizza Kings have similar products and names, but the suppliers are different. They’re not one large company. It’s several people who own them and in various companies.”
To make Pizza King’s history even more interesting, the first Pizza King that opened in Lafayette soon closed and became Arni’s, another family-owned pizza business that is celebrating its 43rd anniversary.
Arni’s President Kurt Cohen, the son of Arni Cohen who founded the restaurant, said his father did not set out to start a pizza business he just wanted a restaurant of his own. Cohen, 48, said an opportunity came up for his dad in 1965 to purchase an existing pizza restaurant, Pizza King.
“He didn’t start out to become the pizza man," Cohen said. "He was just looking to get in the business as an owner.”
Now Arni’s earns about $20 million a year and is opening its 19th restaurant in Greenwood, Cohen said.
Prather said he did not want to guess what Pizza King’s revenue was and did not have the figures readily available.
Indiana is not only home to these two multi-million dollar pizza businesses, but the national chains of Papa Johns and
Noble Roman’s also were founded in Indiana. Noble Roman’s first restaurant opened in 1972 on Indiana University’s campus and now has locations in 44 states. According to the Noble Roman’s Inc. Web site, its estimated revenue was about $11.6 million in 2007.
John Schnatter opened his first Papa John’s restaurant in 1985 in Jeffersonville, but he delivered his last pizza on the campus of Ball State University in 1983. According to the Papa John’s International Inc. Web site, it now owns or franchises more than 3,000 restaurants worldwide and its estimated revenue was $1 billion in 2007.
Pizza King and Arni’s histories are not the only pizza restaurants intertwined in Indiana’s history.
Rafael Domenech, owner of Greek’s Pizzeria in Fishers, said while Schnatter attended Ball State, he worked for Greek’s founder, Athanasios Chris Karamesines. In fact, Domenech said the mixer Schnatter used for his first Papa John’s restaurant was one of the same mixers used at the first Greek’s restaurant in Muncie.
Domenech, 31, said the first Greek’s Pizzeria opened in Chicago in 1969, but the first one in Indiana opened in Muncie in the 1970s, where it still serves customers today in the Village on University Avenue.
From that location, Greek’s opened restaurants in Fishers, Broad Ripple, Evansville and Bloomington. The Pizza Forum, which Domenech said was basically the same business with a different name, has three locations in Kendallville, Fort Wayne and Angola in northern Indiana. Mike Cole owns those locations.
Domenech said Greek’s founder opened about 50 pizza businesses in Indiana, but because he did not franchise them, their owners changed the names. In the 1990s, he started to franchise, but Domenech said the businesses were still considered “mom-and-pop” restaurants because they were independently owned and operated.
Although Indiana seems to be a prime location to start a pizza business, Cohen, Prather and Domenech said they don't worry about whether their pizza restaurants can compete with the national chains.
Cohen said when his father first opened Arni’s he had a two-prong philosophy: not only take care of the customers but also take care of the employees.
“Back in the day, and to some degree now, it’s customers first and employees second, but he always felt employees were as viable a constituency as customers, and if you take care of the employees as aggressively as customers, they’ll take care of you,” Cohen said. “His idea was we’ll be successful together, and, of course, he always believed in serving a quality product at a fair price, almost too fair.”
Cohen said that philosophy along with better quality control is what has helped keep Arni’s open for so many years and compete with other pizza chains. He said a lot of the national chains used coupons and sold on a price point because they were trying to get people to buy their pizzas and improve revenue.
Cohen said he wanted to sell on quality to provide customers with a more enjoyable experience.
“You can go to Pizza Hut, but it’s pretty unattractive,” he said. “You can go to Donatos, but they’re not all that attractive. We try to provide you with an experience you can’t get at other pizza places. There are not a lot of places you can go to where the sit down experience is really good.”
Prather said he agreed with Cohen that having an enjoyable place for customers to come into the restaurant, sit and eat helped put Pizza King above national chains. He also said employees were a major factor in keeping the business open for so long.
“It’s who you hire and the quality of people you have working for you,” Prather said. “If they buy into what you’re trying to do, you’ll be successful.”
Domenech said the main ways that helped Greek’s compete with the national chains were the taste and quality control. He said Greek’s used fresh ingredients, made its own dough and ground its own cheese.
“If you have a good product, you’ll be able to compete with big chains,” he said. “Our product is so good that the one in Muncie has been there for 30 years, and if you look at Muncie as an example, you've had [about five] pizzerias close, and Greek’s is still there. It’s all about the product.”
According to the National Pizza Industry Organization, there are about 61,000 pizzerias in the United States, and according to Pizza Magazine, 2,093 of those are in Indiana.
According to the organization’s Web site, pizza is a more than $35 billion per year industry. According to the site, 94 percent of the United States population eats pizza and Americans eat approximately 100 acres of pizza each day, or about 350 slices per second.
The site also said 93 percent of Americans eat at least one pizza per month; each man, woman and child in America eats an average of 46 slices, or 23 pounds, of pizza per year; and pizza is America’s fourth most craved food, behind cheese, chocolate and ice cream.
Domenech said, according to his Pizza Magazine, independent restaurants were the leading businesses in the pizza industry at 65 percent as of July 2008. He said Pizza Hut accounted for 9 percent of pizzerias; Dominos, 6 percent, Papa Johns, 3 percent; Little Caesars, 2.8 percent; and other chains constituted the rest.
With Americans’ love for pizza, Prather, Cohen and Domenech should not have to worry about running out of customers anytime soon – even despite the decline in the economy.
Domenech said when he started working at the Greek’s restaurant in Muncie while he was a Ball State student, a bag of flour cost about $12. A couple months ago when the economy was starting to decline it increased to about $30, and now it is about $22 a bag, he said.
Despite the increases, he said his restaurant in Fishers was not feeling the declining economy’s effects. He said a family of four would rather buy a large pizza from him that would feed the entire family instead of using gas to go to the store, buying groceries, and coming back and cooking the pizza.
Below is a list of major pizza franchises that originated in the Midwest, their founding location and year:
- Pizza King Lafayette and Muncie, Ind. 1954 and 1958
- Arni’s Lafayette, Ind. 1965
- Papa John’s Jeffersonville, Ind. 1983
- Greek’s Pizzeria Chicago and Muncie, Ind. 1969 and 1970s
- Noble Roman’s Bloomington, Ind. 1972
- Pizza Hut Wichita, Kan. 1958
- Little Caesars Garden City, Mich. 1959
- Domino’s Ypsilanti, Mich. 1960
- Donatos Columbus, Ohio 1963
- Monical's Pizza Wichita, Kan. 1958
Check out the Indiana Pizza Trail to find out more on Indiana-made pizza locations.