BRISBANE, Australia — Ever watched a game of Australian-rules football? If you've never seen a contest, just imagine a blend of soccer, rugby and the American backyard game of "kill the man with the ball," and you'll get the general idea.
The game requires immense talent, toughness and stamina, which is a lot like running a shop in the Australian pizza market. Pizza, however, is no game here; just like home, the battle for market share is ferocious.
Though a detailed overview of the Australian market will follow in the next few days, I did want to note
Steve Coomes, senior editor
Greatest surprise: The variety of themed pizza toppings combos (six per pie isn't unusual) is dizzying, yet impressive. What U.S. operators might call a specialty pizza menu is de rigueur for the top chains, whose menus offer 10 to 15 such pies. Additionally, whether you get one topping or seven, the price is nearly always the same, though sometimes chicken will cost extra.
One night at a pizzeria near our hotel, my wife tried to order a basic cheese pizza for our son. Not only was the order taker caught off guard, the pizza arrived bearing olives and ham (which, by the way, is Australia's top topping).
Best pizza: The Herbivore at the Manta Ray Café on Hamilton Island (a popular sailing resort where we rested two days). On it was finely diced roasted pumpkin, rosemary, zucchini, caramelized onions, mozzarella and a sauce of tomato chutney. It was superb in all aspects except one: While the pizza was baked in a wood-fired oven, it was baked on a screen, not the stone deck. Go figure. The pie may as well have passed through the conveyor oven next to it, which was used for other menu items.
The world's best fries: Yes, I know this isn't a pizza comment, but this country makes the best fries ("chips," they call them) I've ever had. They're served fresh, screaming hot and from clean oil.
The world's most boring salads: Imagine a mound of greens without either iceberg, Romaine, spinach or baby lettuces, and tossed in a dressing with one-third the flavor of plain yogurt. In a country where fresh produce is so abundant, this is baffling.
Most advanced: Eagle Boys Pizza's Two-Minute system. At least two chains, Domino's Pizza and Eagle Boys, employ a system of baking pizzas ahead of time and holding them in heated cabinets for rapid pick up. However, Eagle Boys' is the only company I'm aware of that has such a thoroughly developed system. It breaks down as such:
* Customers choose from a limited menu of four pizzas, make a purchase and are out the door in 2 minutes — or the order is free.
* Unique to Eagle Boys' heated cabinets is a timer system. When a fresh pizza goes in the cabinet, a timer proximal to that shelf is started. Over the next 30 minutes a light on the timer will register green, orange or red. Green means optimal, orange means acceptable and red means "chuck it."
Delivery: Opposite of the States, delivery makes up a much smaller percentage of sales than carryout. Carryout prices are at least $2 cheaper, which steers customers away from delivery.
Also, delivery drivers earn few, if any, tips, since tipping isn't customary in Australia. As a result, drivers earn a combined hourly and per-run reimbursement rate that averages out to about $10 to $11 U.S.
Neatest operational trick: Chilling the flour. Properly retarded dough starts with cold ingredients, but most commonly that means cold water. Here, where the climate renders tap water more hot than cold, it's simpler to chill the flour overnight in the walk-in rather than finding ways to chill the tap water.
* Sodas here are mixed with cane sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup as in the U.S. The taste difference is noticeably fresher and lighter (i.e. less coating on the palate), though no less caloric.
Drinks sold at carryout pizza counters are large, typically a liter or two. Twelve-ounce cans aren't common.
* Water: Despite the ongoing drought in the state of Queensland (where I traveled), the bathroom showers here deliver a delightful high-pressure, miniature monsoon. Ask for water in a restaurant, however, and you'd think it was being rationed. When brought to the table, the glass is usually half full and servers are slow to give refills. Some servers will bring a large bottle of tap water to the table for self-service, which suited me just fine.
* Fave new drink: Absolut Kurant and "lemonade." I've written lemonade in quotes because what we call 7-Up or Sprite back home is lemonade here. (When I told a bartender how lemonade is made at home, he was baffled.) Mix the two libations over ice and finish with a squeeze of lime for a very refreshing and long-sipping cocktail. It was all the rage on Hamilton Island.
I've traveled to several countries, but not nearly everywhere, so take the following statement within that context:
The Australians are arguably the most hospitable people I've ever met. It seems they can't do enough to be cordial, cheerful and flat-out comforting to weary, nervous and confused tourists. Even a counter worker at a McDonald's — not known for its congenial service — picked up on my accent, asked where I was from, whether I was enjoying my stay and smiled genuinely throughout our 6 a.m. transaction. (If only the Aussies seasoned their breakfast sausage with sage and pepper rather than nutmeg ... but I digress.) Though facing at least a dozen customers and answering the phone at the same time, a counter worker at a Domino's Pizza unit never lost his smile or changed his tone of voice during a recent Friday night rush. He was completely cool and composed.
A contact of mine here has traveled extensively throughout the States and the world, and he assured me there are plenty of rude and slothful types in the Australian hospitality system. However, in two weeks, I encountered just a mere few.
Now, it's fair to say that being happy and hospitable doesn't guarantee the service here is as prompt and accurate as that back home. The U.S. gets the nod in that department. But in my opinion, real kindness covers a multitude of mistakes, and U.S. servers and counter workers would do well to mirror the Aussies in this category (and vice versa).