Herman Cain: The Man from Pizza

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Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist, has written for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and Newsday.

Former vice president and presidential candidate Henry Wallace mastered Midwestern agriculture and seed genetics for growing food.  Ike and his brothers manned a creamery in Kansas.  President Richard Nixon labored in his dad's orange grove and then at his gas station where they sold groceries.  And let’s not forget the peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, who made a career on the plantation.

But not until this election cycle has either major party boasted a candidate with three decades in the food industry:  that's Republican Herman Cain, the unlikely presidential hopeful from Atlanta who has surprised the GOP political establishment with decent poll numbers.  A bona fide foodie (at least in corporate terms), Cain was most recently CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.

But Cain was not born to be a food magnate—he became one. Cain admitted in a recent interview that, in his first food industry job as an analyst at Coca-Cola, “I was attracted to Cola because I wanted to make an entry into the business sector.  In all honesty, I wasn’t drawn to Coke because it was food or beverage sector but because it has a great reputation.”

Similarly, when he transitioned to Pillsbury because of “a very attractive offer,” it was essentially a career-motivated move.  But because the sector stuck with Cain, he stuck with it.  “The food industry grew on me, and I think it did ultimately because I love food.”

As a vice president at Pillsbury, Cain was charged with overseeing a multimillion-dollar project to build a new world headquarters for the company in the Twin Cities.  He also managed acquisition of a new computer system.

Jeff Campbell, former CEO of Burger King during Cain’s tenure there and now a professor at San Diego State University in the School of Hospitality and Tourism, said he was impressed with Cain’s leadership acumen.  “It's less the food calling than the mainstream experience in the economy that makes him an impressive candidate,” Campbell said.

“When I went to Godfather’s,” Cain said, “the company was trying to produce four different crust types, rather than focusing on the original.  I got rid of the alternative crusts—that decision helped save Godfather’s and forced us to pride ourselves on core product.”

Cain is widely credited with that pivotal decision and ultimately saving the pizza chain from collapse.  As for his own pizza habits, Cain’s favorite dish remains the Godfather’s combo with extra cheese, sausage, ham, onions and peppers, with an icy Coke.

As president of the National Restaurant Association, he said he found “diversity similar to what you might find in Congress.”  Cain added that his past experiences dealing with a diverse constituency would be an asset in the White House.

He said he believes his experiences in the food industry would enable him to “get things done on the basis of strength of ideas—to perform and to persuade as president.”  At the NRA, he instituted and expedited the Serve Safe program, which became an industry standard for food safety.

Joe Fassler, a former fellow NRA board member who hired Herman to run the organization, said he’s an “analytical, common-sense, solution-minded kind of guy.  One of the important initiatives he brought to us was food safety.  Herman was in front of regulations and took care of these issues.”

When asked about First Lady Michelle Obama’s healthy food initiatives, he said, “I think that it’s a noble mission.”

“It’s important to her, and the fact that she is making people aware of obesity is good.  I have a problem with it when it goes beyond awareness,” like bans on food products.

He said that “government shouldn’t be in the business to forcing people to do things” and instead it “should be educating, informing and inspiring.”

However, noting that the American food safety system is “the best,” Cain says he’s “not down on all regulation”—just ones that don’t work and waste money.  The menu-labeling binge, for instance, he finds “excessive.”

Food safety, for Cain, takes precedence to anti-obesity efforts.  To improve the inspection process, Cain said he would solicit the recommendations of existing inspectors.  “They are closest to the problem,” he says.

He added that the USDA should also implement policies that stem from the needs and observations from those on the ground.

As for food at home, Cain said he’s “an amateur cook who likes to showcase ribs for the family.”  “I’ve always enjoyed dabbling in the kitchen.  I do awesome smoked ribs and New York strip steak.”

But Cain says his wife, Gloria, has inspired him most in the kitchen.  He said she has always prepared delicious balanced meals—meat, vegetable and starch—including dishes like rump roast, rotisserie chicken and honey-baked ham with various veggies.  Desserts are peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.  He said the dinner occasion has always been about “fellowship for the entire family.”

During the campaign, Cain says he’s eaten a lot of chicken Caesar salads that are “light on the go.”  But, to date, the trail highlight for him is a BBQ spot that has become “my favorite in the nation.”  Hickory Park of Ames Iowa, he exclaims, is “a national BBQ goldmine.”

“I’ve done BBQ in Kansas City, Tennessee and, of course, Atlanta, Hickory Park is the best.  They have a smoked sausage that is outstanding.  My favorite sides are BBQ-flavored beans and kernel corn.”

Sara Readle, the floor manager of Hickory who describes herself as “an ardent Republican,” said the eatery’s signature dishes are their baby loin back ribs and their “sassy southern,” a take on a Sloppy Joe, simmered pork, turkey, and beef.

“I can’t tell you the recipe of our sauce, but it’s sweeter than anything you’ve ever tasted.”  Readle said she is pleased to hear Mr. Cain enjoys his pit stops there.

In his native Georgia, Cain said Paschal Brothers is his local culinary landmark.  With three locations in Atlanta, the restaurant is home to “everybody’s favorite southern fried chicken and collard greens,” said president Curtis Paschal.

“Anyone in the black community, if they want to be on the inside of things, is going to find themselves becoming familiar with the patrons of Paschal’s.”

“I’ve seen Herman here frequently,” added Paschal.

For now, Cain says his campaign is “doing fantastic” and exceeding expectations “from crawl to run.”

He wrapped up an almost hour-long interview when his wife of 43 years called him in for supper. “Got to go…we’re having ribs, kernel corn, corn bread and mashed potatoes!”

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