Pizza Ranch opening in North Liberty less than a month after COVID-19 restrictions loosen
After two and a half months of uncertainty, Brandon Pratt is finally able to open the doors to the Pizza Ranch in his hometown of North Liberty.
"We were monitoring data. We just made the decision we want to wait," said Pratt, the owner of multiple corridor Pizza Ranch locations. "We wanted to reopen when we could give our guests the full experience."
That full experience comes to North Liberty officially on Monday, after a soft opening this week. Although the location isn't new — it's been in place since 1996 — it is uncharted territory for Pratt, who acquired the location from the previous owner in November 2019.
Pratt has spent most of the time since revitalizing the building.
"Everything except for the exterior walls is brand-new," he said, looking over the revamped space Thursday morning, less than an hour before welcoming guests. (During the soft opening, Pratt did not charge customers but asked them to pay with a canned good donation or a $5 donation to the North Liberty Food Pantry.)
Located at 395 Beaver Kreek Center, the business has increased its square footage, adding to it the space of the neighboring bay, formerly a massage parlor. The final product — with 25% more seating and an arcade fun zone — is more in line with the other Pizza Ranch locations Pratt has opened in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.
For opening, the location's buffet will be available from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4:30-7:30 p.m. for lunch and dinner, respectively. Those numbers will fluctuate depending on demand, but the location will remain open for carry-out and delivery from 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
What's perhaps most unfamiliar in the restaurant is the world in which it is opening, still inhibited by concerns over novel coronavirus.
“We thought about opening as a dine-in or carry out, but our customers told us they want us to open as a buffet," said Pratt. "So (we're) following (state) mandates and putting in a lot more procedures and protocol of our own ... more than what is required.”
Among these health precautions is Plexiglass separating guests from the buffet food, as staff wearing face masks and gloves serve food and provide clean utinsels. Tables are marked off or removed to seat only half-capacity and maintain 6 feet of social distance.
Pratt requires employees to do a temperature check before arrival, keeps track of the data in a temperature log and sends them home if their temperature spikes. Furthermore, a portion of the employees, identified by pins, has specifically been assigned to a "clean team" who not only sanitizes tables but also disinfecting them.
“We come and brush the table off first, and the person who’s working as a sanitizing specialist comes in," said general manager Cullen Farran. "He gets the peroxide mix, he sprays that down and it has to sit on the table for 45 seconds to do its job. Then they come and do a wash cycle to make it clear for sanitizing … Then (once sanitized) it's good to go for guests again.”
"If guests want, we're providing them with gloves if that's something they feel they're more comfortable with," Pratt added. "Then we have disinfectant/sanitation stations throughout the restaurant."
Similar procedure is being taken for the location's arcade. During the soft opening this week, the fun zone was not available to customers, but it will be on Monday with the official opening, as more state restrictions from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds are lifted.
Of the 17 machines in North Liberty's fun zone area, six have been shut down to encourage social distancing. On top of that, once past Monday's opening, Pratt is considering making it possible for customers to rent out the space for family use to encourage further separation for health reasons.
These same sanitary practices, Pratt said, have also been implemented at the other area Pizza Ranch locations, which will also reopen their fun zones Monday.
Across all locations, Pratt has seen his business numbers take a hit. He's already anticipating a similar result with his North Liberty location.
“I was originally projecting we would double our sales," Pratt said. "(Now) I think that once we get past the short-term crisis… we’ll get to 50 or 75% (more).”
The Pizza Ranch on Highway 1 in Iowa City saw income trend upward about 55% over the course of a year. Across his locations currently, Pratt estimates business has been down by more than 50%, and as much as 80% at some of the locations.
The process of opening a new restaurant is something Pratt has been through before, as he owns seven total locations between Iowa and Illinois — one of which will be opening July 20 in Marion. But this most recent opening in his hometown has been a different experience. Ultimately, he feels he and his team are stronger for it.
An immediate example is his delivery team is more robust — though he's opening North Liberty with lower-than-usual numbers on location, he is still looking for more drivers, as that side of the business has doubled.
Although Pratt expects delivery to remain strong in the coming months, he also anticipates many will be ready to get out of the house.
"I think everyone's anxious to get back to a new normal," said Pratt. "We just want to do it in a safe way, and I think we've done that."
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet