LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Wherever you live across our expansive, sockish homeland you likely can, with reasonable ease, name a favorite Pizza King item.
Maybe you craved chopped pepperoni, scattered atop ten inches of cheese as a kid and, frankly, no shame if you still don’t plan to share as an adult. Or rather, it’s the Stromboli, packed and bursting to the brim with whatever meat you want, that took precedence over anything else on Friday night. You may have even taken to the chicken wings, tacos or barbecue pizza.
Not all of those jog your memory? They shouldn’t. Pizza King, the beloved local eatery for thousands of Hoosiers, has actually been, for decades now, two companies operating throughout the state.
If you’re surprised, that’s alright. Brothers Jackson and Ed Bogan are owners at Pizza King Inc., which operates out of Lafayette, and said that’s a common response from folks who think they're familiar with the entirety of Pizza King and find they really only know a few specific locations.
“I think that's where you could have a situation where it's, 'Oh, I like this Pizza King that's 10 miles down the road.' Well, it's because it's a totally different product. It's similar, but it's not the same,” said Jackson Bogan, vice president of Pizza King Inc.
Pizza King started off as the small business venture of brothers Wendell and Bob Swartz, who opened the first restaurant off Lafayette’s Teal Road in 1956.
After nearly a year in operation together, the brothers realized they shared different visions for the company.
The kingdom was, in due course, split down the middle of Indiana and not altogether evenly. Bob Swartz maintained control over restaurants in the eastern part of the state, while Wendell reigned in the west and operated nearly three-quarters of the state.
Bob made his way to Muncie, and began managing his own chain of Pizza Kings, while Wendell operated his chain out of Lafayette.
"If you grew up on a Muncie base, you really liked the Muncie base better. If you grew up in Lafayette base, you lean towards that one," Ed said.
The eastern establishments, founded in 1958, retained the classic “Ring the King” tagline, with telephone booths for ordering food established around tables at most locations. Those booths are very likely positioned near Tiffany lamps, another hallmark of the 56 eastern locations, which are also known as Sir Pizza outside of Indiana.
"We aim for consistency across all of our stores, and we are known for our dill butter brushed breadstix, and our feast pizzas," Pizza King communications manager, Austin Prather said.
Meanwhile the western restaurants typically implement train mechanisms for drink deliveries. Customers were ushered into the taverns by an actual king, stuffing pizza into his mouth.
The eastern Pizza Kings typically have a bold, yellow crown for a logo, while the western Pizza Kings have the man eating a piece of pizza. Although, according to Jackson, some of the western Pizza Kings got ‘grandfathered’ into the crown logo and did not want to change the signs.
Across these territories, the recipes are still very similar: diced meats, secret tomato paste sauce, all atop a thin crust.
"I think we're kind of known for our diced toppings. You know, our meats are diced up. Our pieces are cut into squares," Prather said.
If the Swartz brothers initially divvied up their kingdom with just two dueling visions of pizza greatness, the differences between the western Pizza King Inc. locations are even more varied.
Pizza King Inc. integrated a supply-and-license agreement which allows 65 owner-operated stores to utilize Pizza King ingredients.
"We have what we call the 'Pizza King kit' and this is where we try to put things together. To make sure, when someone wants to start a new Pizza King, this is all the things that you need. This is where you get your ovens, the POS system that you use. We have merchandise. So, you have everything A to Z, everything in between. You can get it from us," Ed said.
There are similarities between all of these restaurants because the supply-and-license agreements necessitate certain mainstays - tomato paste, crushed or diced meat, must make appearances on the menu. But you’d be hard pressed to find an exact replica anywhere because of a supply-and-license agreement.
"Our Pizza King is not a franchise. It's a supply agreement. So it can bring in a lot of different people you can as long as you buy our core products - as long as they they're selling Pizza King pizza, Stromboli subs, they get to use the Pizza King, all of our memorabilia and any merchandise we have," Ed said.
Those licensing agreements are also, the Bogans believe, likely what made Pizza King ubiquitous in rural areas. Aspiring pizza sellers families were able to start restaurants under a familiar name and give more personal touches to the restaurant.
Longtime Pizza King lovers like Sebastian Coppock, who often frequents the restaurant in Battle Ground, said the restaurant's central location makes it easy for members of the community to access pizza in places larger franchises may not build.
"It's a small business. It's just this one is family ran. I guess it's just because it's a small business is more like a small town type thing," Coppock said.
At Clara’s Pizza King in Richmond, the prototypical train is swapped for a double decker bus imported from London. Antiques are situated throughout the restaurant. A Fort Wayne location serves grill items, like burgers. The Pizza King in Battle Ground showcases vintage Coca-Cola collectible items, while another location in Lafayette pays homage to high school and college sports teams.
There are even differences amongst the three Pizza King Inc. corporate offices. Avon’s Pizza King leans into similar train elements of the Lafayette location, but the interiors are not identical like they might be at larger pizza franchises.
“We're basically known for our train system that brings out drinks to the actual booths that we have. Most of the corporate locations do the train motif in some way or another,” said general manager Steve Miller, who has been manager at the Avon location since 1993.
In March, local clothing company United States of Indiana pitted dozens of classic Indiana restaurants up against each other. Pizza King was up against the likes of St. Elmo, Milktooth, and more.
The King came out on top.
Hoosiers found an affinity for the restaurant, even though the Pizza King experience across the state is not uniform.
“We like to think Pizza King is something that is unique to Indiana. It's kind of a Hoosier staple that people associate with this area. I think that's really why it endured through the years," Prather said.