Durable equipment and supplies represent a key ingredient as foodservice operators continue to feed Americans' seemingly insatiable appetite for these Italian pies.
Despite the challenging economy, the number of units in the pizza segment remained steady last year at 71,253, according to the Technomic report. The top 10 chains comprised almost half of the sales in this segment.
In recent years, pizza as a menu item has become more varied. In addition to the traditional pies topped with pepperoni, sausage, mozzarella and tomato sauce, gourmet pizzas with unique ingredients — like artichoke, duck, pesto and gorgonzola, to name a few — have become more popular.Breakfast pizza, with sausage, egg, cheese and bacon topping combinations, has also become more prevalent in today's restaurants. Even dessert pizzas, the most popular versions featuring a cookie crust drizzled with chocolate and topped with ice cream, are becoming menu staples at all types of restaurants.
Youngsters especially are big consumers in this category. A Gallup poll found that children between the ages of 3 and 11 prefer pizza over all other foods for both lunch and dinner. A study performed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture statistician and home economist revealed that 42 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 had eaten pizza within a three-day survey period.
Americans' love for pizza shows no signs of waning in the years ahead, as more restaurants continue adding innovative and traditional varieties to their menus.
Case Study: Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, Northbrook, Ill.A fixture in Chicago's restaurant scene since the early '70s, Lou Malnati's has set itself apart in what is arguably one of the toughest and most critical pizza towns around.
"Other places try to mimic our brand, but amongst all our competitors, we are a little different," says chief operating officer Jim D'Angelo.
The restaurant's long and strong roots in the Chicago area can be credited to its founding family's perseverance. After working in the city's first deep-dish pizzeria back in the 1940's, Lou Malnati opened his own place in Lincolnwood, a nearby suburb, in 1971. Word of mouth led to success, and Malnati opened a second location in Elk Grove Village, a suburb near Chicago's O'Hare Airport, although the new site didn't really take off until 14 months of road construction ended.After Malnati fell victim to cancer in 1978, his sons Marc and Rick, along with his widow Jean, continued expanding the family business. Today, with the newest carryout and delivery location in Bolingbrook just opening, there are 31 Lou Malnati's locations in the Chicago metro area.
The business is a mix of full-service restaurants that include bars and seating for at least 150 people; cafés with limited menus, no bars and seating for less than 100; and strictly carryout/delivery operations with no on-site dining.
Despite the challenging economic climate, though, Malnati's and other pizza operations like it continue to benefit from a growing market of consumers looking for affordability and value. "Pizza has an advantage in times like these because it is comfort food, and more people are downgrading from higher-end restaurants to value-driven meals," D'Angelo says.
Still, the pizza chain is not resting on its laurels and remains focused on both quality and customer service. "We always have to be on top of our game because, for every penny people are spending, they're looking for more. Service should be better during these times, and the quality needs to remain top-notch," D'Angelo says. "We grow slower than other businesses, but this helps us with the dips so the hits aren't as big during slower times."
Sauce and dough are made from scratch daily at every site. Lou Malnati's cheese is procured from the same Wisconsin dairy that supplied the chain's first location almost 40 years ago. Every year, the Malnati's team travels to California, selecting vine-ripened tomatoes by hand for its sauce. The chain is known for its unique flaky, buttery crust, as well as its exclusive sausage blend, which infiltrates the pizza in big, flat pieces.
Since pies are made fresh to order and not premade or par-baked, each location keeps close tabs on how much it sells. "It's the little things that matter," D'Angelo says.Traditional Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is Lou Malnati's specialty, but thin-crust pies were added to the menu in 1994. "We did a variation of thin-crust pizza before this, which was geared to families with kids who didn't want the deep-dish style," D'Angelo says.
The menu has expanded significantly from 1971, when it included only pizza, four pasta dishes and a couple of salads.
"Salads are the second-biggest item we sell," D'Angelo says. "In some locations, almost every customer orders a salad with their pizza." The traditional house salad is the most popular, along with the Malnati salad, a type of chopped salad. The chain also offers chicken club and antipasto salads. All dressing is made on-site from scratch.
Other big sellers are the homemade lasagna, spaghetti, Chicken Louie, baked mostaccioli and chicken parmesan sandwich. The chocolate chip cookie pizza is also a favorite.
"As we add things to the menu, we take off items that are less relevant or not moving," D'Angelo says. "We want to do everything well, so we have to be careful not to expand the menu too much."
