Presidential candidate Herman Cain and his Godfather’s pizza: Both full of empty calories?

October 18, 2011

GOP candidate Herman Cain wants to be your president. He wants to get you off the couch and back to work, put government on a short leash and, if possible, plug the hole in the sinking ship called the U.S. economy. One of his primary credentials for the job involves his nearly miraculous healing of the once-moribund Godfather’s Pizza, as if America were a midgrade Midwestern chain whose many problems could be solved with a few deaths in the family (read: store closings) and a tough-talking thug in a pin-stripe suit and fedora.

More than 15 years after Cain left his position as president of Godfather’s, the presidential candidate still has one thing in common with the Omaha-based chain: They both have a distaste for Washington. Cain hopes to ride his outsider status all the way to the Oval Office, but Godfather’s prefers to keep its distance from the nation’s capital. There is not a single Godfather’s in Washington — nor in Maryland, for that matter.

One of the closest locations to the District is nearly 100 miles away in New Market, Va., a town perhaps most famous for its annual reenactment of an 1864 Civil War battle in which the Confederate Army and cadets from the Virginia Military Institute expelled Union soldiers from the Shenandoah Valley. When I saw my first Godfather’s Pizza outlet in more than 20 years, I felt a similar urge to flee the scene.

The Godfather’s in New Market is not a free-standing restaurant or even one of those generic storefronts in a suburban strip mall, which is what I recall from my youth in western Omaha. This Godfather’s is tucked into the bowels of a Liberty gas station and convenience store, down a hallway with bathroom doors on the left, a cooler on the right and stacks of beer and soft drinks piled everywhere. This is your one-stop shop for Virginia lottery tickets, plastic gas cans, candy, toiletries, cigs, stuffed animals, chewing tobacco, condoms, batteries, playing cards, a sixer and a slice of Godfather’s Pizza.

If you can’t go home again, you also can’t re-create the pizza of your childhood. Companies change. You change. Your palate changes. And yet: When I sat down next to the cooler to review the overhead menu ($8.99 for a small with cheese to $13.99 for a jumbo with cheese), I experienced a visceral flashback unrelated to the physical space or a vague desire to pig out like a teenager, biting into one hot, gooey slice after another. This pang, part nostalgia and part ache for lost innocence, was entirely based on smell: The aroma of freshly baked dough and melted butter unlocked some sense memory buried deep in my skull. I realized that Godfather’s had imprinted its smell on my brain, as permanent now as DNA.


The Godfather's Pizza in New Market, Va. (Tim Carman/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The pizza itself, like this hybrid store, was from another era. In my youth, before I had ever eaten the real thing in Chicago, I considered Godfather’s pies “deep dish.” But the two pizzas in front of me — one with pepperoni and the other with rabbit-foodlike pellets of Italian sausage — were rounds of fluffy focaccia-style bread slathered with sauce and toppings and buried under a mound of processed mozzarella. They had neither the cornmeal walls of genuine deep dish nor the thin, chewy, charred crusts of Neapolitan pizza. These were pies of no great distinction.

The urge to draw parallels between pie and presidential candidate is strong. But it’s a fool’s errand. By most accounts, Cain was indeed a catalyst for reversing Godfather’s fortunes, even in the scant 14 months he claims. Cain’s primary weapon for reviving the brand was marketing, according to an Omaha World-Herald story this month.

He apparently brought back the original godfather character from the chain’s early years in the 1970s — a rubbery-mouthed Mafioso who loved to claim that Godfather’s was a “pizza you can’t refuse” — and helped develop affordable and enormous, appetite-sating products to better compete in the chain-pizza marketplace. Cain was ahead of his time in helping us chow down cheap, empty calories; he would pave the way for food reformers such as Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver.

I had to wonder whether it was Cain’s decision to downsize the chain’s ambitions, so I reached out to the Godfather’s PR team. I wanted to know how many of the pizzeria’s outlets were in gas stations, convenience stores and the like — and when this conversion to shared resources occurred.

The only droplet of information I could squeeze from the public relations crew was this: “Today, Godfather’s Pizza has approximately 220 franchisees that operate approximately 620 franchise locations across the country, ranging from traditional pizza restaurants to nontraditional locations in convenience stores, airports, truck plazas and schools.”

It doesn’t matter. Godfather’s Pizza is clearly comfortable in these rural confines, cheek by jowl with gas pumps and 12-packs of Coors, where Americans (and their tight budgets) couldn’t care less about the latest trends in modern pizza-making, with its precious emphasis on finely ground “00” flour, San Marzano tomatoes and wood-burning ovens.

Years after Wolfgang Puck unleashed gourmet pizzas on Los Angeles and was plotting his own world domination, Herman Cain was fighting to keep an outdated pie concept alive. His savvy may prove he’s a good businessman, but his inability to look beyond the standard-issue chain-pizza trend proves something — a lack of imagination, at the very least. And now the pizza-chain market is dying, losing ground to burgers and chicken on the list of the nation’s top “quick-service” brands.

It’s even dying among some of my fellow Nebraskans, who grew up with Godfather’s and, I presumed, might be predisposed to it. When I polled a few friends, I got back an earful of gastronomical — and possibly political — comments, such as this note from Dan Moser, my first college editor in Nebraska: “I don’t think any of us will eat it again.”

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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