When Papa Juan’s opened in downtown Cedar Rapids in 1972, it was the only Mexican restaurant in town, said current owner Steve Van Fleet. He bought the business, which moved to Center Point Road in the 1980s, in 2004.
These days, there is a lot more competition, with dozens of Corridor restaurants serving up tacos, enchiladas and other dishes on Papa Juan’s menu.
That’s what inspired Van Fleet to diversify. Soon after he took over the business, he expanded it to become Papa Juan Stefano’s — adding Italian food to the mix with the Stefano’s moniker and dubbing the eatery a “Mexican Italian Grill.”
Now, he’s expanded further, opening a third concept restaurant inside the same building. Pizza U Design opened May 1 as a fast-casual, made-to-order pizzeria.
“We want to be the Subway sandwich of pizzas,” Van Fleet said.
Customers order at a counter, picking the sauces, cheeses and toppings they want on their pizza, which is assembled on the spot and then baked in a fast, high-temperature oven in a matter of minutes. Pizzas can be taken to go or eaten in the restaurant.
“We wanted something we could do quickly and to add a lunch crowd,” Van Fleet said.
Customers can design their own pizza or choose from a specialty pizza menu. Sauce choices are not just traditional red sauce but also spicy red, barbecue, Alfredo, pesto and a spicy alfredo-buffalo sauce Van Fleet’s son named “boom boom sauce.” The sauces and pizza dough are made in-house, and toppings like pepperoni and sausage are produced by Iowa-based Burke Foods.
Although it has a separate dining room from Papa Juan and Stefano’s, customers can order from any of the three menus — but it may take longer to get fajitas or lasagna than it does
Van Fleet has worked in the food industry for more than 30 years, including a stint as an Italian chef in Nevada before he moved back to his hometown of Cedar Rapids and bought Papa Juan’s.
“I came out of college as a biochemist, but I got in the food business. Once you’re in, you’re in,” he said. “I haven’t known anything else since then.”
Other partners in Pizza U Design are Bart Gibney, Jeff Grannan and Peter Welch. They hope to take the concept beyond Cedar Rapids and are considering opening locations in Anamosa and North Liberty, Van Fleet said.
Gibney, who works in insurance but started out in the restaurant industry, said he is enjoying being back in the food world with Pizza U Design.
“It’s a novel concept,” he said. “It’s a good chance to get back into the industry.”
WHAT: Pizza U Design
WHERE: Inside Papa Juan Stefano’s & Sons, 5505 Center Point Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday
DETAILS: (319) 393-0258, Papajuanstefano.com