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How Heggies Pizza built a regional empire, one bar at a time

The Milaca-based company’s frozen pizzas became a dive-bar standby.

Photo by Travis Anderson

Like sports and politics, pizza has the power to shape and reflect geographic archetypes. New York is famous for those foldable, paper-thin slices that its hurried citizens scarf while sprinting to the subway. Chicago is deep-dish country, though natives prefer the city’s cracker-crust variant (Chicagoans are contrarian by nature, so this tension between popular perception and reality suits them). California’s contribution aligns with its dogged pursuit of wellness: essentially a sauce-less flatbread with blasphemous toppings like kale and pine nuts.

So where does that leave Minnesota? In the freezer section, it turns out. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that we’re home to frozen-food pioneers General Mills and Schwan’s, which together account for four of the 10 best-selling frozen pizzas in the country and some $1 billion in collective sales, according to 2013 data from Statista. (The four brands are Red Baron, Tony’s and Freschetta under the Schwan’s umbrella, Totino’s under General Mills.)

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If “frozen-pizza mecca” sounds like a dubious honor, then you’ve never had a Heggies — the beloved pie that debuted 25 years ago at lodges around Lake Mille Lacs and has since become a sort of regional sriracha, a cult foodstuff available at dive bars and grocery stores across the five-state area. Heggies makes tavern-style ’za — thin-crust, topping-heavy and meant to be squared and shared with pitchers of beer in the manner of our hard-drinking forefathers.

On a recent afternoon at Bogey’s Lounge in Lilydale — a townie hangout with Christmas lights strung around the bar and pull-tabs in the back—the bartender who serves us a piping-hot Heggies makes a case for its secret weapon: “It’s all in the toppings,” she says. “And look at how nice that cheese browns up.” Other cult members praise the crust, hefty enough to handle a mountain of pepperoni while remaining the perfect, crispy counterpoint to all that saturated fat. Everyone seems to agree that unlike most frozen pizzas, Heggies tastes freshly made — especially when baked at 800 degrees in the special ovens the company lends its bar and resort accounts.

But tasty pie only tells half the story. The other half is all about brand love, cultivated by Heggies through decades of old-school marketing tactics, like using delivery drivers as salespeople and withholding details about availability to build word-of-mouth mystique. Legend has it that superfans have been known to flag down Heggies drivers to buy pizza right off the truck.

These practices remain, but the company is modernizing. It moved to a state-of-the-art production facility in 2008 and recently tapped Minneapolis ad shop Modern Climate to redesign its website and launch its first-ever social media campaign — a big move given that it had previously never spent a dime on traditional marketing. Hiring a creative agency can signal many things, including increased growth, a major rebrand or simply an attempt to get with the times. So which is it for this iconic Minnesota brand? And can it hold on to that magic as it matures? Because, believe us, the cult would like to know.

Born in a garage

Heggies HQ sits just off Highway 169 in Milaca, a little more than an hour north of the Twin Cities. The 25,000-square-foot concrete box — home to offices and a production facility — is a far cry from the two-car garage where the company started. “I’ve heard that at the time, that garage was the smallest USDA-approved facility in the country,” says Heggies president Shawn Dockter, a tall, barrel-chested guy in his early 40s who looks like he could eat three pizzas in a sitting. Wearing jeans and an untucked button-down shirt, Dockter leads us through the Milaca complex, starting at the conference room and office area.

His casual air befits the casual brand, which began at Don and Polly Hegedus’ home near Mille Lacs in 1989. Heggies — the name is a play on Don’s nickname, “Heg” — rose from the ashes of the couple’s failed Anoka pizza shop, first appearing at a friend’s resort on Mille Lacs, then at other lodges and watering holes around the lake.

Heggies makes tavern-style ’za — thin-crust, topping-heavy and meant to be squared and shared with pitchers of beer in the manner of our hard-drinking forefathers.

As demand for Heggies grew, Don and Polly twice added on to their garage to keep up with orders. Before long, their pizza could be found at bars around the state — mostly dives like VFWs, Grumpy’s in Northeast Minneapolis and Bogey’s in Lilydale. In 2004, the couple decided to retire and stopped adding new accounts. “They had outgrown the garage by then,” says Dockter. “They could hardly keep up, making dozens of pizzas a day. I think growth scared them.”

Enter Dockter, a South Dakota native with an entrepreneurial streak gleaned from his mother, who ran a café, and his dad, who owned an electrical contracting business. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in aerospace engineering, Dockter worked for Lockheed Martin in Denver for six years, followed by stints at a satellite imaging startup and at defense contractor General Dynamics. By the early 2000s, he was ready to pivot. When a friend mentioned that Heggies was for sale, Dockter and a group of minority investors bought it in 2004 for a sum he will not reveal.

It’s your typical aerospace-engineer-buys-a-small-pizza-company story, and Dockter sees the humor: “I laugh because I went from ordering classified satellite launches at Lockheed Martin — and needing 14 different passwords to get from my car to my office — to working in Onamia, Minnesota.” But the guy is dead serious about the pizza, which hasn’t changed much since he took over. He uses the same recipe today and many of the same suppliers, including a Wisconsin creamery he won’t name, lest his competitors — mid-size regional brands such as Iowa’s Piccadilly Circus Pizza — get any ideas. Heggies sold eight varieties when Dockter started, including all the standards, plus curveballs such as cheeseburger. Today, it’s up to 12. Top sellers include sausage, pepperoni and the “6 Pack” meat-lover’s pie.

Dockter became a convert after visiting the VFW in Chaska and watching customer after customer ask not for pizza but for Heggies, which is analogous to asking for Coke instead of cola. “I realized then that I was buying a great company with a great following,” says Dockter. “It just needed a little direction.”

