Photos by Josh Keown
A ‘Go West’ inclination during a carefree time was the recipe that resulted in Gerald Strader and his business partner, Scott Leist, setting up shop — literally — in Austin, Texas. Once they made the move a whirlwind of events quickly conspired to produce both jubilation and unexpected challenges, but, really, what business doesn’t face both, the two men reasoned? More than three decades later, the partners operate a company, Conan’s Pizza, that ranks No. 95 on Pizza Today’s list of Hot 100 Independents.
“We opened Conan’s on July 19, 1976,” explains Strader. Leist was unable to be present during our visit in January. “We had graduated form college in Florida and wanted to open a pizza place. We knew we wanted to be in good weather, so the parameters were that we would go somewhere West of the Mississippi River and South of the Mason-Dixon Line. If Austin didn’t work we were going to go to Tempe next, and then on to San Diego. We literally loaded up our vans and drove out here. We fell in love with Austin. It was booming.”
Those were the days when Janis Joplin and Willie Nelson reigned supreme in the city, and Strader said Austin’s artistic bent coupled with its growing population made it a good choice for a restaurant. The fact that there weren’t any pizzerias serving the pan-style for which Conan’s has become known made it an even better place for the two new graduates to give their concept a shot.
“My first ever pizza job was in Stillwater, Oklahoma,” says Strader. The son of a military father, Strader has lived all over the U.S. and other countries. “It was a full-blown Italian restaurant. I saw a lot of stuff there and learned a lot. But our pizza recipe didn’t come from there. It is an extension of what I learned in college. When I was in Gainesville I worked for a place called Leonardo’s. I took what I learned there and brought it here.”
What made Strader think that style of pizza would be a hit in Austin? “I loved it,” he says. “I was a huge fan. I thought this stuff was so good that it would sell anywhere. And I was right. It went really well.”
Just about everything went well for the partners early on. After working daily to get Conan’s open, the pay off didn’t take long. After only six months in business the pizzeria was so busy that it nearly doubled in size, from a mere 800 square feet to 1,500 square feet. But one day a legal notice arrived in the mail and Conan’s faced a major hurdle. Its identity, inspired by a comic book character that was later immortalized in Hollywood movies, was placed in the crosshairs of threatened legal action. You see, the pizzeria didn’t just use the name, Conan’s Pizza. It also featured artwork of the character. After some legal wrangling and a trial, Strader and Leist emerged with the right to continue using the name and using the images within the three company-owned stores. Though any future licensees or franchisees can’t use the artwork, the pieces still remain on display in the three stores owned by the partners.
With the legal hiccup aside, Strader and Leist were free to grow their business. That, of course, comes with its own trials and tribulations.
“We opened about a dozen stores over the years,” says Strader. “And just about everyone of them were successful. One closed due to crime; one closed because the landlord went bankrupt. The building was literally condemned and the whole place was bulldozed. Then, in 1986 Texas was hurting despite what was going on in the rest of the country. We had to close a San Antonio store in ‘86. The first five were gold mines. It just goes to show it really is location, location, location.
Strader’s sons are involved in the business now and his eldest, Chris, has come back to lead a management and marketing role after spending time working in political circles in Washington, D.C. While in the nation’s capital he worked on campaigns, as a driver for Rahm Emanual and as a clerk on the Ways & Means Committee for Democratic U.S. House of Representatives member Charles Rangel of New York. Though those experiences no doubt shaped him, he says some of the skills that have translated to Conan’s the most did not come from time spent in government buildings, but in a more unlikely place.
“Some of my best experience was actually managing a lawn and garden center in D.C., believe it or not,” he says. “They gave me a lot of responsibility. I started a newsletter and did social media, and that certainly spills over.”
For Strader’s part, he says the itch to grow never fully subsides. With that in mind, he says burgeoning markets like areas in Dallas, Houston and along the Interstate 35 corridor may present opportunities for Conan’s to expand.
“We’re dying to open more stores,” he says, “but it has to be the right fit. We don’t open losers.”
So, for now, the plan is to continue focusing on production and providing customers a good experience. In 2012, Conan’s experienced 12 percent growth as compared to the year prior. Now, Chris is working to maintain that track by keeping Conan’s in the mix through advertising and social media channels as Austin experiences an influx of newer, trendier dining options.
“Things are going well right now, and we have a lot of cards in our hand yet to play,” he says. “The next time we feel a bubble we can start to use some of it.”
With today’s advanced POS systems, say the Straders, so much more information is available at the operator’s fingertips than ever before. Things like identifying and courting so-called “lazy customers” to return is easier now than ever.
“From a marketing standpoint,” intercedes Chris, “the pickup customer is the customer I get the least amount of information on. If you think about it, with a delivery customer I get their full address and I can market directly to them.”
Delivery makes up 15-20 percent of sales at Conan’s, and that is without making a conscious effort to increase that segment of the business. In part, Conan’s hasn’t had to since it has made a name for itself with longevity.
“We’re an icon now,” says Strader. “UT (University of Texas) students all over the state want to come back to visit, and when they do we’re on their check list.”
Consistency is the real key to that. For Conan’s, a commissary is one of the drivers that helps all three stores produce the same product all day every day.
“We’ve always had a commissary,” says Strader. “We do it out of one of the stores now. We have three guys work it, and two of them have been here for 20 years. They come in and make the dough, prep and load the van. They deliver fresh product to the stores seven days a week.”
That results in quality control some independents don’t always have. Says Strader: “We’re labor intense. I know that. But we’re quality. I really think quality and labor go hand in hand."
Jeremy White is Editor-in-Chief of Pizza Today.
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