The Cult of Casey's: How Gas Stations Became Essential to American Culture
Who we are as Midwesterners is defined by our gas stations
This is the mid-week version of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about the politics and policies that inform life in the American Middle West. This week’s newsletter is about something I’ve been thinking about for a long time: namely, gas station pizza, why it’s so good and why it has a fanatical fan base. I hope you enjoy this! Also, if you value the work that it takes to make this newsletter, please become a paying subscriber.
On May 8, 2019, at the beginning of the Iowa caucus season, Beto O’Rourke made a huge error. He ate the wrong pizza. O’Rourke’s campaign staff posted a video of him on Instagram eating a slice of pizza from the gas station chain Casey’s.
“We’re eating some breakfast pizza right now,” O’Rourke said.
In response, a blogger for Barstool Sports wrote a single outraged paragraph:
“Not to get all political but is Beto O’Rourke kidding me with this? That’s not Casey’s breakfast pizza dude! Not even close! Just because you’re eating pizza in the morning doesn’t make it Casey’s breakfast pizza. Casey’s breakfast pizza doesn’t have marinara sauce on it. There’s veggie Casey’s breakfast pizza that has all those olives and peppers on it but they only put that out to expose the fakes. Still doesn’t explain the marinara sauce. What a fraud. How can we trust anything he says after something like this? Did he seriously think Iowans weren’t going to realize that? That’s the part that makes me the most mad. He made that video thinking he could sneak a regular ass piece of pizza by us brainless flyover hicks and we’d just smile and give him our vote for president. Well think again you Texas fuck. We caught it and you just lost Iowa’s vote with that embarrassing pizza charade. Get out of our state and never come back.”
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst joined in on the breakfast pizza dunking, noting that canonically a true breakfast pizza does not have marinara, but has eggs and bacon.
Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand posted an entire thread on breakfast pizza.
If you are confused, that’s understandable. Essentially, O’Rourke’s mistake was the equivalent of going to Philadelphia and calling a cheesesteak a tuna melt. O’Rourke’s mistake was a cultural gaffe in a part of the country that is more famous for being flown over than visited. A portion of America so misunderstood that being misunderstood is part of its regional identity. In fact, Midwesterners thrive on the lack of understanding; it’s the chip on the cultural shoulder, and without it, who would we be?
The Midwest is an area of the country that resists representation. You just don’t get it, we say to outsiders who come and write florid prose about the cornfields, confusing them with soy fields. Belonging is essential. And even insiders can be outsiders, as University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom learned in his condescending 2011 essay for the Atlantic that described Iowa as “a schizophrenic, economically-depressed,” and “culturally-challenged.” He lives here, but he’s wrong. And you don’t have to be negative to get it wrong. Max Boot’s cloying opinion piece about kids who raise pigs instead of playing video games was infantilizing, and also wrong.
The Midwest is the middle child of the nation, pulled between the large population centers of the coasts, misunderstood, overlooked, and constantly whining about it. Sinclair Lewis once wrote, “A rebellious girl is the spirit of that bewildered empire called the American Middlewest.” And in that foot-stomping, infuriating, stubborn, no-one-understands-me kind of way, he is right. But understanding what the middle of America means is not just essential for the region, but essential for how we define our politics and our lives.
You become loyal to the places that offer you rest where there isn’t much to be found. Places that have food you can eat as you travel through fields where most of the corn is for cattle. Warm places in hard, cold landscapes. Clean bathrooms for weary bladders.
Which brings us back to O’Rourke and the breakfast pizza. What O’Rourke’s mistake unintentionally cracked open, was the cult of the Midwestern gas station.
Casey’s, home of the famous breakfast pizza, was founded in 1968 in Boone, Iowa, as a gas station and convenience store. In 2021, Casey’s was the fifth-largest pizza chain in America. And like its competitors, Kwik Trip and Kum and Go (yes, you read that right), has become more of a restaurant and cultural icon than a gas station.
After all, life in the Midwest is calculated in time and distance. We live far apart from the places we are going and there is a lack of effective public transportation systems. This means the divide between who drives and who doesn’t is a lot smaller than in larger cities. With so much open land, people spend a lot of time in their cars. Consequently, the places in between become essential not only to simple survival but as cultural hubs.
The farm crisis of the 1980s devastated America’s rural landscape. It wasn’t just farms. The closure of farms meant farm manufacturers went out of business and laid people off. Waterloo, Iowa, lost 14 percent of its population. Entire towns lost their grocery stores, churches, post offices, and schools. It’s a hard loss to quantify. But it drove farmers to death by suicide and to murder. These losses are still felt so deeply even now, and the grief is coupled with a sense of abandonment that drives the politics of white grievance.
And into this cleared landscape came Walmarts, Dollar Generals, and gas stations.
For many communities, the gas station is not just where you fuel your car, it’s the local restaurant and the grocery store, where you can buy milk, eggs, bread, and cheese without driving forty miles to the closest grocery store. As State Auditor Rob Sand, who is from Decorah, pointed out, “In some small towns and rural spaces, the gas station may be the only place you can buy breakfast. Not because you’re in a rush. Not because you want to eat out. Just, that’s it. The only spot.”
Recently, on a reporting trip to New Hartford, Iowa, I asked the local librarian where to get lunch. “Well,” she said, “the bar is closed, so where else you gonna go but Casey’s?”
Casey’s is largely in rural towns with populations of 5,000 or less, and it’s often the only place to get milk or take-out. Casey’s began serving pizza in the 1980s in the middle of the farm crisis.
