On a hot, summer day in June 1976, Jerry Strader and Scott Leist drove into Austin. The pair looked like the thousands of other young people in Austin, digging the sun, football and Willie Nelson. But the two arrived in the capital of the Lone Star State on a mission.
“My dad and Scott were driving west, trying to find the perfect town to start a pizza place in,” said Chris Strader, current operations supervisor for Conans Pizza.
After graduating from the University of Florida, Leist and Jerry Strader were overcome with a case of pioneer wanderlust. The two friends decided they wanted to find a place to settle down in. After walking across the graduation stage, they packed up everything they owned into their vans and headed west, never once in doubt about how they planned to make a living.
“My father studied business in school, and his partner had studied accounting,” Chris Strader said. “They had both worked at pizza places that were huge hits in their town. They thought to themselves, ‘I can totally run a pizza place,’ and they did.”
The pair planned to continue moving west until they found the ideal place to start cooking deep dish pies, moving from one college town to another. But their search ended when they realized they had found a new home in Texas, a place where Conans Pizza could flourish.
“They would have kept going to California,” said Carley Strader, Jerry’s daughter and an employee at Conans’ corporate headquarters. “But Austin proved to be perfect.”
With a large, youthful population, a thriving music scene and glorious weather, Austin was the perfect place for two men to spend their 20s. But more importantly, the town was completely devoid of any pizza joint close to the quality they had become accustomed to back in Florida.
“It was a pizza wasteland,” Chris Strader said. “I mean c’mon. Conans was the first place to actually cook pizza in a dish.”
On July 19, 1976, Conans Pizza opened for business. There was a line stretching down the sidewalk on the opening day, and enthusiasm for the new eatery did not wane. UT students continued to line up by the dozens, eagerly waiting their turn to get their first taste of Chicago style, deep dish pizza. After six months, the tiny 800-square-foot store became so crowded that it had to double in size.
People also flocked to the original shop at 29th Street and Guadalupe Street to see the crazy decorations. Jerry Strader and Leist, both huge comic book fans, decided to name and decorate their business after Conan the Barbarian. Walls and tabletops were, and still are, adorned with the visages of the hulking warrior with various damsels and demons.
By 1986, there were eight Conans locations around the city and a massive commissary warehouse had been built. Profits continued to rise, and there were plenty of opportunities for further expansion. But then the property market in Texas collapsed, one of the devastating shockwaves from the savings and loan crisis.
After years of prosperity, Conans was left reeling. The huge investment in the commissary warehouse disappeared, and the halved profit margins required shutdowns and firings on a large scale.
“We had to downsize,” Chris Strader said. “We just didn’t have the money to keep things running, and by the end, there were only three locations left.”
One of the worst things that came out the downsizing was the loss of the Conans location on the Drag, where Kerbey Lane resides today. When it was open, that location was where students went to grab a slice, see friends and have a nightcap.
It took 13 years for Conans Pizza to regain its momentum. The first major change in its policy occurred in 1999, when it began to advertise for the first time since the downsizing.
“Advertising was word of mouth back then,” Chris Strader said.
With a few ads in newspapers and fliers posted on light posts and campus bulletins, the trickle of business began to increase to a flow.
Today, Conans Pizza looks completely different than it did when the first flier printed. The franchise computerized its entire system a few years ago, opening up opportunities for data analysis. One of the franchise’s current projects involves tracking which neighborhoods underperform when ordering pizza. Just last year, the Conans Pizza franchise opened its first office off 41st Street and is in the process of designing an Android app, which should appear on the market within the next few months.
“Millennials are a moving target,” Chris Strader said. “A totally different demographic than what we were dealing with in earlier years.”
Conans seems to have adjusted accordingly.
“As far as West Campus goes, it’s the best pizza, bar none,” sociology junior Matt Altman said. “I’ll keep coming here as long as I’m in Austin and craving a slice.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mispelled musician Willie Nelson's name. The proper spelling is Willie, not Willy.