Wally Kennedy: New Pizza Ranch restaurant full of surprises

·4 min read

Jul. 15—Watching a restaurant open can be entertaining, to say the least.

There's the confusion, the drama, the noise and that sense of discovery that comes when you find something unexpected.

On Tuesday afternoon, I checked out the new Pizza Ranch at 3223 E. 20th St. I missed the opening on Monday, and I'm kind of glad I did because it was chaotic by all accounts. There were people lined up at the door for the opening. Of course, the prospect of free food for a year for the first 100 through the doors is quite the enticement.

It was busy when I was there, but it was not chaotic. You pay at the counter, pick up a plate and head for the buffet. It's pretty simple, but I did notice that a couple of people were confused about where to go or what to do next after they got their food. That probably happens with every opening. You just have to be patient and figure out the protocol. This is not rocket science. It's a buffet.

Pizza Ranch specializes in pizza and fried chicken. I picked up slices of pepperoni and supreme pizza with the original crust, which is a little thicker than what I prefer. It was still good, but I want to go back and try the thin crust. You can actually have them design a pizza for you by choosing the crust and ingredients.

After choosing two chicken legs to accompany the pizza, a young man behind the counter assured me that I would be back for more. He was right. The chicken and pizza were accompanied by some mashed potatoes with light gravy and a make-it-your-way salad that included all of the basics. It took two plates. A drink is included.

I am particular when it comes to fried chicken. I grew up eating the best fried chicken in the world. My parents on any given Sunday would drive to Chicken Mary's or Chicken Annie's at Pittsburg, Kansas. I would later discover Barto's Idle Hour in nearby Frontenac. You can usually find me there on my birthday.

The chicken at Pizza Ranch is hot and flavorful. It will compete with the best in Joplin. After one piece, I decided to kick it up a notch and asked for some sliced jalapenos. I got a small container full of them. So, I had no other option but to get a third piece of chicken. I could not let all of those jalapenos go to waste.

The real surprise was the dessert option. I chose the apple pizza. It was excellent. If you see it on the dessert buffet, I suggest you get it while it's there.

One of the entertaining moments from my visit was watching Saundra Thiessen clear tables. She is the mother of Misti Comer, who opened the restaurant along with her husband, Josh. They all have longstanding ties to Joplin. I couldn't help but notice that Thiessen was working circles around her younger coworkers.

Holding a bunch of plates in one hand and some glasses in the other, she raises her eyebrows and said: "I was told I was needed here for public relations."

It was so funny. I didn't get a chance to tell her that making sure that customers have a clean table to put their plates on, in my book, is an example of superior public relations.

That's because the restaurant's manager, Bryan Hartgrave, came by and joined us.

"Sir, is this lady bothering you?" Hartgrave asked.

I said, "No, sir. I was just admiring her work ethic."

Hartgrave has hired a team of about 80 people to run the restaurant. It's a mix of veterans and newcomers. He had no trouble filling the jobs, but he said he is always looking for new talent.

Hartgrave, a graduate of Neosho High School, has nearly 25 years of experience in restaurant management. He was brought into the business in 1992 by Bob and Mike Jennings, who managed the McDonald's restaurants in Joplin for years. Hartgrave managed the McDonald's in Lamar.

"My challenge is to take care of my staff so that they can take care of our customers," he said.

Looking at his watch, he noted that it was 4 p.m. on a Tuesday and that the real rush was about to begin. A child 12 or younger can eat free with the purchase of an adult buffet on Tuesday nights. On Wednesday, I asked Jen Dial, assistant general manager, about what had happened the night before.

"It was insane," she said. "They were still lined up outside the front door at 8:15 p.m. We kept the buffet open until 8:45 p.m."

Normal operating hours for Pizza Ranch are from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The buffet closes at 8:30 p.m.

Third Thursday

Downtown Waterfest, sponsored by Abernathy Roofing, will be the theme for this month's street fair from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. this Thursday in downtown Joplin.

For details, visit downtownjoplin.com.

Contact Wally Kennedy at wkennedy@joplinglobe.com.