If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Iowa, then chances are you’re already familiar with the phenomenon of gas station pizza. But in lots of different areas of the country where communities aren’t large enough to sustain multiple major pizza chains, gas station convenience stores are they main source of that precious takeout pizza. In this arena, Casey’s General Stores is a quiet behemoth: 2,200 locations in 16 states, serving 30 million whole pies and 63 million slices annually. It’s America’s fifth-largest pizza chain.
Farrokh Larijani is Casey’s new Senior Manager of Culinary Innovation, a title that you might not associate with gas station pizza. But the brand knows how beloved its product is to its fans, so keeping up the quality matters. We spoke to Larijani about what goes into a Casey’s slice.
The Takeout: I knew Casey’s was popular, but the idea that it’s the fifth largest in the U.S. really surprised me. What goes into the innovation process when we’re talking about pizza consumed on that type of scale?
Farrokh Larijani: I was in the same boat as you. When I found out about Casey’s and the volume they handle, I was living just nine hours away and had never heard of Casey’s. The more I looked into the culture of the company and what they do, it was really eye-opening. And then I found out about the number of pizzas we go through: 30 million pies on an annual basis, that’s nothing to joke about!
From an innovation standpoint, I always try to look at it as one independent restaurant, or one store. Because if I get to thinking, “this scale is just too big,” that’s going to stifle innovation. So you try to work to the gold standard, coming up with the best of the best first. Then we bring field trainers into the lab and try to connect with the operators. Once that connection is made, and we know what we need to do—whether it’s to simplify the recipe or to make it more consistent—that’s when you can spread it across 2,200 stores.
TO: How does taste testing factor into the process? Are regular customers brought in at some point?
FL: For sure, because we want to make sure it’s a proven recipe. We have an internal sensory panel and then an external sensory panel. By the time [a pizza] is out of my inner circle of R&D and we feel like we have something we can hang our hat on, then we have plenty of team members here who we can do a tasting with. If there’s a project that needs to go beyond that, we do an external sensory panel of Casey’s guests, as well as non-guests who have no exposure to Casey’s so we can draw from that. (It would be offsite somewhere, so they would never know that it’s our product, so we can get the best feedback possible.) We serve it to at least 150 guests, to get different details about the recipe. Sometimes there’s adjustments that need to be done after a particular sensory panel, and sometimes you just high-five—you’ve got a hit on your hands.
TO: What is the biggest slam-dunk, high-five pizza that you’ve worked on so far?
FL: We’re usually working six to seven months ahead of rollout. It’s a little too early to talk about what’s coming out in May, but I can say that I came to Casey’s not only to work on the pizza, but to take the other food on the menu—salads and sandwiches and such, and dessert—and bring it up to the same level that the guests expect from the pizza. We do have a chef-driven product coming out at Casey’s that you’d never expect from a convenience store at a gas station.
TO: To that point, how does Casey’s change people’s minds about convenience store food?
FL: The first thing we need to do is get our guests in the door and have them try the pizza. Other than that, if they’re just driving by and they see it as a general store where they can pump their gas, you would never think of what goes on inside that kitchen. From the moment that the lights turn on and they start making the dough, the mixers are going, and you’ve got to allow time for the dough to rest before you can make the first breakfast pizza. You really have to taste it to appreciate it, and our team is really interested in getting that message out to first-time guests. The regular guests have tried it; we have a great following, and they come in for the breakfast pizza as well as pizza by the slice, or Friday night whole pies, or what have you. They’re the fans. They’re there already. But the new guests who have no idea what Casey’s is all about, the marketing team wants to bring them in to try the product.
TO: You’ve worked in a lot of different culinary spaces over the years. What do you like about pizza? What’s special about it?
FL: If you look at a pizza, even starting with the dough itself, it’s such a blank canvas, and you can paint it any way you like. The quality of the canvas is the crust; that is the most important thing. Quality flour, good yeast. The rest of it comes down to proper measurements of water and all that, but it’s ultimately about those quality ingredients. You can do whatever you want with that. You can reach out to any number of cuisines and cultures, including ones that might not even have pizza—but it’s about the sauce, or a particular marinated piece of meat that goes on the crust. So it lends itself to exploration of different flavors and ingredients. I believe that that’s the next chapter for us here at Casey’s. We already have our go-tos, our favorites, and our classics. Now it’s about the exploration: What else can we introduce to our guests that we haven’t thought about yet?
A couple months ago, we reached out to our team members and we held a contest, just to gauge the level of enthusiasm from our folks out there making the pizzas. The response was overwhelming, how many recipes came back from them. It really just warmed my heart, as a chef, to know that they’re out there and they want to do the best they can do for our guests and our pizza. The best is yet to come.