When it comes to food production, constant turnover of labor in the pizza industry hits dough management harder than any other area. Making dough isn't difficult, but it takes skill that can be difficult to pass along to employees who come and go frequently.

The solution for some owner-operators is to make all the dough themselves and eliminate the train-and-trot scenario. And while that may work in one store, what happens when unit No. 2 opens?

The answer for some operators is to use frozen dough. Some relinquish their recipes to manufacturers for exact replication, while others use generic dough and tweak it to their preference at the store level.

Tom Lehmann, a director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., said many reasons drive operators to switch from fresh to frozen, but the most popular is the elimination of

What's Important

An increasing number of pizza operators are turning to frozen dough to alleviate labor woes, control costs and increase product consistency.

Frozen dough manufacturers say many prospective customers are concerned their customers will resent a change from fresh to frozen, but they believe the change won't even be detectable.

Dough experts say there's no reason frozen dough shouldn't perform as well as fresh — even tricky artisan dough. They say the challenge is finding people dedicated to handling and baking it correctly all the time.

labor.

"They see frozen dough as easy to manage if all they have to do is pull it out of the box, thaw it in the walk-in and use it the next day," said Lehmann, also known throughout the industry as "The Dough Doctor."

Production at Cassano's Fresh Frozen Dough plant in Dayton, Ohio, has grown at a clip of 20 percent per year for the past three years, according to chairman and chief executive Vic Cassano. He said operators are beginning to learn that properly produced frozen dough is as good as fresh, and doing away with dough making altogether is enticing. The fact that 34-unit Cassano's Pizza is the parent company of the dough operation lends its production arm strong credibility with potential pizza operator customers, Cassano added.

"They know we use it in our stores every day, and it makes them think, 'They probably know what they're doing,'" Cassano said.

But that doesn't make for an easy sale because most operators are particularly persnickety about their dough. While many pizza sauces, cheeses and toppings often are shared by many different pizzerias, doughs typically are unique.

"That's their signature, it's theirs, it's nobody else's," Cassano said. And the very word "frozen" makes many operators shiver, he added. "But the truth is they're often not dealing with any facts (about frozen dough). Whether it's our products or some other manufacturer's dough, it can offer a solution to their problems. They usually just don't know how good frozen dough can be."

Ice is nice

Peter Reinhart is an award-winning bread baker, a former artisan bakery owner, culinary school instructor and author of numerous books on baking, including "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza." Were one to assume someone with Reinhart's credentials would sneer at frozen dough, they'd be wrong. Dough is durable enough to survive the freezing-thawing process with nary a hint of degradation, he said, and high-end bakeries all over are proving it. Frozen dough is sometimes unfairly blamed for a poor performance when the baker isn't trained to handle it correctly.

"There's no reason why you can't make a great pizza with frozen dough that's as good as pizza that's made from fresh dough," said Reinhart, whose full-time gig is "chef on assignment" for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C. "The hard part is finding dedicated pizza makers who will care about every pizza they throw in the oven."

Bob Sleep agreed. The former vice president of research and development for the now-defunct Pizza Magia chain said getting the dough formula right is a pretty standard procedure, but getting humans to handle it correctly is another.

"When you bring in the right resources to manage it correctly and you allow it to get the proper fermentation, you'll have the same wonderful pizza and consumers will never be able to tell the difference," said Sleep. He led Magia to freeze its dough for easier shipping when the chain grew quickly to 35 stores. "Getting it right at every point, though, takes passion for the product. Whether it's frozen really isn't the issue."

But while toppings may come to the store frozen and pizza sauces arrive in cans and bags, dough is commonly made fresh, and that's a point of pride for many owners. Giving up the claim of serving only fresh dough is a difficult pill to swallow for some, Cassano said.

"Some are even reluctant to give us their recipe because it's always been a secret," said Cassano, whose company produces mostly spec dough for its customers. "There's no question that there's fear in giving that fresh dough up."

Lehmann, who has worked with dough in commercial applications for almost 40 years, said operators he talks with aren't as concerned about customer perception of frozen dough as they once were. They tell him they simply don't know how to use frozen dough, so they avoid it.

"I've talked to frozen dough suppliers about this many times, and there just isn't enough being done, in my opinion, to educate operators," he said. "They've got to be better about telling customers what to do with it and providing dough-handling manuals."

But is it really that difficult to rotate dough from the freezer to the walk-in and to a proofing box? Lehmann said it can be confusing in operations used to making and using their dough on the same day. You can't assume, he added, that people know frozen dough should be thawed in the cooler and not on the counter.

start quoteI've had great success in all our experimental baking done at the school, and when I've handed the dough properly, people cannot tell the difference between fresh and frozen.end quote

— Peter Reinhart, author and
baking instructor, Johnson & Wales University

Plus, some operations don't follow standard first-in, first-out rotation procedures with any of their foods, much less dough.

As category growth manager for pizza at Buffalo, N.Y.-based Rich Products, Jason Drewniak said the company goes to great lengths to develop educational materials that outline the steps for proper frozen dough management.

"We provide them with handling instructions, charts, pictures, training videos in English, Spanish and French, everything we can think of to help them use our products," said Drewniak. "We understand frozen foods, so our challenge is helping operators figure out how to use our products."

Good as fresh?

Cassano said moving dough production out of a pizzeria and onto a production line is a multistep process that takes time to get the right result. But once the formula is locked in, the ability to control the final result is much easier for a manufacturer.

"Time and temperature of ingredients aren't issues in a place like ours, and those are the things that are always changing in a pizza shop," said Cassano. The company is spending $1 million in 2006 to expand its plant and import custom-made dough-production equipment from Holland. "It's hard to control all those variables in a pizza shop, and that puts whoever is making the dough at a disadvantage."

For frozen dough users, the only variables that should remain, Drewniak said, are what operators do when the dough is ready for use, such as adding flavor enhancers that give a shop's dough a signature taste. Where an operation's needs are too small for a manufacturer the size of Rich's to produce a custom-made dough, he said the company's field reps work to tweak a mass-produced dough to meet the client's unique flavor desires.

But is frozen really as good as fresh? Both Lehmann and Reinhart said there's no reason it shouldn't be if it's manufactured, handled and baked properly.

And what about the burgeoning artisan pizza movement, where fanatics fuss and fiddle endlessly with their doughs? Will a frozen manufacturer ever be able to match their quality? Reinhart believes so.

"The main difference between so-called artisan or high-quality craft pizzas is their doughs tend to be wetter, meaning the dough has higher hydration," Reinhart said. "That's one of the things that actually works to protect it well in the manufacturing process. ... I've had great success in all our experimental baking done at the school, and when I've handled the dough properly, people cannot tell the difference between fresh and frozen."

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