NORTH LIBERTY- Some folks remember January 1993 for the inauguration of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton. Others may recall reeling from a disappointing season for the Iowa Hawkeyes, led by the legendary Coach Hayden Fry. For some 3,000 residents of the humble town of North Liberty, it also marked the opening of what would become one of the city's most revered businesses.
"I was the first pizzeria," recalled Cheri Becker, owner of Pizza Plus. The new restaurant, she said, introduced residents to the concept of pizza delivery.
"When I came to town and people started ordering, they didn't know how to order pizza, so we had to train them," she explained. "It was something totally new to the area."
The new business proved a hit. That summer, even as severe flooding washed out roads and flooded campgrounds, locals wouldn't let a natural disaster get in the way of enjoying North Liberty's premiere pizza delivery.
"People were just so excited to have food coming to their house," said Becker. "A lot of the campgrounds were closed due to the high waters, but we had a lot of local people that said, 'Can you go to this dock and we'll pick up our order?,' because we couldn't get to their house," she remarked. "So we always got a kick out of that."
And after a quarter-century in business, Pizza Plus has certainly had its share of memorable moments.
"If I could write about the diary of a pizza store, it'd be quite interesting," she laughed.
"We've had drivers deliver food to people at home just getting out of the shower in a towel, versus dogs that are trying to chew on your foot, trying to deliver a pizza, or the person that the steps fell through?"
And with proximity to the university and campgrounds at the Coralville Reservoir, Becker has had customers from all over the globe- China, Pakistan, Nigeria and Australia, to name a few- and recalls the privilege and amusement of seeing their reaction upon being served their first slice of American pizza.
Becker said, while many franchises have come to town in the years since Pizza Plus opened, high product standards keep her resilient.
"I think I make a better quality pizza," she insisted. "We use fresh ingredients, do our dough fresh- we don't do the par baked thing. So I'm kind of a different level than them and I have just kinda done my own thing."
Having a reputable menu hasn't hurt, either.
"I've throughout the years found out what ran the best and just tend to have that available. Our breadsticks are really popular. We have fettuccini, spaghetti and Alfredo pastas, and those are really popular," Becker affirmed.
While the restaurant maintains a slew of classic pizzas, it has tried a variety of new styles over the years, such as buffalo chicken, sweet and sour chicken, Alfredo and spaghetti pizza.
Not much in the way of day-to-day operation has changed in the last quarter of a century for the self-described "mom store." Amidst a world of ever-changing technology, the North Liberty fixture serves as a lesson in sustaining business through a basic, quality product and service, insisting on handwritten orders taken over the phone as opposed to relying on computers.
However, time has been favorable in some respects of food service, according to Becker.
"Throughout the years, I think guidelines for restaurants have gotten to higher standards," she remarked, citing her decades-old experience in food safety training.
"My mom was a dietician; my dad was a dentist, so I had really good health food standards that I was raised with," she added.
Becker also cited satisfaction in the health-conscious movement that's taken place over the last decade, which had previously left consumers less informed.
With the changing times, the pizzeria owner says she's also seen her town grow tremendously, watching kids grow from chipper employees to the husbands, wives and parents of today's community. The restaurant owner even noted a couple of her former workers who went on to get married and have two kids.
"When I first started out, I had one child who was a year-and-a-half old," Becker recalled, citing her daughter, Jennifer. "She's now 26." Her second daughter, Nicole, is approaching 24.
"They both help me out at the store. I don't know if one of them will take over the store someday, if they'll buy it from Mom or not," Becker said. "We'll have to see."
Becker is grateful to the number of employees and customers from the early days who still pay her a visit. That so many have stayed in touch over the decades speaks volumes of her impression on the community, and has perhaps become the most cherished part of running North Liberty's first pizzeria. As an example, she fondly recalls a Saturday morning when her daughter was running the store a few summers ago.
"She got here, got the oven kicked on and there's a car full of kids waiting to come and eat. They drove all the way from Davenport to have breadsticks, because they were born and raised here," Becker recalled. "So that was sweet."
She went on to cite employees from the early days of Pizza Plus who, after making a life for themselves as far away as California, still make an effort to pay their old boss a visit.
"It's just really neat to see how people have gone on," she resolved, dabbing a tear from her eye.
In keeping with her humble nature, when asked whether Pizza Plus has anything in store to celebrate the 25-year milestone, Becker said she doesn't have any major plans.
"My kids probably want a big hoopla, and I'll just make pizza and do what I'm doing and continue on," she said.
The restaurant did, however, join in the festivities of Liberty High's inaugural homecoming parade last fall, giving away gift certificates for its famous breadsticks.
"We had so much fun. We gave away probably about 100 gift certificates," she recalled.
As for what the next 25 years hold for Pizza Plus?
"I hope that I can get away on vacation more often," Becker said. "I plan on being here- don't plan on moving very fast. Hopefully one of my daughters will take it over, and maybe I'll start working for them."
Although she certainly enjoys representing her business out in the community, Becker tends to gain the most satisfaction from doing what she knows best, feeding North Liberty from the sanctuary of her kitchen.
"It was nice being in the parade- I could get out and see people in the community and meet a lot of new people," she confessed with a grin. "But I'm just so used to being back there that, if I go out, I'd rather be back there making their food."