Fast-casual Pizza Kitchens Streamline System Execution
In March, generational expert Jason Dorsey, the “Gen-Y Guy,” stood before a packed hall of pizzeria operators during his Keynote Address at International Pizza Expo and proclaimed the value of meal customization for Millennial customers, a base on pace to outspend Baby Boomers by 2017.
Fast-casual pizza concepts are expanding across the country based on that same notion of build-to-order. As several brands compete for their piece of the fast-casual pizza market, there are varying styles and concepts within the segment.
Santa Barbara, California-based Persona Wood Fired Pizzeria, that recently inked a three-unit franchise deal in the Southeast, offers a customizable hand stretched, wood-fired Neapolitan pizza in under five minutes.
Dallas, Texas-based Pie Five Pizza, with more than 40 locations in the U.S., features four crusts, including an artisan thin, pan-style, whole wheat and gluten free, baked in a fast-bake conveyor oven with a total throughput under five minutes.
Amidst the spectrum of fast-casual, build-to-order pizza concepts that have emerged, kitchen operational procedures are being reinvented in this segment to streamline speed, consistency and quality.
There are some universal components that fast-casual, build-to-order pizza kitchens share. Let’s examine these key elements:
• An open kitchen. First, back of house meets front of house in an open or performance kitchen. “There is nothing to hide,” says Glenn Cybulski, World Pizza Champion chef and co-founder of Persona, stressing the importance of cleanliness on the pizza line at all times. Customers watch the entire pizza-making process.
With ingredients in view of customers, Cybulski says, use prep time and lulls efficiently to keep all items fully stocked. “We want our guests to feel like they don’t have to question what is being put on their pizza because they are seeing a clean, neat environment and that promotes confidence in the brand,” he continues.
With 400 announced company-owned and franchise units under contract, Pie Five’s open kitchen setup is identical at each location. Smith says that fosters consistency, as well as aids the training process.
• An assembly line approach. The make line setup is built for speed. Stations often include one to three make stations, an oven station, cutting and finishing area, expo and counter service station with one or two employees manning each station during peak hours. Persona and Pie Five also have a salad station.
Dough moves through every step of the pizza-making process, shooting for a throughput under five minutes.
Cybulski says key to Persona’s brand is its hand stretched dough, while others may use machine pressed or pre-packaged dough skins. Hand stretching Persona’s Neapolitan dough is vital to the quality of its 12-inch pizza, as well as, “we find that it’s faster than our competitors and we know that based on our secret shopper reports and our throughput,” he says.
Portioning is critical in the sauce and cheese station. Smith says Pie Five focuses on measuring two key ingredients: cheese and sauce.
With an unlimited toppings approach, portioning other ingredients is not as finite. “The other items we teach to start with a half-ounce portion,” Smith says. “It’s basically a three-finger pinch. We had a franchisee early on say, ‘why don’t we put spoons and tongs and other measuring apparatus in every ingredient?’ And I think that would make us look like we are trying to be cheap and trying to over-measure and not give the guest what they want.
Cybulski uses portions based on his culinary pizza experience. “Everything is portion controlled and everything has been set by myself,” he says. “So all of the portions are done based on the end result of having a pizza that has a very high quality, is very well balanced.”
The expo station employee at Persona plays a vital role in its quality. “The quality control that happens at that pass is key,” Cybulski says. “We are literally training that person at the pass to be an inspector of our product before it goes out.”
• A fast-bake oven. Oven technology, Smith says, has been the catalyst in Pie Five’s brand and consistency. The pizza chain’s TurboChef conveyor oven is versatile, baking thin and pan-style pizzas in 145 seconds. “Once that pie is built, they place it in the TurboChef oven and it comes out the other end perfect,” Smith says. Managers and shift leaders handle oven setup, maintenance and cleaning. “Our hourly employees who are really our pizza makers; their only concern is getting it on the belt in the proper position.”
While every Pie Five pizza line employee is tasked with oven duties, Persona designates certified oven masters to work with its Marra Forni wood-fired pizza ovens. Cybulski says oven masters are trained to know the hot spots to avoid while spinning its Neapolitan dough and where to place the slower cooking gluten-free crust.
• A cross-trained staff. Fast-casual pizzerias have eliminated a front-of-house/back-of-house structure, instead functioning as an all-encompassing staff that excels at each station.
“In a new store opening we would hire around 30 employees. And we would go through a six-day process of training,” Smith says, identifying who will work each station. “Once the store opens, then the training process changes to the cross training….So by the time we get through a full month and they get through their honeymoon period, we will have all of the employees cross-trained.”
• Service on the pizza line. A build-to-order concept operates differently from typical counter-service restaurants. Pizza makers interact with guests at various stages along the pizza line.
Initially, Smith says, there was a separation between Pie Five’s guests and its pizza makers. “As we changed the configuration operations platform we now have interaction with the guest from the time they start at Make 1 through our dessert and salad station, our cut station and then expo onto cash,” he says. “So what we try to stress during training is that wow experience, the genuine smile, the ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”
The Toppings Dilemma
In the fast-casual pizza market, there are generally two schools of thought on toppings. The first is a tiered pricing system of standard and premium ingredients. The other offers unlimited toppings.
Does offering unlimited toppings entice guests to order more ingredients? Rarely, says Pie Five Pizza’s Vice President of Operations Chris Smith. “We’ve done studies manually checking and watching how many toppings everyone gets on a shift or in a day,” he says. “What we found was that person that gets that eight toppings and above is only about three percent of our guests. And that goes down dramatically once you get past eight….Often they limit themselves because they realize it doesn’t taste right. We try to coach them and we try to teach our employees that once they get past that five-topping area to say ‘boy, that’s a lot of toppings’ because it just won’t taste good.”
Smith recalls two regulars who always order 13 topping each. “We put it through twice for them. You have to be flexible. If that person wants 13 toppings, I’m going to give them 13 toppings.”
With Persona Wood Fired Pizzeria’s Neapolitan-style pizza, co-founder Glenn Cybulski says, “We actually — contrary to what most sales people do — tell our guests that “less is more” because we also know the quality of the product is determined by how much they put on the pizza,” he says. “We like to tell people, “Start with three toppings and see how that is.”
Denise Greer is associate editor at Pizza Today.