2011 September: READY FOR THE RENAISSANCE?

Depending on how you look at it, this is either a horrible or a fantastic time in the pizza industry — the entire restaurant industry, really.

Just like our nation has divided into political polar opposites, the pizza segment has separated into two basic categories: cheap pizza and fantastic pizza. No-limit $5 medium pies or $15 personal-size artisan pies. Gut fillers and “Wow!” experiences.

Where does your pizza fit in?

Every day I hear of new pizzerias opening all over America with the simple mission of making great pizza the Old World way: with wood, coal or standard gas-fired deck ovens. The foundation starts with delicious dough, simple, fresh ingredients and real skill.
Despite the largest portion of the pizza segment dedicating itself to selling the least expensive product, newcomers to pizza are pursuing their passion to create the perfect pie and backing it with blood, sweat and bank notes.

What once was old is new again, and customers are catching on. Not only do they “get it” when they taste a well-made pizza, they understand the passion put into it by dedicated pizza makers. They appreciate seeing someone put so much time, energy and effort into their meal, and they don’t mind paying a steep price for it.

And yet, amid what seems to be a never-ending recovery from the recession, I see more operators than ever giving into the temptation of catering to bargain hunters. I call it the “creep toward cheap.” Despite getting into this business because they wanted to make pizza, they’re focused more on making dollars than dough. Truly great pizza is a matter of the heart and hands. Making money is a byproduct — albeit a very good one if you’ve done the first part correctly.

Trust me, I understand what drives operators to switch from quality to cheap in hopes of raising sales. I’ve got six kids — two out of the house, four coming and going depending on where they are in their education and what favors they need from me and my wife. I know the stress and strain of putting food on the table, and I know how that consumes your mind when you’re fighting to keep your business in the black.

But what’s inarguable is the opportunity you’re missing if you just “go cheap” in an effort to survive. The restaurant segment is finally waking up to the fact that customers love not only really good food, they love the experience that should come with it. If they get both, not only are they willing to pay a little more for it — sometimes substantially more — they’ll even wait for it without fussing.

An example: Anybody notice how many “better burger” places have popped up over the last 10 years? The epitome of this explosion is Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which has more than 700 units and is adding another 100 every year. Working from a minimalist menu and selling the most ubiquitous sandwich in America, this simple concept posts annual per-store sales averages of $1.2 million.

The story of the company’s founders is similar to many others who have figured out that our business should be about really good food first. They knew customers were tired of generic, tasteless, dollar-menu burgers that spent more time in a microwave than on a grill that actually caramelizes meat. They knew customers wanted burgers cooked to order and served with fresh toppings and that they’d not mind waiting a few minutes to get it. They knew they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it — they only had to go back and look at the original wheel (any of a thousand mom-and-pop diners that have always made good burgers) and build on that.

Of course, the same thing is happening in pizza. Nearly daily I hear of a new wood- or coal-fired pizzeria opening up somewhere in America. Maybe it’s a call from a friend who knows the guy or gal starting out, and they usually say about the same thing: “She’d gone to Italy, had that kind of pizza and wanted to do it here,” or “He spent a week in New York, wondered where such good pizza had been all his life, and now he wants to do it himself.”

Notice those two statements contain nothing about money. You don’t hear, “He saw this guy in Dallas selling pizzas for $16 apiece and thought, ‘Hell, I can do that and make some cash!’” What’s motivating these people to open pizzerias is the pursuit of great pizza.

The best example of this I’ve encountered is Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. Two of its three owners are pizza makers: Tony Gemignani and Bruno Di Fabio. Both got their start in the business making high-quality pizzas, but after traveling to Italy for various competitions, both got hooked on Old World pies and set out to open a spot in 2009 that uses four completely different ovens to make five different crust types.

When I first heard they were planning this, I thought it so audacious I wondered if it were ego translating into overkill. But after enrolling as a student at their place last year, I recognized it as pure genius. Both men not only understand their customers’ desire for a pizza experience centered on handmade food, but they also very wisely meet modern desires for variety by creating pizzas for wood-fired ovens and American and Italian stone deck ovens. (By the way, last I checked, Tony’s weekly average sales were in the $80,000 range … and the shop is open just five days a week!)

After returning from that visit to Tony’s last year, I had a bit of an epiphany: many pizza makers could do something similar in their own shops. In the months since, I’ve helped some clients add a deck oven to their conveyor oven configuration — just stacked it right on top like you would another conveyor — to allow them to add more traditional deck-baked crust(s) to their menu. With that simple change, as well as a reformulated dough recipe for the deck, you can change an ordinary shop from a pizza production facility to a place where pizza is baked by humans.

Mind you, I have no objections to using conveyor ovens. I love them. They’re fantastic, consistent and arguably the key to why pizza chains exploded throughout the U.S. in the first place. But the difference between a crust baked directly on a screaming hot hearth and a crust browned on a screen over forced hot air is profound, not to mention delectable.

The simple addition of a deck oven to an operation presents incredible opportunities for menu expansion, not to mention the furthering of a pizza maker’s skill. Except for wood- or coal-fired styles, a deck oven presents multiple opportunities to bake and sell several different crust styles that add that crucial variety customers want.

Is it more labor intensive to do this? Yes. It will require new dough and new skills. (Not only do Gemignani and Di Fabio operate the International School of Pizza at their San Francisco shop, Gemignani teaches special dough making sessions every year at International Pizza Expo.) But let’s be honest, good pizza takes work; cheap pizza … not so much. And that’s why it’s hardly worth the $5.99 customers are paying for it.

A change like this means raising the bar on your pizza and pushing yourself to do something new by reaching back to the pizza traditions of old. It likely means getting out of your shop and finding out what good pizza really is and relying on your pizza peers for information on how to do it.

It also could require you to stop merely making a living in order to revisit the joy of making pizza for a living. In the past two decades, too many people got into the business looking solely for ROI. But in the past several years, a new group has joined the ranks out of a passion to make great food and create an experience for their patrons. If you can create both in your shop, you’ll forever lose the temptation to “compete cheap” — because your sales will show you it’s not necessary.

Big Dave Ostrander owned a highly successful independent pizzeria before becoming a consultant, speaker and internationally sought-after trainer. He is a monthly contributor to Pizza Today and leads seminars on operational topics for International Pizza Expo.

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