Like Walmart and Dollar General, gas station chains thrive on the hollowed-out economies of rural desperation. But unlike Walmart and Dollar General, gas stations have a devoted following of fans. People love them. And they don’t just love them, they are obsessed with them.
Cassandra Berger loves Kwik Trip. She loves it so much that she begged to be in a Kwik Trip commercial. She was in one, too. She plays a gas station attendant handing a customer a cup of coffee. She has one line: “Fresh Karuba coming up.”
Karuba is the brand name of the Kwik Trip coffee. And while Berger says the line, it’s voiced over by a male narrator.
But even that three-second moment of fame wasn’t enough for Berger, who is 27. So, in 2021, she worked with the social media team at Kwik Trip to come up with a plan to visit every Kwik Trip in Wisconsin. That’s 457 total Kwik Trips. She loved them all.
Berger is a native of Waukon, Iowa. But lives in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where she coaches lacrosse at the University of Wisconsin. Her social media videos featuring the gas station have earned her the nickname KT Girl and a lot of local press.
She told me she grew up going to Casey’s and Kwik Trip, but that she fell in love with Kwik Trip because of its cream-filled long johns. She and a former boyfriend would go there in the morning for day-old donuts (which are cheaper), and she became obsessed.
If anyone is Midwestern, it’s Berger. She’s blonde, white, and her vowels are soft and rounded. And yeah, sure, she’s got a sense of humor about it all. When I ask her why she thinks we love our gas stations so much, she laughs. “We don’t really have a lot going on here. Do we?”
She’s right. You become loyal to the places that offer you rest where there isn’t much to be found. Places that have food you can eat as you travel through fields where most of the corn is for cattle. Warm places in hard, cold landscapes. Clean bathrooms for weary bladders. Again, to quote vocal gas station pizza lover Rob Sand, “The universality of the experience in Iowa. Whether you live what @iamcardib calls the lit city’ of #DesMoines or a unincorporated area, if there’s a gas station, there's probably breakfast pizza. So it brings us together.”
“It’s just normal,” says Berger. And I ask her if she means like how it’s the opposite of places that fetishize having Michelin star restaurants? “Yeah, like an unsnobbiness to it all,” she says. “It’s just regular folks.”
She points out that Kwik Trip’s pizza is the official pizza at Lambeau Field. And, well, isn’t football just standing around and drinking in the cold? Which is the most Midwestern activity of all. Standing around in the cold is tailgating and ice fishing, the Midwest’s two most popular sports. And where do you get cold beer for these activities? Kwik Trip’s beer freezer. Casey’s cooler.
And sure, you can get them at the Walmarts and Dollar Generals, too, but the food at Kum and Go, Casey’s, and Kwik Trip, it’s good. It’s really good. Casey’s taco pizza is in fact delicious. And these companies run like restaurants. They have corporate kitchens where they test and try new recipes. Kwik Trip has a line of take home meals which include a spicy chicken penne pasta. In sum, they are more restaurant chain than gas station, which is what makes them different from an Exxon or a Shell. In a phone interview, Rob Sand, who has become a de facto gas station cultural expert, notes that when he’s out campaigning he will go out of his way to eat at a Kum and Go or Casey’s. Because the food is good. It’s far better than other fast food. And at a Casey’s Kwik Trip or Kum and Go, you can buy a $1 drink or spend $11.99 for an entire pizza. Or you can buy nothing and still use the bathroom. Sand points out, “It’s a place anyone, no matter who you are, feels comfortable going in.”
And also, people love the gas stations because at least here, the gas stations love them back. In 2016, I wrote a story about houses burning down due to old wiring in Gladbrook, Iowa. And Casey’s provided pizza to the volunteer firefighters. The gas stations offer benefits and PTO. In 2021, Kwik Trip was rated one of Glassdoor’s best places to work.
Emily Contois, who is a media studies professor at the University of Tulsa and is the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets, sits the love of gas stations squarely at the intersection of American car culture and class. It’s an anti-culture kind of culture. A culture that resists fancy. That takes pride in the mass production of it all because that means consistency and convenience, and that has become better articulated by internet meme culture and social media.
To be clear, gas station culture existed long before the internet. But the use of memes to celebrate and crystalize the fan base around these gas station chains has been essential to their part in the cultural conversation of what it means to be Midwestern.
Casey’s and Kum and Go are regionally famous for their light-hearted usage of social media. Which usually results in social media engagement, because everyone loves regionalisms. They signal belonging and community. They signal who is in and who is out. To borrow a TikTok meme, in sum, the girls who get it, get it. The girls who don’t, don’t.
Of course, Contois points out, the Midwest is not the only place with a gas station culture. Texas has Buc-ee’s, Montana has Town Pump. But each gas station thrives on that same sense of loyalty, born from wide-open spaces, long drives, cold beer, and hot food.
And it’s working. This swirl of culture, food, gas, and pizza, it’s working. Casey’s is expanding down the middle of the country. So is Kwik Trip. And for better or for worse, in many places these gas stations are not just a place to stop, but the only place.
On a recent trip, I tried and failed to outrun a snow storm. Cold and my back aching from tense snowy driving, I stopped at Kwik Trip in Prairie du Chien, simply because I saw the sign and I needed a break. In the store there were rows and rows of hot ready-made food on metal shelves, counters full of drink and beverage options, and a display cooler full of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was like an oasis. I got a sandwich and a coffee and for a moment felt sustained against the storm.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter where I write about the intersection of the personal and political. And yes, about yelling. I am an Iowan, author, journalist, and columnist. If you value what you read, consider subscribing to the free weekly emails or become a paying subscriber.