If Ian's Pizza, a local Madison, Wisconsin chain, had a Google News Alert set for its brand name, it certainly saw a recent flood of results, from The New York Times to the Huffington Post to CBS News to The Onion. In fact, at times it seemed almost like news reports about Ian's response to feed protesters at the ongoing Madison budget bill protests outnumbered reports about the tens of thousands of protesters themselves.
Ian's outpost on Madison's famed State Street is just a block or so from the capitol square, where for the last two weeks hundreds of thousands of protesters have demonstrated against proposed measures in the new governor's budget bill.
Last Tuesday, Feb. 22, near 2 am when Ian's closed, protesters asked if the shop wasn't doing anything with its leftover pizzas — and might it send them over to those camped out in the capitol in protest? The following day, Ian's received a call from California. A woman asked if Ian's could deliver two pizzas to the protestors.
Then, Fritz says, another customer told Ian's that she had a lot of Twitter followers and could she encourage her followers to donate to Ian's Pizza to help feed the protesters. A pizza revolution was born.
Anyone watching the #wiunion Twitter tag, the hashtag for the protests, saw Ian's name and phone number tweeted and retreated many times. Calls flooded in and Ian's closed down its regular delivery business and, for eight days, delivered pizzas exclusively to the tens of thousands that arrived each day, culminating with a massive 70,000-plus person crowd on Saturday, gathered maybe 100 yards up the hill from the shop.
Ian's opened on Halloween, October 31, 2001. Those familiar with State Street would be surprised to see something so… legitimate. For many years, the top part of State Street, that closest to the Capitol, was a less trafficked and less reputable part of the famous pedestrian thoroughfare. In fact, older Madisonians will recognize that Ian's State Street location was that of the Red Letter News State Street Arcade, which was a "news" agency insomuch as naked people are news.
Ian's today is all windows and open to passersby, a complete change from the windows covered in butcher paper and a discreetly-marked, opaque swinging door. It's a business change that the local press has made note of.
"We tell people we cleaned it up really good," says Staci Fritz, the manager at Ian's on State. Fitz, wearing a t-shirt advertising Ian's most popular slice (macaroni and cheese), shakes her head about the last week. She points out that while Ian's is still taking donations and making delivers to whoever remains protesting at the capitol, the shop has resumed regular deliveries.
Ian's is not like most pizza places. All of its full-time employees receive health care, and 401k benefits. And the brand "franchises" but only from within. Employees of Ian's grow to propose their own stores and then, if things are right, supported in the endeavor. Today, there are just four Ian's, one each in Chicago and Milwaukee and two in Madison. No more are currently planned, though Fritz says she certainly sees talented potential franchisees in the current Ian's team.
On Monday afternoon, Fritz guesstimated that Ian's had delivered upwards of 35,000 slices of pizzas in the last week, all paid for by donations. One donation even made major headlines when it arrived from Egypt. After speaking with Fritz and making my trip up to the capitol, I ran into an Ian's delivery man unpacking about ten pizza boxes and opening them to the several hundred protesters still gathered.
Fritz says that while Ian's is still making deliveries and taking donations, it has been very careful to cut off the amount of money it takes in one day. "What if somebody gives a load of money and then suddenly this whole thing is over and we can't deliver anymore? We can't let anyone pay for what we can't promise to deliver."
On its blog "Speakeasy," the brand addresses all of the recent attention it is receiving:
Ian's strives to be as customer focused as possible. The restaurant even offers a guarantee. If a customer does not like the pizza, he or she can return it for something else. As Ian's management notes, "We screw something up? (Uh, yeah, it happens…) We’ll bend over backwards to make you happy. All our employees are empowered to do whatever it takes to make a customer leave happy. And they won’t get yelled at for “giving things away.” It’s not “giving things away,” it’s “loyal customer retention,” and there’s a big difference."
But when it comes to politics, customers gained through one position can very easily be customers lost through that same position. Fritz says that while all this attention happened so fast, and that Ian's was glad to help, there were genuine concerns about mislabeling the brand and facing a backlash.
"We worried not just about a political backlash, about being seen as taking sides, but also the possibility of alienating our regular customers who ordered during a week we shut down deliveries," says Fritz.
But in the end, Fritz tells us that she is aware of no complaints from those unable to receive deliveries and only two people who have emailed stating they will never eat at Ian's again for political reasons.
Madison has a long tradition of its bars and restaurants being sucked into the fervent political activity of the times, such as the Nitty Gritty restaurant and bar's role as the meeting place for the activists who bombed the university's Sterling Hall in 1970.
Ian's political legacy may be as historic, but it is decidedly less infamous — and as Fritz tell us, Ian's isn't politics people, "We're pizza people."
(Editor's note: When Abe hasn't been tallying the winners in our Product Placement Awards in recent weeks, he's been covering the Wisconsin protests for The Awl.)