For many pizzerias, speed is critical, but Lou Malnati's bucks this trend. Its deep-dish pizza takes between 30 and 40 minutes to prepare, unlike most competitors' versions, which are made in half the time. "Operations looking for fast output use conveyor ovens and other equipment geared for high volume. This production method doesn't do our pizza justice," D'Angelo says.The chain has tried to compensate for the longer wait times by having customers call ahead with their orders, especially during workday lunch periods. "If people call and order in advance, we can have the pizza ready for them 10 minutes after they arrive, rather than 30 minutes later," D'Angelo says. "There are ways to get around the longer wait times. It's a matter of educating our customers in how our operation works." Staff will allow customers who are waiting for a table to order ahead, eliminating the wait time after they are seated.
Durability: Pizza operations are typically high-volume, so key equipment like ovens and dough mixers must be able to withstand the rigors of this environment.
Reliability: These restaurants typically have long hours and tight schedules. Make sure equipment components can be easily and quickly fixed or replaced to minimize downtime.
Storage: With fresh ingredients playing a major role in most pizza operations, having an appropriate amount of refrigerated space for toppings is necessary. This includes cold space within or around pizza tables for easier preparation.
Sal Vitale, owner/manager, Famous Joe's Pizza, New York, N.Y.
In 1995 a second location opened three doors down on Carmine Street to handle the overflow and help decrease the lines. In 2004, when the lease wasn't renewed, the first location closed. The family has continued to expand the restaurant, adding a Los Angeles location about a year ago and a Santa Monica location in 2007.
Even though the New York City operation is now owned and operated by Pozzuoli's grandson, Sal Vitale, the 75-year-old founder still makes regular appearances to check on the restaurant. And it appears the two men share a similar passion for the business.
Vitale spoke with FE&S about the challenges faced by pizza operators, how he succeeds in an increasingly competitive industry and what makes Famous Joe's unique.
FE&S: What are the day-to-day issues faced by pizza operations?
SV: The worst time of year is the summer, because this is when everything seems to break down. Our oven and dough mixer are 38 years old. The only equipment we've replaced since we opened is the refrigerator. We brought over our two-door gas-stacked pizza oven from the first location after it closed.
FE&S: How have you adjusted your operations in light of the challenging business environment?
SV: Our business has not decreased at all; in fact, it continues to grow. The same people have been coming here, and most have known me since I was five years old. We did have to increase our price per slice by 25 cents when we renegotiated our rent.
FE&S: What makes the pizza industry unique from other foodservice segments?
SV: Pizza is a simple thing, and that's why it's accessible to everyone. It's easy to grab a slice on the go, without spending a lot of money like in a sit-down restaurant. This is why we're not as affected by the down economy compared with other segments. Our industry does better in times like these because people are looking to spend less on food.
FE&S: How have the menu items evolved in recent years?
SV: We haven't changed anything on the menu. When something is right, there is no need to change it.
FE&S: How does the foodservice equipment support the menu?
SV: Our kitchen is only 10 feet by 15 feet, with minimal equipment. All we have is a dough mixer, pizza table, two-door reach-in for our ingredients and a sink. In the front, we have a pizza table and stacked pizza ovens. There are no freezers, since everything is delivered fresh twice a week. Our dough is made from scratch at least 10 times a day. It's tossed and turned the old-fashioned way.
FE&S: What is the busiest daypart for your pizzeria?
SV: Nighttime is busier than during the day. We're open from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m., and between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. is our busiest time. Our staff is like family. Everyone who works here has been at their job for 10 years, and two employees have worked here for 25 years.
FE&S: When buying equipment for the pizza segment, what attributes are key to consider?
SV: The thing we look for most in equipment is reliability. Because of our high volume, half of the equipment breaks down each month, and we have to fix it. Constant use is an issue. Our oven doors are swinging open every five seconds. It's typically the pilot or thermostat that needs replacing on our cooking equipment. Luckily, because we have mostly older units with simple components, items that break can be easily fixed within an hour.
FE&S: What are the equipment innovations that have had the biggest impact on the pizza segment?
SV: New refrigerators are groundbreaking because they use less electricity.
FE&S: Are there any aspects of your business that have changed or will change?
SV: We are always looking for new things to try. Unlike our New York City store, the West Coast operations are bigger and have a pizzeria-restaurant format. Because it's more of a driving than walking destination, the Los Angeles locale has 25 seats. Both of those menus are expanded, with sandwiches like chicken parmesan and pepperoni roll, but the pizza recipes are the same.
FE&S: What are your goals for this year?
SV: Because of the success of our California sites, we plan on expanding our operations. Business is great, and we want to keep our customers happy. One thing we will never change is our menu. We're doing well because we keep it simple and use fresh ingredients