Pizza Ranch gets a new look in Iowa City

A rendering of the new Pizza Ranch building coming to Gateway One Plaza in Iowa City.


By Dave DeWitte

Plans to relocate Pizza Ranch from the Iowa City Marketplace to the Gateway One Plaza on Highway 1 should help elevate the chain’s presence in the city, according to owner Brandon Pratt.

Mr. Pratt’s Lion Development Group owns 10 Pizza Ranch restaurants in Iowa and Illinois, including the longtime location at the Iowa City Marketplace, formerly known as Sycamore Mall.

He recently purchased the former Caliente Night Club space at Gateway One after the ownership of the center was consolidated, and secured permits for a $1.5 million-plus renovation of the building. For Lion Development, it’s a chance to update and expand its Iowa City location, while improving its accessibility to the important University of Iowa market.

With 7,500 square feet of space on the ground floor alone, the building will provide seating for 210-235 customers and space for larger buffets. Sales growth is expected to require the hiring of 20-30 employees, beyond the existing staff who will relocate once the restaurant moves to Gateway One this fall.

Pizza Ranch is a popular buffet chain offering a wide variety of pizzas and broasted chicken. They have also become favorite stops for conservative presidential candidates touring the state, owing to the company’s Christian roots and family image.

One thing Pizza Ranches aren’t so well known for are their arcades, which many of them lack. Mr. Pratt said the renovated space will feature the chain’s newest concept: an arcade with 22 games and a ticket redemption center.

An example of Pizza Ranch’s new arcade concept, coming to Iowa City. CREDIT PIZZA RANCH

There’s nothing like it in the Iowa City market, he added.

“This is the first time the Iowa City community will get a chance to see what Pizza Ranch is really all about.”

Lion Development typically leases rather than buys its locations, but saw an opportunity to acquire a sizable parking area with the purchase of the Caliente space.

“Iowa City is a difficult place for our concept,” Mr. Pratt said. “We demand a ton of parking, and it’s hard to find good parking in Iowa City.”

Mr. Pratt’s company will be upgrading about two acres of parking at the shopping plaza, according to developer Gerry Ambrose, an owner of the center through Gateway One LLC.

Besides making it more convenient for customers to park, Mr. Pratt said the location will cut delivery times to downtown Iowa City and the UI campus. He expects the restaurant’s delivery business to roughly double.

“We’re going to try to be open by the last two [UI] home football games,” Mr. Pratt said, meaning sometime in early November.

The timing of Pizza Ranch’s arrival seems good, with Mr. Ambrose developing a new 2,200-square-foot Starbucks on an outlot, and the former Paul’s Discount store across Highway 1 to the north being redeveloped into modern retail space for two or three national tenants.

Galaxy Nails, a manicure salon, is moving into the former Enterprise Rent-A-Car space, Mr. Ambrose said, and longtime tenant Fin & Feather is acquiring the space it has long leased at Gateway One. Hatchet Jack’s, an entertainment bar equipped for competitive hatchet-throwing, recently opened at the center.

All that activity has left the center without any vacant leasable space, Mr. Ambrose said, and a project is now underway to resurface and reconfigure the parking on the front side of the center with new islands and landscaping.

The impetus for much of the investment came last year, Mr. Ambrose said. Gateway One LLC, owned by Mr. Ambrose and Greg Apel, had owned and operated the center for two decades under a land lease. They had been unsuccessful in prior attempts to acquire the land from owner Eleanor Green, which became an impediment to investing more money in the property.

After Ms. Green’s death last fall, the family struck a deal with Gateway One LLC. Mr. Ambrose and Mr. Apel then converted the spaces in the shopping center into a condominium ownership structure, making it possible for tenants to own rather than rent.

Last year’s surprise departure by longtime tenant Enterprise Rent-A-Car also made it possible to reconfigure the parking lot and develop the Starbucks.

Although he was initially disturbed at the unexpected pullout of Enterprise, “it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us,” Mr. Ambrose said.