It’s just after noon on Friday as Christina Gigante pulls up to the Casey’s General Store on North Pine Street in Davenport, Iowa. It is Gigante’s birthday, and she’s celebrating in the most Iowa way possible—by buying herself and her coworkers three Casey’s pizzas. There are fancier pizzerias around, places with gratuitous amenities like tables and chairs and utensils that aren’t wrapped in plastic. But ask any Iowan and they’ll tell you: The best pizza in the state comes from gas stations.
If Breaking Bad had been set in Iowa instead of New Mexico, Walter White and Jesse would have been cooking up convenience store pizza instead of meth.
“I love it,” Gigante tells me as she placed the three pizzas on her passenger-side seat. “I can’t even describe it. It’s great pizza.”
And in Iowa, it’s everywhere. Although not every rural town is large enough to support a Domino’s or a Papa John’s, a good many of them have a convenience store. Almost all of those convenience stores–the omnipresent Casey’s, the Kum & Gos, the QuikTrips—have a small kitchen with a pizza oven (or two).
While competition is fierce, there is a distinct pecking order. Casey’s is the undisputed king—the most popular and hands-down the best. In a Des Moines Register online poll, 85% of respondents ranked Casey’s pizza first, followed by Kum & Go at 7% and QuikTrip at 4%.
When presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke visited Iowa recently, he went straight to a Casey’s for pizza, declaring in a tweet: “Casey’s pizza. Breakfast of champions.” For O’Rourke, it was a mulligan, of sorts. In May, he posted an Instagram video of himself eating Casey’s pizza in the morning, saying “We’re eating some breakfast pizza right now.” Iowans were quick to point out he was eating regular pizza for breakfast, not breakfast pizza, which at Iowa convenience stores is a thing. It wasn’t quite John Kerry ordering Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak, but for Iowans, it was close. Perhaps that’s why Beto is polling at around 2% in most pre-caucus polls.
There’s a reason Iowans get so worked up about their gas station pizza. It’s good. Not just cheap-pizza good, but actually, genuinely good. Casey’s pizza dough is soft and airy, creating a crust that’s the perfect blend of bubbles and bread, much closer to homemade dough than you’ll find in most pizzerias. The whole operation is amazingly efficient. Order a pie on Casey’s app and it’s ready for pick-up 20 minutes later, piping hot and fresh, better than what you’ll find at many of the fancy full-fledged pizza restaurants.
The breakfast pizzas at all three chains are spectacular, combining scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon (or sausage) in perfect greasy balance, rendering breakfast burritos, which more often than not are too egg-forward, obsolete. Kum & Go puts hash browns on its breakfast pizzas. At Casey’s, you can order your breakfast pizza with sausage gravy as the sauce, the way God intended.
All three chains offer versions of the quintessential Iowa pizza—taco pizza—which was invented by Lawrence Joseph “Happy Joe” Whitty in 1974 at his Happy Joe’s restaurant in Davenport. The Taco Joe remains the gold standard and the undisputed champ, the state’s greatest culinary achievement since the loose-meat sandwich. The Casey’s version has the standard taco pizza toppings—lettuce, tomatoes, taco chips, cheese and beef—but adds refried beans, an ingredient that was in the original Happy Joe’s recipe but has since been removed. I’m a sucker for the classics.
Midwestern convenience stores can also, however, be models of pizza innovation. Kum & Go adds bacon bits to the standard Canadian bacon, pineapple to its Hawaiian Pizza, and Genoa salami to its Italian Meat Pizza. Casey’s also offers a Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza (with pickles); a BBQ Beef Pizza; and its newest creation, the Midwest Mystery Pizza, topped with a Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce, Kansas City pulled pork, bacon, and corn. Why no one has thought to put corn on a pizza before is beyond me, but it adds a nice sweetness and crispy bite to the pie. Kum & Go has countered with a Chipotle Chicken Bacon Ranch Pizza, the ingredients for which are pretty much spelled out in the name.
It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake like, say, a fried chicken patty between two doughnuts, or a slot machine pull of the same five ingredients to create roughly 2 million similar-tasting menu items, but rather a happy byproduct of the ongoing convenience store pizza wars that have raged for decades in the rural Midwest.
How popular is gas station pizza in Iowa? In terms of pizza sales, Casey’s is fifth-largest pizza chain in the country, trailing only Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Papa John’s. A good chunk of Casey’s pizza sales is to Iowans. The chain, which opened its first store in Boone, Iowa, in 1968, now boasts 2,200 Casey’s General Stores across 16 states. More than half of them are in towns of 5,000 or less, and 529 of them are in Iowa.
The chain started selling pizza in 1984 and quickly established itself as the only pizza purveyor in many rural towns. It built proper kitchens in all of its stores, trained its employees on the art of pizza making, and invested in ingredients. Each pizza crust is hand-rolled, the cheese is 100% mozzarella, and the toppings taste fresh.
“There’s a lot of love for Casey’s pizza,” said Art Sebastian, Casey’s vice president of digital experience. “If you are 60 years old or younger and came from Iowa, you grew up with Casey’s.”
You also grew up with Kum & Go, which entered the pizza fray three decades ago. The chain doubled down in 2011 when it revamped its pizza program in response to customer demand, emphasizing more fresh ingredients and made-to-order options.
The 60-year-old chain, headquartered in Des Moines, has 400 stores across 11 states, including 103 in Iowa. It sells, on average, a slice of pizza every 2 seconds, and on Friday nights offers buy-one-get-one-free large pizzas, catering to Iowans’ sense of thriftiness and their DNA-level love of pizza.
“It’s a tough thing to explain to folks who aren’t from here,” says Kum & Go spokesperson Ariel Rubin. “Honestly, convenience store pizza is just a thing here. I don’t know how to explain it but it runs deep.”