Your Village: What was Secret Pizza?

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Illustration by Jordan Sellergren. Photo of Jeff Goldblum courtesy of The Same Photo of Jeff Goldblum Every Day Facebook page.

I’ve heard stories about a guy named Roger who had a business called Secret Pizza. What was Secret Pizza? — Matt, Iowa City, via the Your Village feature on LV’s homepage.

Secret Pizza was a quirky part of the Iowa City food scene for approximately two decades, starting in 1983. It was, as its name suggests, a pizza delivery place and its location was a secret. More or less.

“We didn’t have any signage, we didn’t advertise our location and we were in kind of out-of-the-way locations,” Roger Larson, the owner of Secret Pizza, told Little Village. “I thought secrets are part of the restaurant business — secret recipe, secret sauce, secret spices, things like that — so we could have a secret location and if you could find our secret location, there’s a reward.”

“It was just a fun thing to do, challenge people to find us,” Larson said. He explained that he and his drivers would give out clues to Secret Pizza’s location.

“Like within one block of Secret Pizza, there’s a church,” Larson recalled. Or after it moved to a new location, “Within one block of Secret Pizza there are three places you can buy a tire.”

“Once in a while one of my drivers would return and say, ‘I believe I was followed, but I ditched them.’”

The reward for finding Secret Pizza was usually a free pizza. But some people insist the reward was never better than a two liter of off-brand soda. And that’s one of the interesting things about Secret Pizza: a lot of people in Iowa City have firmly fixed and definitive memories about it, and many of those memories contradict each other. Add in second-hand stories, as well as Reddit threads and long-running Facebook posts about it (the most recent comments on one 2009 Facebook post are from late last year) and a certain amount of urban folklore about Secret Pizza has sprouted up since its last pizza went out the door approximately 13 years ago.

Some people are convinced Secret Pizza was always changing location to keep one step ahead of customers hunting for it.

“No,” Larson said. “We did move a few times, but that was just me trying to improve our circumstances. I didn’t do to maintain a secret location.”

A common story is that you could get almost any topping you wanted on a pizza. “Ice cream, peanut butter, M&Ms, crackers, etc.,” one person wrote on Reddit.

“No. We did have a variety of toppings,” Larson said. “I did try to have healthy toppings, like chicken and broccoli, which might have been sort of weird in Iowa City in the ’80s and ’90s. And we had the normal toppings, as well. But it isn’t true you could get any toppings.”

Then there are the stories about delivery.

One person confidently told Little Village, “You’d order your pizza and it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to a month for the pizza to show up. You’d never know. Weeks could go by.”

That story made Larson laugh. “I can understand why someone might say that. Some people were frustrated by how long it took,” he said. “It could take over an hour, when we were overwhelmed by business.”

“There were faster pizza places that could put out pies faster than we did, but I was particular. I wanted to put out a quality product, so that took precedence.”

Larson had a varied restaurant background before opening Secret Pizza. He’d worked at a number of different places, including Mickel’s Family Restaurant in Harlan, Iowa. Mickel’s, which was known for its “chuck-wagon steak” (smoked ground steak wrapped in bacon) and deep fried bread, closed in 2013, after 60 years in business. Larson learned the pizza business working at Paul Revere’s Pizza, a small chain whose Iowa City location is long gone.

Asked what he remembers most about his time at Secret Pizza, Larson took a long pause and then said, “Well, we had a lot of robberies. No one got hurt, but I felt bad for my employees.”

Larson said the robberies weren’t what convinced him to finally shut down Secret Pizza. It was a conflict with the city. He’d bought the building Secret Pizza was then located in. According to Larson, city inspectors said the building needed massive renovations to make it a useable location. He said he consulted an architect and a contractor about improvements, but the city rejected his plans. After what Larson described as a “struggle with city officials,” he decided the pizza business wasn’t worth the trouble.

“They say you can’t fight city hall,” Larson said, wistfully.

After closing Secret Pizza, Larson turned his attention to another Iowa City business he owned, A-OK Taxi and Limo. That business is now closed, too, and Larson describes himself as “mostly retired these days.”

Asked if he would ever consider getting back into the pizza business, Larson said, “No, maybe I might think about taxis again, but not pizza.”

“But being in the pizza business was useful,” he said. “If you really want to get to know a city, know all its parts and learn how to get around, spend some time delivering pizzas.”