Pizza Wars: Restaurants Battle For Supremacy

by Kate Knable  on Monday, Sep. 10, 2012 12:00 am  

Shirley and John Iriana own and operate Iriana's Pizza in Little Rock. John Iriana called owning Iriana's "My first real job." He founded the restaurant 25 years ago at age 23, shortly after graduating from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a business degree. (Photo by Mike Pirnique)

Forty years ago, pizza was served to central Arkansas by national chains like Pizza Hut and Shakey’s.

Then Judy Waller opened her first U.S. Pizza Co. location, and the landscape changed forever.

Today, Pizza Hut is still a powerhouse while Shakey’s is a nostalgic memory. And home-grown pizza concepts — including some created by Waller protégés — are among the most popular restaurants in the Little Rock market.

(Click here to view a PDF with a breakdown of the area pizza restaurants with the highest food sales.)

(Click here to read a related story on the first Little Rock Shakey's.)

Video: Watch John Iriana make pizza and talk to Arkansas Business about how he built his pizza business in Little Rock.

“We knew we could start a pizza restaurant and do a better job than Pizza Hut, and I think we did,” Waller said last week. Waller boasts of U.S. Pizza’s salads supreme, frittatas and thin-crusted pizzas topped with fresh vegetables.

Some of Waller’s local copycats are serious rivals, and she acknowledges that competition in the market has stiffened.   

“You have to take it as a compliment,” Waller said of former employees who she now considers to be mimics.

In 2011 and in the first six months of 2012, Waller’s eight U.S. Pizza restaurants in Little Rock and North Little Rock stood, ironically, behind only the nine area Pizza Huts in total food sales.

Further, ZaZa Fine Salad & Wood-Oven Pizza Co., an original concept that Little Rock native Scott McGehee created on Kavanaugh Boulevard in 2008, has become the best-selling pizza restaurant in the market. ZaZa’s food sales (excluding alcohol) were $1.9 million in 2011 and were on pace to beat that this year, having sold $1.05 million in the first six months of 2012.

Judy Waller’s U.S. Pizza Co., which has remained an Arkansas-only chain, owns and operates 11 restaurants and has licensed an additional four locations. Her restaurants have trained and scattered pizza workers, spawning new chains in Little Rock and Tennessee.

For example, Richard Higginbotham, a U.S. Pizza employee of 16 years, opened Olde World Pizza with Regina Smith in 1995 at Third Street in Little Rock. A rift between the co-owners eventually resulted in the restaurant’s current name, which is Original O.W. Pizza. 

In addition, sisters Tamsye Dodson and Melody Williford both worked for U.S. Pizza Co. prior to opening American Pie Pizza in 2004 and growing it into a three-restaurant chain.

Finding a Forte

For four decades, enterprising pizza restaurateurs have continued to look for niches in the pizza market that by now appears glutted — especially with low-price chains like Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s and Domino’s.

After Waller, Paul Woodard started Shotgun Dan’s in 1977, and his three locations (Little Rock, North Little Rock and Sherwood) are still going strong.

The first Larry’s Pizza opened in 1992 and has grown to 17 locations on the strength of will-power wilting servers wandering from table to table offering additional slices.

The market wasn’t quite as crowded as it is now when John Iriana started Iriana’s Pizza in 1987. Iriana’s has maintained a presence in downtown Little Rock for a quarter century.

Iriana is Italian and his uncle was “well renowned for making the best pizza in New Hampshire,” he said recently.

High school jobs at restaurants, like his uncle’s, that made Sicilian pizza prepped Iriana for opening his own restaurant at age 23.  

The unique features of Iriana’s “authentic Sicilian” pizzas include fresh mushrooms and bell peppers, tomatoes imported from Italy and the whole package baked on stone in the oven, Iriana said.

Smith, who owns O.W., said “old-world style,” from which the eatery got its name, is her restaurant’s niche. O.W. sells thin-crusted pizzas in the vein of U.S. Pizza, but the old-world flavor is found in the flatbread crusts slathered with olive oil, spices and freshly sliced tomatoes instead of pureed tomato sauce, she said. The restaurant, which only serves lunch, sold $179,417 worth of food in 2011 and $66,703 in the first six months of 2012.

Last November, Hank Van Rossum opened The Take & Bake Pizza Cafe at 102 Markham Park Drive in Little Rock. Van Rossum’s restaurant is a franchised version of the stand-alone restaurant The Pizza Cafe in Little Rock, but unlike every other Little Rock pizza venture, it doesn’t offer any dine-in service and it sends uncooked pizzas home with customers. (A national chain of take-and-bake pizzas, Papa Murphy’s, has locations in Sherwood, Jacksonville, Conway and Bryant, but none in Little Rock.)

“I think you have to have something that differentiates you from everyone else,” Van Rossum said. “It’s hard to take a pizza home that far and have it fresh. … I thought this would be the perfect thing around here.”

Van Rossum’s pizza place had food sales of $76,361 during the first six months of 2012.

McGehee doesn’t consider his upscale ZaZa to be comparable to anything else offered in the market.

“You can group every pizza restaurant in the same category except ZaZa,” McGehee said. “Over 50 percent of our sales is salad. … Also, our pizza is made so incredibly different from every other place in town.”

ZaZa is the biggest buyer of organic produce in central Arkansas, he said, and the restaurant tries to purchase locally grown ingredients whenever it can so the restaurant uses “much, much higher quality ingredients” than the other pizza places.

ZaZa has chosen a low-protein, finely milled flour for a lighter crust rather than the high-gluten flour used by most pizza restaurants, McGehee said, and ZaZa uses a wood-burning oven rather than the more common gas ovens that are used by U.S. Pizza and many other restaurants.

“I knew they didn’t have what I was offering,” McGehee said. “You try to look at the market and see where the holes are and try to fill them.”



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