Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream
This Quad Cities original celebrates 50 years in 2022 by honoring its heartwarming roots while shuttling the brand into the 21st century.
In 1972, Lawrence “Happy Joe” Whitty, a trained baker from North Dakota who worked at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, opened the first location of Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream in Davenport, Iowa, to immediate success. “He brought to the industry an innovative way of thinking about pizza toppings,” explains Tom Sacco, chief happiness officer, CEO and president of the company, headquartered in Davenport and now with 51 locations. “I think of Joe like the Colonel Sanders of pizza.”
Whitty’s then-outlandish innovations included the taco pizza, still a No. 1 seller on the menu, and the Happy Joe’s Special, which combines Canadian bacon and sauerkraut. “No one was putting those types of toppings on pizza back then—he was pretty advanced for his time,” Sacco says. “But he was so wonderfully creative, not just following the same-old that others were doing. If you think of how an artist looks at a blank canvas, that’s how Joe looked at the pizza pie shell.”
Whitty expanded informally in the early days: offering to partner with folks who wanted their own location, teaching them the ropes, and then allowing them to buy him out as they found success. As his health declined in the 2010s, the company was sold to a third party with just under 100 locations—but, over several years, these shrank by half as the new owners clashed with its founding ethos. The company changed hands again, and Sacco was called in to resurrect, reinvigorate and rejuvenate the historic brand in 2020.
Since then, an ad agency has helped polish the Happy Joe’s image as it has expanded domestically and with international locations in Egypt; a revamped store design prototype; and a new app, new website and new online ordering system. But its most beloved traditions are decidedly old-fashioned, like over-the-top birthday celebrations in-store, complete with horns and sirens. “It’s not just about the food, but the emotional connection,” Sacco notes. “We create happy places for small-town families. It becomes part of their lives. We have really great pizza, but it’s so much more than that.”
Indeed, beyond menu experimentation and even the in-store experience, perhaps the heart of Happy Joe’s lies in its charity commitment. The Happy Joe’s Kids Foundation was founded by Whitty and his family in 2012 to benefit children with special needs, and current franchisees must adopt at least one pet cause to give back. “We want to stay true to our legacy of creativity and community involvement, while having the brand evolve as tastes evolve,” Sacco says. “When families come for birthdays or after soccer games, church or recitals, those happy family moments become Happy Joe’s moments. Happy Joe’s creates smiles, and those smiles last a lifetime. That’s what drives us every single day.”
Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor and the editor of PizzaVegan.com.