Dough Doctor Tom Lehmann takes a look at forging a single store in the pizza industry

dough ballQ: Is there still room in the pizza industry for an independent to get started?

A: To answer your question in one word, yes. Pizza is a constantly evolving food that has great appeal to a very high percentage of our population across all age categories, and for the most part all ethnic backgrounds. In short, there aren’t a whole lot of people who don’t like pizza in one form or another.

As our population continues to increase, the base number of people to which pizza is provided continues to grow, and as the ethnicity of our population increases, there is a neverending variation to the number of different styles and flavors of pizza
to make. The best part is that these different styles and flavors are embraced across the board –– not just by one specific group of people. We also know that pizza enjoys a strong perception of value in the eyes of the consumer so pizza is known for its ability to survive tough economic times when other food establishments fail or do poorly. While there is a portion of the population that has expressed health issues with eating pizza (primarily those individuals who are either gluten intolerant, allergic to wheat protein or are diagnosed with celiac disease), our industry has embraced those concerns by opening a whole new segment to the pizza/food industry, that being gluten free.

We are now seeing pizzerias opening that are dedicated to the production of only gluten free pizza and other products. With our aging population we have also seen a growing interest in making pizzas that address other health concerns too. For example, reduced sodium, reduced fat and reduced cholesterol are issues that can be easily addressed at any pizzeria, or it may present an opportunity to open a pizzeria dedicated to more “healthy” eating, or addressing specific dietary concerns. So as you can see, even in difficult economic times and when confronted with specific consumer demands, pizza continues to evolve to meet the needs of the consumer, and pizzerias continue to provide these pizzas to an ever broadening consumer base.

Q: We get customer requests for gluten-free pizzas. What do I need to do to make them?

A: Gluten free is a very visceral topic amongst both pizzeria operators and consumers/consumer groups, but since the question was asked, I’ll share my position on the issue. The first thing you need to do is to assess the potential size of the gluten-free market that you might sell to in your specific area. I’ve seen stores with the potential to sell up to five gluten-free pizzas a day, and I’ve seen stores with the potential to sell more than 100 a day. Possibly, the best way to assess viability is to look at it as both a percent of your total pizza sales and as the actual number of pizzas that might be sold.

In some high-volume stores I’ve seen where the percentage might be somewhat low, but the number of pizzas making up that percent would be sufficient to support a freestanding store. This is probably the best situation to be in as it will allow you to develop a “gluten-free” store.

Adding a gluten-free pizza to your menu isn’t as easy as one might necessarily think it is. To be done correctly you will need to have dedicated space in your store for making, baking and packaging your gluten free pizzas (this requires investment). Then you will need to address issues pertaining to cross contamination with flour (which is present all over your store), employee training, ingredient procurement, storage space and the potential for increased liability/insurance costs.

If going into a freestanding gluten-free store is in your future, many of these issues can be avoided. If the store was a pizzeria previously, a thorough cleaning (don’t forget to have the air ducts cleaned) should get rid of any residual flour. If it is a new store, you’re good to go. Then just maintain a strict policy of no-wheat flour — no ingredients containing wheat flour (there are other cereal grains that you might want to include on this list, too) shall ever enter this store. If you are making any claims that might be construed as a “health” claim, make sure you know how it will affect you. Sometimes, it’s better to say we offer gluten-free, low-fat, reduced-salt or reduced-cholesterol pizzas without any other references to health claims — it’s all in the wording.

As for actually making the gluten-free crusts, there are two viable options. One is to make your own gluten free dough/crusts from a prepared mix, or using a special gluten-free flour to replace the wheat flour normally used. The other is to contract with an outside supplier to provide you with the crusts.

Keep in mind that all gluten free crusts are not created equal. There are some very good ones and there are some very bad ones out there. If you don’t like the offerings of one company, try those of another company until you find something that will live up to your customers’ expectations.

While you’re looking for your crust supplier/manufacturer, don’t forget to look at other gluten-free items that you can feature on your menu such as gluten free pasta dishes, breads, rolls and especially dessert items. There are a lot of great-tasting gluten-free items out there just looking for an outlet. Is gluten free for you? Only you can decide, but if it is, remember that there are a lot more and better tasting selections to be had than there were just a few short years ago.

Tom Lehmann is a director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas.

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