Longtime Austin pizzeria Conans, known for its sold deep-pan pies, is in danger of closing its South Austin location at 2018 West Stassney Lane in the fall. In order to ensure that doesn’t happen, an Austin resident named Jeremy Shirk is planning to take over the restaurant himself, as he announced on Facebook last week.
Conans’s original co-owner Scott Leist, who oversees the South location, had quietly decided to close the location because he wants to retire. He was planning to close the restaurant on October 4, before the lease expires in November, so he would have time to sell his equipment.
Shirk has already worked out a deal with Leist to seamlessly transfer the restaurant’s ownership, but he and his business partner and friend Robert Feeny still have to take over the lease from the property owners. Last week, they launched a GoFundMe campaign to bankroll the effort; they have until late September to raise the money. Launching the crowdfunding campaign made sense, Shirk explains, because he wanted to involve the community. “I wanted others to be able to tell their kids they helped save this Austin treasure,” he says.
If and when Shirk takes over the restaurant, he says it would remain mostly unchanged, with the same staff, recipes, equipment, and systems. “We don’t want to change the Conans formula,” he explains, though he does want to expand its already strong vegan and gluten-free options.
This potential shutter is only affecting the south location of Conans; the north location, which is run by original co-founder Jerry Strader’s children — Chris, Chad, and Carly Strader — will stay open. Chris Strader approves of Shirk’s efforts, saying he has “stepped up to save South [Conans], and is really the perfect model to carry on Conans for years.”
Owners Jerry Strader and Scott Leist opened the restaurant’s original location, Conans Pizza Central on the Drag, in 1976. They followed that with the South location in 1978, and the North Austin outpost in 1979. Although Conans Central closed in 2018 because of increased rent and lack of business, the pies are beloved in Austin; earlier this summer, they were named the best in the city by Austin Chronicle.
Conans South has long been part of Shirk’s own history. Born and raised in Austin, he, along with his father, son, and business partner Feeny, all attended the nearby Crockett High School at various points, which meant they all hung out at the pizzeria. The restaurant was also the site of Shirk’s first job, as well as his son’s.
Earlier this month, Shirk had heard that the restaurant was going through some hard times from a friend who works at the location, and thought to offer his help in revamping its online presence, since he has a background in marketing and works as an animator and digital designer. When he spoke to the team, he learned of the potential closure.
“Conans means a lot to South Austin and me,” Shirk says of his motivation to take over the restaurant. “I wanted to carry the Conans torch, not only for the employees that would have lost their jobs over this place closing, but for the South Austin community. We don’t want to lose another restaurant, especially a South Austin staple. The owner has worked long and hard to make Conans South successful. Now my partner and I want to keep the pizza he and his partners created flowing into the community that loves it so much for future generations to experience.”
Although he doesn’t have a restaurant background, Shirk feels qualified and prepared to take over Conans because of his experience in team management for over a decade. And Feeny has also worked in the management field in high-volume pizza restaurants for over 20 years.
After the GoFundMe campaign was launched last week, the South Austin restaurant was incredibly busy, so much so that it beat the North store in pizza sales, Shirk says, “for the first time ever.”
- Help Save Conans Pizza South [GoFundMe]