A sign outside Vince Staten's Barbecue restaurant in Louisville, Ky., reads: "Ribs Delivered." Near Staten's place are two pizza shops owned by Domino's Pizza and Papa John's. It looks like the barbecue master is learning a thing or two from his foodservice peers.
Working the flipside is nothing new for Luke Bailey, owner of The Pizza Company in Davison, Mich.
"We've sold ribs with our pizza for at least six years," said Bailey. "People don't normally think of ribs and pizza, but we saw it as a natural way to extend the menu and give them another option."
Rib production is simple, Bailey said: sauce, heat and serve. No long nights tending a hickory fire, no cryptic recipes for dry rubs. Just like pizza baking, however, product management for proper freshness is essential.
"You don't want to cook them and have them sit on top of the oven for 25 minutes waiting for the pizza to cook," he said. "All that does is dry them out. If we're going to do something different, it's got to be something we can do well."
Unlike pizza, ribs come with a much higher food cost, he said, but that shouldn't scare operators away from offering them.
"I might run a 45 percent food cost, but I look at the contribution to the bottom line, which is substantial," Bailey said. "At my price, if I can sell 100 slabs a week, that's $775 to the bottom line."
Quick, easy, profitable
Looking to broaden its own product line, Roma/Vistar Brands studied menus of operations like The Pizza Company to uncover some trends. To the company's pleasant surprise, ribs were on the menu at several pizza places, which made Roma/Vistar wonder if the traditionally Southern pork product had untapped potential. After a great deal of testing, Vistar developed a complete rib lineup that it has branded under the Roma name.
"When we first started the project, we looked at the differences and similarities ribs had with chicken wings," said CeCe Kramer, merchandise manager of protein at Denver-based Roma/Vistar. "When we considered the growth in sales of chicken wings in the last five years, we saw similar potential for ribs."
Specifically, appetizer-size ribs, such as rib tips and two-bone ribs cut from the spare rib. Vistar wanted to make production as simple as possible, and designed a fully cooked product that, like chicken wings, required only heating and saucing.
"We tested them in deck ovens, impingement ovens, with sauce, without sauce — every way we could think of," said Kramer. Microwaving, she added, was not a good option. "As we rolled this program out, we made sure we rolled out a whole turnkey program for our division, including scripting out a 'Rib 101' book" and marketing materials.
Though Bailey sells plenty of full- and half-slab rib dinners, he said appetizer portions bundled with other munchies sell well, too.
"During the NBA tournament, we've sold a Snack Pack that has 12 breadsticks, 12 wings and 12 ribs for $18.99," he said. "(Ribs) are great party food."