* Click here to view a slideshow from the 2008 North American Pizza & Ice Cream Show.
Although the official numbers are still being tallied, preliminary results indicate that attendance at this year's fifth North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show was a record-high, with 5,364 buyers on the floor, show organizers said. Last year's attendance was nearly 5,300.
The show, held Feb. 17-18 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, featured more than 225 exhibitors as well as seminars and workshops covering topics ranging from marketing techniques to industry trends.
Pizzeria operators Rachael and Shawn Ritchie attended NAPICS for the second year. The couple, who own and operate Goodfella's Pizza in Athens, Ohio, were scouting the latest in pizza-delivery bags and marketing ideas.
Rachael Ritchie said the couple wanted to add a delivery option to their restaurant and were looking for tips on how to get started.
"Right now, most of our customers are college students," she said. "There's a community there we'd like to reach as well."
The aisles were packed from the show's start to finish, with event chairwoman Ann Reichle saying deals were being made within the first hour.
John Crow, founder of Lloyd Industries Inc., said one NAPICS attraction for his company was the number of attendees who make buying decisions for their operations on the show floor.
"One of the things I like about this show is that it draws a lot of operators from around the region," he said. "Here, about 90 percent of the people who walk by your booth are buyers."
Pizza Pizzazz sets prize record
NAPICS set a record with its Pizza Pizzazz competition, as well. The top prize this year was $7,500 in each of the two categories, traditional and gourmet.
Last year, the top prize in each of the categories was $5,000.
Contestants in both categories competed in first-round bakeoffs, with the top six in each category continuing on to the championship round. This year, the competitive pool was opened from 50 to 75 contestants in each category.
Lisa Dodson of Dodson's Pizza in New Lexington, Ohio, out-baked her competitors to take home the top prize in the gourmet division. Dodson's award-winning "BLT" pizza combined bacon, lettuce, tomato, several cheeses and seasonings.
Dodson said she had never entered a cooking competition before and had purchased the restaurant with her husband eight months prior to the show.
"I put (the pizza) on the menu because it's something that I've always liked," she said. "I'm still in shock!"
Dodson said she planned to purchase a new oven with her winnings.
Joseph Capozio, of Capozio's Inc. in Benton Harbor, Mich., also managed to beat out the contestants vying for the $7,500 traditional prize. Capozio baked a "Combination" pizza featuring cheese, sausage, mushrooms, green and red peppers, onions and fresh garlic.
Second prize and $500 in the Gourmet division went to Ralph Lusher from Shade on the Canal in Canal Winchester, Ohio, while third place and $250 went to Teresa Snider-Boring from Percelli's Pizzeria in McArthur, Ohio.
In the traditional category, second prize and $500 went to James Catalfino from Catalfino's Pizza in Canal Winchester, Ohio. Third place and $250 went to Cindy Hooks from Boomer's Pizza, in Circleville, Ohio.
During a break in the competition, Pizza Marketplace presented its 2008 Independent Operator of the year award to Tony Palombino, proprietor of Louisville, Ky.-based Tony Boombozz.
Business-building tips abound
NAPICS attendees were treated to a wealth of seminar information, such as how to improve customer service and increase their marketing reach. Among the many seminars was "Let your local media work for you," presented by Scott Anthony, marketing consultant and owner of Fox's Pizza Den in Punxsutawney, Pa.
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Anthony showed a group of about 40 pizzeria operators ways they could increase sales through effective publicity. "It's not just a way to get your name in the local paper," Anthony said. "It's a business-building tool."
During "Mastering the art of service excellence," speaker Jay Kandampully told operators to focus on their customer relationships rather than the sale of their products.
"When you focus on the product, you have no connection with anybody," he said. "When you focus on service, you build relationships."
Kandampully, a professor of services management and hospitality at Ohio State University, considers customers to be employees, end users, suppliers and vendors.
"Customers can be many things," he said. "One employee is enough either to make your restaurant or to break your restaurant."
Exhibitor Lauri Gritten of Pizza Blends said because of the current wheat market, operators were inquiring about blended flour for their pizzeria products. Gritten said her company has locked in flour prices through the end of 2008 at a price cheaper than the current market rate.
"Even though pricing is out of control, (an operator's) biggest fear is not having product," she said. "We really got ahead of this and we're several dollars lower than the market."
Pizza Blends creates proprietary products for some of the largest chains in the industry as well as for independent operators. The company has a research and development team for operators looking to create their own unique blend.
Other exhibitors included the Oringer Division of Concord Foods Inc. The company showcased flavoring ingredients for gelato and ice cream, toppings and syrups.
National sales/marketing manager Rod Oringer said gelato suppliers are making a big push in the United States, but gelaterias represent only about 2 percent of the frozen-dessert market. Although 2 percent isn't a large amount, "it's enough to pour marketing dollars into it," he said.
Dessert flavor trends continue to be chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, but cake batter and cookie dough ice creams push the flavor boundary. Additionally, anything with antioxidant value, such as blueberry and pomegranate, is gaining in popularity.
Patrick Perry, vice president of Baltimore-based Aromi d' Italia, said gelato partners well with concepts that offer pizza, baked goods, sandwiches such as panini, or coffee.
American consumers absolutely are accepting gelato as a frozen-dessert offering, Perry said. Globalization has had an "immediate impact" on consumer acceptance, he said.
"The United States is a melting pot," Perry said. "Consumers are getting introduced to a lot of product lines constantly."
* Additional reporting was done by Valerie Killifer