2011 March: Weights and Measures

Very early in my career I was referred to as a “pizza boy.” After about a year of learning the ropes, you earned the title of “pizza man” –– or washed out. The difference was a couple of thousand hours of being the gopher, grunt, zip, trainee, etc. The attrition rate was very high. The instructors would rival a career boot camp drill instructor. They weren’t into explaining much. No coddling, no excuses. This wasn’t Namsie-Pamsie Land. Verbal and physical abuse was totally expected. If you couldn’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. International chef Gordon Ramsey is a gentle soul compared to my bosses. This was Detroit, Michigan, circa the late 1960s, the birthplace of many of the baddest and best pizza independents and chains found anywhere, even to this day. The business was so intense that you had to keep up –– or get out of the way. We opened at 4 p.m. and closed at 2 a.m. on weekends –– 600-minute shifts. We consistently made 300 to 400 pies an evening, in deck ovens, all hand-tossed, no sheeters or machines. I had found my calling, and I loved it.

After my first year, I had graduated from high school and was spotted by the franchise owner and offered a position at the flagship training shop. I got a little raise and was working in a management trainee role. This place was the launching spot for new operators.

One day, as I was setting up the pizza line the owner of the franchise, my immediate boss, had a quickie stand-up meeting with me. He told me that he had counted how many pizzas I made from one tub of cheese. His calculation was I was only making 30 pizzas from a tub rather than the ideal of 40. He quickly demonstrated how he wanted it done by free-throwing cheese on a few pizzas. End of training lesson.

I was taken aback and scared. I really wanted to please this guy. He was in control of my immediate future. I wanted to own my own location. He could make it happen for this poor boy from the ’burbs. I thought to myself, “How am I supposed to put the exact amount of cheese on every pizza to keep my job?” After all, I was making a buck and a half a week. My boss told me his expectations but didn’t totally explain how I was supposed to do it. It took me the next 20 years to solve the problem. It hit me when a fellow pizza restaurant owner and board member of the Michigan Restaurant Association showed me his solution to the problem of consistent portioning of cheese, every pizza, every time.

Alex turned me on to his method of pre-weighing out cheese into rubber cups. This was a daily function of prep, just like weighing out dough balls. He estimated how many pizzas he was going to sell, pre-loaded the appropriate number of cups and refrigerate them until he needed to restock the make line. No more loose cheese or free throwing. It was too easy. I adapted this method into Big Dave’s Pizza over the next month and never looked back. This one, simple, hands-on lesson realistically reduced my cheese purchases by 20 percent a week. That newfound extra $200 to $300 a week made all the difference in my profitability. Since then, I have shared this system with hundreds of operators. I have tucked rubber cups in my luggage and carried them from coast to coast and around the world. I was flattered when a premier cheese manufacturer borrowed my idea and made their own version of cheese portion cups available to their customers.

For the last 20 years, I have made it my mission to simplify operations, reduce food cost significantly and help operators make more than just a living.

This year at International Pizza Expo, I promise to teach you in a hands- on setting how to grasp how important weights and measures are. This will be the theme of most of my Expo seminars and workshops this year. I’ll have something for those who are entertaining opening their first shop and those who have been working harder for less and less lately, as well as some new tricks for old grizzly pizza boys and girls like me.

What happens in Vegas this year could profoundly impact your future. I guarantee it. u

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 the family of Pizza Expo tradeshows.