Q: We have been getting some customer requests for natural or organic pizzas. Is there a way we can do this economically?
A: The words “natural” and “organic” are consumer buzzwords in the food industry. There have been supermarkets, delis and restaurants developed to cater to this market niche. The interesting thing about natural or organic is that your product doesn’t have to be 100 percent natural or organic to be embraced by the average consumer. For example, just stating that your pizzas are made using 100-percent organic or natural tomatoes in the sauce can suffice in the eyes of the consumer to make your product better than others. Organic flour is readily available from a number of commercial sources, and it fits pretty well into the existing specifications of many pizza flours being used in the industry. It shouldn’t pose a problem to just replace your existing flour with an organic flour and genuinely state that your crust is made with 100-percent organic flour. Additionally, there are a number of organic ingredients that you can purchase to use in making your dough or in topping your pizzas.
Q: We have had a number of requests from customers asking us where our topping ingredients come from. What’s this all about?
A: With all of the recent food issues concerning imported this and that, is it any wonder that our customers now question where our ingredients come from? We are seeing an emerging trend where customers are pushing back from stores using imported ingredients, while embracing those that utilize locally grown or domestic grown toppings/ingredients. For example, where I live, we have a new restaurant that specializes in using locally procured foods whenever possible. The name of the restaurant says it all, LOCAL. Some stores have made it a point to secure as much of their produce from local markets as is possible, but wait a minute! It isn’t as easy as just running over to the local farmer’s market and picking up your onions, garlic, tomatoes and whatever. There are now guidelines published called GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) that were written and intended to be used as guidance for fruit and vegetable growers to follow as a way of ensuring that safe food/produce is being made available to their customers. It is highly recommended that all growers adhere to these guidelines as with time it is a probability that these guidelines will evolve into a safe produce handling law of some type.
To learn more about these GAPs, go to www.fda.bov and look for the Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. By asking your local produce vendors if they are following these GAPs, and only buying from those who do, you will be taking a major step in helping to ensure a safe and wholesome food supply, and who knows? It might also help to keep your pizzeria out of the headlines as a restaurant responsible for sickening a multitude of people. Using fresh and locally grown produce can be an asset to your business, just be sure to do it in the safest manner possible. After all, the words “fresh” and “locally grown” conjure up warm and secure feelings with our customers, so it’s important that we do all that is possible to protect that image.
Q: What is one of the better, more profitable segments of the pizza industry that you see right now?
A: Artisan pizza is rapidly gaining in popularity. The reason for this is because as pizza ages, consumers are looking for something a little different, not too far from mainstream, but not your run-of-the-mill box store pizza that they are so familiar with. Anymore, when I hear a group of people talking about how great a pizza was it’s better than even money that the pizza came from a store with an artisan concept. To be done correctly, the entire store should be designed around the artisan pizza concept.
Also, the preparation area should be open so as to allow your customers to see or watch the pizzas being made. A good friend of mine has gone so far so as to have bar seating right in front of the dough prep area so his customers can sit and watch the pizzas being made in real time.
For artisan pizza, less is actually better. Rather than slathering the top of the dough skin with sauce we like to use a much lighter application of sauce, or no sauce at all. Sometimes it works well to just use pieces of tomato –– either fresh or processed to replace the sauce. Furthermore, a much lighter application of a very flavorful cheese is in order. For example, many traditional pizzas will use upwards of six to seven ounces of cheese on a 12-inch pizza, while an artisan pizza may contain as little as only four ounces of cheese.
Flavoring is another place where artisan pizzas differ. While dried basil and oregano are the norm for many mainstream pizzas, artisan pizzas are typically flavored with fresh, green leaf basil and possibly oregano along with fresh garlic, making for a very bright and flavorful profile. As an added bonus, many consumers report that they can actually taste the cheese and tomato on an artisan pizza, where with the more traditional pizzas these delicate flavors are lost in the pungency of the dried herbs and excessive use of cheese.
Possibly the one greatest component of artisan pizza that really makes it stand apart from other types of pizza is its appearance. Since these pizzas are baked at high temperatures, the crust will be mottled hues of light brown, dark brown and something that might be described as black, which is the char that forms on random points of the crust as a result of baking at those very high temperatures. This char provides an added dimension of depth to the flavor of the baked pizza.
The crust also has a pronounced raised edge with a very open, porous crumb structure, much like that of an English muffin. Crispiness, while definitely present, doesn’t seem to be as much of an identifying characteristic with artisan pizza as it is with other types of pizza. The key elements of an artisan pizza are ambiance, appearance and flavor. You will need to do an extensive market study to find out if this type of pizza is right for your specific store location. At the very least, elements of the artisan pizza might be able to be incorporated into your existing line of pizzas to provide more variation for your customers to enjoy.
Tom Lehmann is a director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas.