COLUMBUS, Ohio — Pizza and ice cream operators turned out in record numbers for the second-annual North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show, held here Feb. 27-28. Neither cold weather nor the threat of a snow storm stopped some 4,500 attendees from sampling the wares displayed by almost 200 exhibiting companies, and dropping in on some two dozen educational seminars.
NAPICS chairwoman Ann Reichle said exhibitors who were thrilled by last year's turnout were even more pleased by this year's group.
"So many people have told me that the quality of attendees went up even more than last year," she said. "This has become a buyer's show, not just a looker's show."
It also was a competitors' show. The annual Pizza Pizzazz saw 84 contestants battle for top prizes of two expenses-paid trips to Italy. A pair of Ohioans took top honors and will represent the U.S. at the World Pizza Championships, March 14-16, in Salsomaggiore, Italy (see full results below). Second- and third-place winners in each of two categories (gourmet and traditional) pocketed $400 and $200 respectively.
As always, the event's biggest draw was the exhibit hall. Everything needed to run a pizzeria or ice cream shop was available for examination, demonstration and in many cases, tasting.
Among the most popular and plentiful exhibits this year, Reichle said, were gelato offerings.
"There was more interest in gelato than I've ever seen at this show," said Reichle, adding that ice cream operators weren't the only ones considering gelato. "Specifically, pizza operators were looking to add that Italian flair to their stores and to their menus."
Operators searching for hands-on demonstrations got into the mix at the Pizza Test Kitchen, where
Rick Copenhaven and Paul Cataldo from Antonio's Italian Ristorante in Elkhart, Ind., prepared a Capri Pizza for the Pizza Pizzazz.
"The test kitchen was full of people throughout the show," Reichle said. "People wouldn't leave Tom alone; they really wanted to talk dough."
Juggling product passion and operational profitability was the topic of discussion during a five-member Pizza Maker's panel.
Panelist Ed LaDou, owner of Caioti Pizza Café in Studio City, Calif., and widely regarded as the founder of the gourmet pizza movement, said passion for pizza making keeps him creative and willing to try new things. But after years of pursuing his purist's bliss to the point of using only handmade dough, LaDou's perspective began to change.
"It's a fine line between doing what's fun in this business and providing a good living for your family," said LaDou, who suffered ruptured discs in his back before switching to a mechanical dough mixer. "You've got to enjoy what you do or you won't do it very long. But you also have to step back and decide whether all the work you put into your product is worth the effort."
Tony Palombino, founder and franchisor of Tony Boombozz Pizzeria in Louisville, Ky., endured a similar gut check when
For more photos from this year's show, click here.
"I'd decided that fresh dough was part of who we were when we became the first gourmet delivery business in Louisville," he said. "But when one of our guys made the dough without yeast — twice — I knew I had to do something different. I wanted the piece of mind that a high-quality frozen dough could give us. And after a lot of trial and error, we made the change."
Palombino also said using other convenience items, such as pre-grilled chicken strips, has made rolling out new gourmet pies easy and required him to spend less time overseeing operations. The net result is more time with his family.
"I look for trends all the time, and fajitas are hot right now," he said. "So for me to roll out a chicken fajita pizza using those strips was simple. That allows us to do things no one else in town is doing ... and I get to see my kids' soccer games, too."
Panelists agreed that a great menu is only as good as the staff that serves it. But finding good employees who like serving customers is an ongoing challenge, said Jeff Aufdencamp, co-owner of Mama Mimi's Take 'N Bake Pizza in Columbus.
"If they don't naturally have the right attitude and aren't friendly, then I can't use them," Aufdencamp said. "Making pizzas is pretty easy, really, so I don't worry about teaching that. I can't teach them to be nice to people, though. That has to come naturally or they're not right for this business."
Delivery driver unions
Two pizza operators and two representatives of the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers debated the need for a delivery drivers union.
J.W. Callahan, president of APDD, said drivers like him are frustrated by low automobile reimbursement rates, dangerous working conditions and a lack of health insurance. He said the situation leaves drivers no recourse other than unionizing in order to force operators to improve the situation.
Panelist Sean Brauser, owner of Romeo's Pizza in Medina, Ohio, said his drivers are compensated $1 per run and that their tips more than make up for auto expenses incurred on the job. He also said that providing drivers health insurance would be too costly for owners of independent pizzerias; many in the audience agreed with him.
When Brauser asked Callahan to define the single-most pressing demand for drivers, Callahan said it was mileage reimbursements.
Ed LaDou (owner of Caioti Pizza Cafe) listened to Tom Potter (managing director of Eagle Boys Pizza) during the Pizza Makers panel.
Callahan cited the Internal Revenue Service's standard of 40 cents per mile as a good starting point; the American Automobile Club's suggested 60 cents per mile would be better, he added.
"No other employee of a pizzeria has to use his personal vehicle to do his job," said Callahan. "We want to be compensated fairly for that, but we're not."
Callahan suggested that a union also would boost driver professionalism, which in turn would make pizza operations more productive. Brauser doubted his claim.
"At Romeo's, all our people, including our drivers, are cross-trained to do many different jobs, but if a union comes in and says drivers are only responsible for delivery, then how is that more productive?" he said.
Callahan replied, "I understand that. What I'm saying is that drivers who are treated well will perform well. That means they'll be more efficient on the job ... because they'll be more experienced."
Whether an operation centers on ice cream or pizza — or both — product diversification is extremely important, according to members of the business expansion panel.
Panelist Dan Young said that adding new dining components, such as two restaurants, to his one-time ice cream-only business made sense in the past. But when he approached his partners (made up of his family) about adding a miniature golf course to Young's Dairy, the reception was a bit cool.
"Convincing the family and the bankers that we needed to spend $250,000 on that took some work," said Young, whose business is in Yellow Springs, Ohio. "We needed a new way to draw customers out to the country, and I believed it would work."
Today, the Udders and Putters arm of Young's business is its most profitable, and that led the company to add a driving rage for the big swingers. The next addition for Young's is a coffee café.
"We try to watch trends, too, and coffee is certainly a strong one," said Young. "What we plan to do is make it a separate part of the operation. We know we can't serve premium coffee at higher prices over the same counter where we've served it (inexpensively) for years."
Despite the steady stream of teens and children to his Choo Choo Charlie's game-and-pizza concept in Dubuque, Iowa, owner Paul Conner knew menu offerings for kids' parents were lacking. The solution was branch out with a sandwich, salad and pasta concept.
"We hear people say it all the time, 'Choo Choo Charlie's is for kids.' Well, I didn't want to miss out on an opportunity to serve grownups," said Conner. The new restaurant, named Rhino's, is joined by an open doorway to Choo Choo Charlie's. The menu's strong suit is premium burgers, and it shares many ingredients with its sister concept's menu. "When we opened Rhino's, we made the claim that we had the best burger in the Tri-States. We wanted to make the statement that what we were doing was different from Choo Choo Charlie's, and at the same time, say, 'Ours is the best,' while we had everyone's attention."
Sheer creativity and menu diversity aren't the only business drivers behind Jeni's Fresh Ice Creams in Columbus.
Paul Conner, owner of Choo Choo Charlies Pizza, talked about adding a burger, pasta and salad concept, named Rhino's, in order to attract more adult cutomers.
"Our shop is pretty small, and because we sell our ice creams at a premium price, there's only so much our customers will buy," said Britton. "It's definitely helped our business a lot to sell ice creams to restaurants. It also builds our name recognition."
Ever the experimentalist, Britton continually rolls out new flavors to keep her customers interested. Some of her more unique, handmade offerings include Thai chile and salty caramel ice creams, and double chocolate Zinfandel gelato.
"We're not the usual ice cream place where you see a lot of vanilla and chocolate sales," she said. "Our customers expect something different and they're willing to pay for it."
Pizza Pizzazz results
Jason Samosky (Samosky's Homestyle Pizzeria, Valley City, Ohio) and Tim Duffey (DeFelice Brothers Pizza, Shadyside, Ohio) out-baked 82 opponents — some of whom came from as far away as Alaska and Texas — in the annual North America Pizza Pizzazz competition.
Samosky's Philly-cheese Steak pizza took top honors in the gourmet division, while Duffey's "DeFelice Special" was the winner in the traditional pizza division.
Both won expenses-paid trips to Italy, where they will compete as members of the U.S. Pizza Team at this month's World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore.
On each of two days, a panel of 25 judges critiqued each pizza on appearance, marketability and taste.
"Pizza operators who've been in the competition in the past came up to me and told me this was the best-run competition we've ever had here," said chairwoman Reichle. "The quality improved, the rules were being strictly adhered to and they felt really good about this competition."
Second prize and $400 in the gourmet category went to Julie Meredith (Bova's Pizza & Subs, Florence, Ky.) for her Ranchero Delight. Third place and $200 went to Alison Winstel (Bridge Street Pizza, Dublin, Ohio) for her Chicken Primavera.
Second place and $400 in the traditional category went to Don Schmitt (Bexley Pizza Plus, Bexley, Ohio) for his Ultimate, and third place and $200 went to 2003 Pizza Pizzazz champion Jack Atlas (Gahanna Pizza Plus, Gahanna, Ohio) for his Mega Meat pie.