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Pizza Plus: The choice of hungry teens
RIPON PIZZA1 front page
Pizza Plus Dylan Escobar works the spinning station to fill lunch orders. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Arturo Cardenas swivels in his seat, peaking over the partition to spy the first wave trickling in.

Battle stations, everyone.

Two cheerleaders bounce through the door, followed by a boy in too-cool-for-you, mirror-front shades. He tosses his book and bag into the first booth and makes a bee-line for the front counter.

Feeding time.

“Just wait. There’s more,” says Cardenas, the manager of the Pizza Plus on Main Street. “It’s going to get really busy; really loud, too.”

True to form, an army of starved Ripon High students, ranging in age and social status, storm this popular, four-room pizzeria. They form a line that stretches the length of the front counter and shoots past the salad bar to the front door.

“Told you,” Cardenas says, taking his station in the open kitchen. He flips pepperonis onto a raw pie, as the staff fires single-slice rounds at the teens.

No use. They keep coming and coming.

The teens ultimately win this lunchtime battle - they always do – and in this economy, that’s not such a bad thing.

All told, Pizza Plus served more than 100 students in about 30 loud, dizzying minutes on Friday. Cardenas, who begins thinking about his week-day lunch menu before most are through with breakfast,  prepared 228 extra-large slices of pizza for that day’s rush, completely covering a tabletop in the kitchen.

Not a single one survived.

They came.

They saw.

They devoured, leaving only a trail of paper plate stacks, greasy fingerprints and crumpled napkins in their wake.

For the Pizza Plus staff, “mess” equates to “success.”

“You can spread out. Go into a banquet room. There’s not a lot of regulation here,” co-owner Monica Willey said. “They laugh. They joke. They throw their napkins around. That’s fine. It’s what kids do.”

For years, Willey and her husband Bob have been the First Husband and Wife of Ripon Pizza. Bob began the business in 1984 at a location just down the street.

In the late 1990s, two developments marked the business’ growth: 1) Pizza Plus moved to its current, much bigger location (once occupied by the Howard Hotel, a downtown treasure for decades) and 2) Bob hired his future wife, Monica, then a teenager herself.

Together, they have three children and another property in Sutter Creek. Between the two locations, they employ 45.

“It was a good first job,” she said, “and it’s a good last job, too.”

Then, as it is now, Pizza Plus’ niche market is the community’s youngest demographic -- the high school student, ages 14-18.

With very few outlets, and its close proximity to the Ripon and Ripon Christian campuses, Pizza Plus has evolved into a modern-day, real-world Peach Pit.  (Or for the teenager at heart, Arnold’s, with a capital “Aaay!”)

“There’s a reason why kids come here,” Monica said. “It’s like a cult following. You want to do what your parents did. Part of it is what you grew up with.

“There are not a lot (of options) in Ripon. Plus, a lot of the kids in high school right now are my friends’ kids. It’s the next generation. They want to do what their parents’ did.

“Back when I was in high school, everyone came to Pizza Plus because there was really nothing else back then.

There’s more to Pizza Plus’ winning formula and its popularity – and it’s not the sauce.

Take a look down Main Street. Tell me what you see? See any fast food restaurants? Pizza Plus has very few direct competitors.

The McDonald’s on the corner of Wilma and Main has been turned into Mario’s Family Restaurant, all of which means the kids at Ripon and Ripon Christian are faced with three realistic off-campus lunch options:

1. Sandwiches, either from Subway or Jake’s, both of which are within walking distance.

2. A drive to the Jack Tone Road exit along Highway 99 for Big Macs and Famous Stars. There’s no shortage of fast-food options – Arby’s, Sonic, Taco Bell Carl’s Jr., McDonald’s and Jack In The Box --  but is the extra value menu really of any value at all when you factor in the drive time?

3. Pizza. There are three restaurants along Main Street: Mountain Mike’s, Round Table and Pizza Plus, each with their own quirks (all-you-can-eat buffets, signature pies, deals, etc.) and charm.

However, if the lunchtime rush proves anything, it’s this: this is one battle Pizza Plus appears to be winning, and in this economy, that’s not such a bad thing.

“Bob and I feel blessed. The people who came in here when I was in high school now have kids who come in,” Monica said. “ ... They’ve played a pivotal role in our lives.”

One thing’s for certain -- lunch wouldn’t be the same without them.