Unafraid to scale

In 2004, Heggies had 17 employees and its reach was limited to Minnesota. Many of its delivery drivers were stuck in the Don-and-Polly way of doing things. During his first week on the job, Dockter got a call from a driver named Frank who said he had a problem: One of his accounts that normally spent $250 wanted to spend $1,000. Dockter asked if Frank had enough inventory on his truck to cover the order. He did. Dockter wondered if the account had enough freezer space to store the pizza. They did. “So what exactly is the issue here, Frank?” said Dockter. Apparently, Don had capped daily orders from each account at $250.

Dockter promptly broke that rule, and proceeded to guide Heggies through a decade of measured growth. In 2005 — on the recommendation of a delivery driver who kept getting requests from supermarkets — the company expanded to the grocery sector and today is available at a number of gas stations and full-service grocers, plus Everett’s Meats in Minneapolis. “Grocers hunted us down, just like the bars” did, says Dockter, who prefers to sell to local, family-run stores.

Heggies is the top-selling Minnesota-made pizza at Everett’s, says store manager Nancy Klatke, with the Shirk’s and Chanticleer brands a distant second. Twin Cities Festival Foods stores began carrying Heggies because “it’s a great Minnesota company that falls in line with what we do,” says Festival vice president Jason Herfel. “Plus, it comes with that built-in following.” Herfel adds that sales of Heggies have risen each year since debuting at his stores three years ago.

Retail demand for Heggies grew so much that in 2008 the company made the much-needed move south to Milaca — made sweeter by tax incentives from Mille Lacs County and a $1 plot of land from the city. The facility now pumps out “many thousands of pizzas a day,” according to Dockter, with room to accommodate new accounts in and out of state (Heggies began appearing in border towns in Wisconsin circa 2005, then Iowa and the Dakotas in 2012.).

When the tour reaches the assembly area, Dockter speaks with pride about his employees, who now number around 50, plus part-time staff. “We’ve built this company with great people and great customer service,” he says, which would sound trite were it not for the fact that the assembly crew appears to be having a good time, joking around as they add toppings or feed giant blocks of cheese through industrial shredders. After receiving the human touch, each pizza is packaged, labeled and flash-frozen before heading down the assembly line to a large cooler to await pickup by one of eight delivery trucks.

Dockter won’t share revenue numbers but will say that Heggies has seen “strong, double-digit percentage sales growth” since 2004. Today, his pizza is available throughout the five-state area, priced anywhere from $6.99 to $10.99 in stores and up to $14 at bars and lodges. That’s relatively steep for a frozen pie, but Dockter makes no apologies. “Our biggest complaint is high price,” he says. “There’s that old adage about either being the best or cheapest — but don’t try to be everything to everybody. Our goal is to be best. Customers know that quality is worth it.”

The value of scarcity

Which raises the question: Do high prices at high-end grocery stores threaten to water down the Heggies mystique? Predictably, its president doesn’t think so. “We’ve been careful about growth,” he says. “When I started, I wanted Heggies to be as big as Tombstone, another pizza that got its start in bars; almost every frozen pizza gets started in bars. But I eventually realized that you make compromises in quality when you become that big.”

Not that he hasn’t been tempted by giants. Both Wal-Mart and Target have approached Dockter, but he passed, preferring to stick to his smaller bread-and-butter clients. “We don’t want to lose focus on our core customers,” he says. This growth strategy appears to be working. Dockter says that potential new accounts call him every day of the week.

As for the Modern Climate hire, the firm will update the website, which now looks like it’s stuck in 1990 and gives very little info beyond the Milaca address. Expect a corner of it to be dedicated to social media-sourced consumer feedback. Don’t expect a “locations” tab — Dockter remains uninterested in telling you where you can find Heggies, and if he frustrates a few hungry customers along the way, so be it.

“During my first year at Heggies, my best training tool was competitors’ websites,” says Dockter. “I know where everyone else’s pizza is served. I’ve seen photos of their assembly rooms. We don’t do that. I don’t want to create a road map for where we are so other people can compete with us. So much of our success is based on not following the crowd — on making the best pizzas and letting others talk about us.”

Anita Nelson says she respects Dockter’s under-the-radar approach to building his company. Nelson is president and founder of Minneapolis-based IN Food and Marketing & Design, a creative firm with food-related clients ranging from General Mills to Cargill. “Not everyone can get away with that approach,” she says. “To do it, you really do need a great product that has a cult following. What could be challenging for Heggies is that as it grows, things that have worked in the past might not work moving forward — they might decide it’s worth it to start telling consumers where they can find it.”

Twin Cities BusinessUntil then, Heggies will take the Ray Kinsella approach to marketing: If you build a great pizza, they will come. Dockter tells a story about a young couple who stopped by the Heggies factory on a road trip to get their picture taken in front of building. Doug Flicker, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Piccolo in South Minneapolis, is also a fan. Flicker bought his first Heggies at a store four years ago. “Holy shit, it was like a cross between my two favorite pizza places: Dulono’s and Red Savoy’s,” says the chef. “I really like that it’s a small, local company dedicated to doing one thing really well.” Flicker remembers Dockter coming to eat at Piccolo a couple years ago. “When the server informed us that pizza royalty had arrived, I was more nervous than when feeding a high-profile chef.”

Flicker’s love of Heggies gets at the heart of its success: Minnesotans tend to valorize—and patronize—companies that stay true to their local roots, even as they expand. We’re also pretty impressed with our high/low tendencies as consumers. We don’t think twice about eating postmodern small plates at Piccolo one night and a greasy pie at the VFW the next. As for fetishizing pizza? Well, that’s universal. Just ask those misunderstood Chicagoans.

Chris Clayton is a St. Paul-based writer and editor.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.