Chronicle Readers Choose Conans as Their Favorite Pizza in Austin
Local deep-dish pizza institution takes prize as top Pie Fighter
By Jessi Cape, Fri., July 10, 2020
As the story goes, Jerry Strader and Scott Leist graduated from the University of Florida in June 1976 and hightailed it west in search of a spot to open a deep-dish pizza restaurant when, like so many people continue to do, they rolled into town and decided to stay. Forty days later, they opened Conans Pizza – named for the guys' obsession with comic books – on 29th and Guadalupe, right next to the University of Texas. More than 40 years later, after weathering the country's multiple financial crises, a rapidly evolving local food scene, and now an ongoing global pandemic, their original recipes just won The Austin Chronicle's inaugural Pie Fighters pizza competition.
Although Conans' first location on the Drag closed in June 2018, two locations remain to serve "Austin's Original Deep Pan pizza" – south at Stassney (opened September 1978) and north at Anderson (opened May 1979). What's on this uniquely Austin menu to keep customers coming back for decades? It's not exactly Chicago-style (the robust sauce is conveniently located under the cheese), but their deep pan pies are hearty and thick and unlike anything else in town. They also boast a mean thin crust and interestingly, all five types of dough they make daily are vegan. While decidedly no-frills, their salad dressings are made in-house and their top-selling pizza is the deep-dish Savage with piles of sausage and hamburger (both spiced with a local mix), pepperoni, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, black olives, jalapeños, and anchovies. And while COVID-19 has their dining rooms temporarily closed, we'll assure you the wooden interiors, filled with comic memorabilia and arcade games, are as old-school Austin as it gets.
We caught up with Chris Strader, current co-owner alongside his siblings Chad and Carly, to chat about the victory.
Austin Chronicle: I'm happy to inform you that Conans Pizza won our Pie Fighters competition. Congrats, y'all!
Chris Strader: That's incredible! It was a fun time to play!
AC: So you're with the north location? And since you grew up in the local restaurant scene, tell me how things have evolved.
CS: Yes. We [Chris, Carly, and Chad] grew up as kids inside of every restaurant we ever opened – it was our playground. We've since had every job in the business and about a year and a half ago, September 2018, we took over the north operations. There used to be as many as eight Conans at once with a big commissary warehouse, but the last 20-something years it's been the same three. When we closed 29th Street, the two locations remaining became independents on their own.
I would say that when we first opened, we opened a restaurant every year for six years because the competition was lacking. You're right that today there's as good of pizza options as ever in Austin. To that end, we were really humbled to be a part of the competition at all and completely amazed that we won.
In 1976 when our dad and his partner opened, there was no deep pan [in Austin] and there was no wheat crust – and that was the only crust we offered. Today we actually make five kinds of dough every day. I believe we have the most customizable pizza product out there. Some of our competition has one size and one dough type. At Conans you have to choose between 17 different options before you can place your order. When people ask me about the pizza, I say, just order your favorite pizza and I bet we'll get it right.
AC: Speaking of customizable, Conans has had a longtime dedication to vegetarian options and all five kinds of dough are vegan, right?
CS: We were on the leading edge and that was an initiative we accomplished around 2011-2012. Man, [vegans] are loyal as ever and they spend more. At first only our deep pan was vegan, and we did have to tweak our thin recipe to make it vegan, but it's actually better than it was. And a few years later we added two gluten-free options.
AC: Maybe the vegan community put you across the finish line?
CS: Maybe! I try to feed everyone.
AC: How have things been lately, with the pandemic and all?
CS: Yeah, the last few months have been challenging. Probably the hardest we've ever faced. And we were fortunate that we could pivot faster than a lot of people because we were already doing takeout and to-go. But, you know, we've actually made the decision to keep our dining room closed even though we could have it open right now. In 2018 we were setting records every month, breakin' records year over year. As soon as this [pandemic] hit we felt it, but like I said, given the state of play we're doing okay. A lot of our customers have been eating with us for four decades. They're older now and their diets have changed and I definitely know a lot of them are waiting for a vaccine [for COVID-19]. Who knows when that'll be.
It's amazing. We literally have to solve new problems every day that we didn't wake up thinking would be a problem. We've never worked harder than this in our lives. We didn't get a two-month furlough and also it's still one day at a time. Anyone could get sick at any time, and then we'd have to close. That's always in the back of our minds. We did sign up with a professional service that sanitizes the restaurant on a regular schedule in addition to our own internal efforts. It makes everyone feel better.
AC: In lighter news, you wrote a song about Conans Pizza's 40th birthday recently?
We're rollin Forty deep
We're feeding all these peeps
We roll our dough deep
We like our pizza wheat]
CS: [laughs] You came up with the Pie Fighters [pizza competition idea] a few years ago, and I wrote that song a few years ago, but I just publicly released it, so this is great for both of us. All three of [our] restaurants have hit the 40-year mark on their own so we've actually gotten to promote us being 40 about four times now. We're a 40-year-old restaurant run by thirtysomethings in 2020.
AC: Any message I could deliver to our readers?
CS: Well, we're just a single small family; we're humble pizza people. And nothing has kept us more consistent in our product than our senior baker Alan Robinson, who's been with us over 27 years. A lot of people have a cookie-cutter pizza product, and ours is very labor intensive. And I ain't got nothing but love for all pizza people and there's plenty of room in the market for us all! We're the longest serving deep pan pizza in Austin but there are some popular ones out there now, so I'm glad that we can remind people that we're still around. Can we double, triple, quadruple our normal Thursday deliveries? We'll get 'em out there, to the people.