NORTH LIBERTY– Anything that lasts 20 years has a proven track record.
Anyone who has been able to grow and maintain a business in North Liberty for 20 years has accomplished a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that it is a family-owned-and-operated, non-franchise restaurant serving made-from-scratch goodness to the public since 1993.
Cheri Becker and her ex-husband came to North Liberty, designed the building and started a pizza restaurant, first having family and friends taste-test their handmade dough recipe and topping combinations before opening their doors for the first time on Jan. 7, 1993.
In the 20 years since, the population has gone from about 5,000 to more than 13,000 residents.
When she first came to town, Cheri said, people weren’t familiar enough with home pizza delivery– they had to be trained how to order pizza over the phone. Now, people expect all restaurants to have an interactive website and a social media presence so they can order over the Internet.
Cheri has added specialty pizzas to the menu, like gyro, sweet and sour, chicken Alfredo, the new BBQ bacon chicken ranch pizza and others, as well as pasta dishes like lasagna and fettuccine Alfredo, sandwiches such as steak burgers and chicken cordon bleu, a variety of calzones and barbecued chicken wings and riblets with a choice of sauces.
While a lot has changed on the menu and in the community since it first opened, the ingredients that launched Pizza Plus’ modest beginnings and its recipe for long-term success remain much the same. The business is in the same brick-faced building at the corner of Penn and Dubuque streets, with a letter board sign that announces its weekly specials and offers an occasional pizza-related witticism. Currently, there are no Pizza Plus web pages, Facebook or Twitter accounts (though they are in progress); orders are still taken over the phone or over the counter. In-town delivery is still free, and the fresh buttered breadsticks are still described by patrons as simply the best. Anywhere. Some patrons who have moved out of town still make special trips back to North Liberty just for the breadsticks, Cheri noted.
“It’s a good product with good, quality ingredients,” she said.
Pizza Plus pizza starts with dough that is mixed from scratch daily, never frozen or par-baked, topped with fresh ingredients purchased as locally as possible when in season, and smothered in 100 percent real mozzarella cheese. A lot of mozzarella cheese, in fact.
“To me, you have to have real mozzarella or it doesn’t cook right. It’s just not a good quality pizza,” said Cheri. “I put more ingredients on my pizza. Not just a skimpy 10 pieces of pepperoni, you know?”
Cheri calls it portion control; Jennifer Becker, one of Cheri’s two daughters who have worked in the store since they were young, calls it “over-doing it.”
“She likes the toppings,” laughed Jennifer.
Cheri said it’s part of what distinguishes okay pizza from great pizza that people will come back for.
“I’m a mom and pop store. You have to give customers a good quality pizza or you won’t have return customers,” said Cheri. “Food is one of the toughest things to do consistently, but people know how they like their food.”
But getting the product to customers in a satisfactory way is also part of the Pizza Plus formula.
“I’ve just always gone on the old premise that you treat others the way you want to be treated; with respect,” said Cheri. “My workers say I’m picky, but if people call back to say they are unhappy with their food, that hurts.”
And being in business for 20 years does not come without other drawbacks; for Cheri, one of the unfortunate effects of time is personal loss.
“I’ve lost repeat customers over time to cancer, older age or other illness,” she said, and though she thought she wouldn’t cry, the tears came anyway. “Over the years, you get attached to your customers. I am starting to lose people, and it does get very hard.”
One thing that makes it easier for Cheri is the consistently good help she has been able to hire.
“Throughout the years, my employees have been wonderful,” she said. “They’re local kids from high school and college, and they’ve been great.”
Those employees not only deliver pizzas in any kind of weather– Cheri has only closed the store twice in 20 years due to inclement weather– they must find their way to increasingly hard-to-find homes on the ever-changing number of new streets that haven’t even been mapped yet. (The store delivers anywhere within a 5-mile radius, charging just $2 for out-of-town delivery).
Back in the pizza kitchen, they also learn what it takes to make a pizza so good that it keeps people coming back for 20 years.
Jennifer Becker attributes that kind of longevity to her mother’s standards.
“We make our dough fresh daily. We try and buy locally so ingredients are fresh as possible,” Jennifer said. “I think it’s awesome that she has made it this far, especially now that the town is booming.”
Boomtown or not, Cheri Becker said she and Pizza Plus will continue to turn out the best pizza, pasta and breadsticks in town because… well, it’s just how she rolls.
“They’re made with lots of love,” Cheri said. “I just have appreciated everyone’s patronage over the years.”