The "Big 3" pizza companies are reporting positive numbers for 2004. Does this signal a pizza-industry resurgence?
Exhibitors and attendees of the 2004 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas believe it does.
"Is this an up-tick? Well, yeah!" said Lester Nowosad, director of key accounts for Elgin, Ill.-based Middleby Marshall. "I can tell you that Middleby's sales are already up 10 percent over previous years, and after speaking to people from regional and national chains, we're expecting even greater growth for the rest of the year."
Though official attendance figures haven't been released, some estimated the crowd during the March 16-18 event at about equal to last year's event, which drew some 5,000 pizza operators.
Nowosad said he had no idea how many came because he was too busy inside his company's booth to look onto the show floor.
"Our booth was so continuously swamped that I couldn't even gauge what the aisles were like," he said. "For us, it's a very heavy selling show; we write a lot of orders on the show floor. The vast majority of our orders at Expo are from independents who've been shopping around, and this is an opportunity
Exhibitors viewed the packed show floor as evidence that operators are buying again as the pizza industry rebounds from the recession.
Burke Corp. marketing manager Liz Hertz called the show traffic "comparable to previous years," but said that, unlike Middleby Marshall, the Nevada, Iowa, pizza toppings manufacturer doesn't make a lot of sales at the Expo.
"What we do most at the show is really a combination of three things: seeing current customers, prospects we've been working with and meeting new people who are not aware of our products," said Hertz. "We had good results in all those areas."
Toppings on display for tasting included the company's new andouille sausage crumble, sliced andouille and its increasingly popular chorizo crumble. Those and other specialty toppings, Hertz said, are of particular interest to operators wanting to broaden their menus or consider new dishes.
"The people who do come to shows like these are here because they want to learn and find out what's going on," she said. "Its seems that this is not really a buying show, it's more of a learning show. People come because they want to learn more from their current suppliers and also learn what others are doing."
Though a meat toppings company typically isn't considered a low-carb resource, Hertz said, Burke produced some handouts for the show detailing the influence of pizza toppings on the overall carbohydrate count of a pizza.
"In many toppings you find things that aren't always proteins, such as soy extenders or breadcrumbs in meatballs," she said. "What they add in terms of carbs is a very small amount, but you still have to talk about it."
Curious about the taste and texture of some of the low-carb crusts exhibited at the Expo, Hertz stepped away from the Burke booth to check them out. Her reaction was neither gleeful nor glum.
"They really weren't bad; one was kind of tough," she said of two she tried. "They really take away all the things we like
Ronald Parker, president and CEO of Pizza Inn, spoke with an attendee following his Power Breakfast address on March 17.
Marvel Maps marketing associate Zephyr Sherwin said Expo attendees were more receptive this year to learning about the company's print and electronic delivery map products than in recent years, when the recession tightened budgets.
"Lots of people who could use our products were there ... people who have five or more stores and could implement our system in multiple stores," said Sherwin, whose company is in Norwich, Vt. Watching traffic at other exhibitors' booths indicated to her that the pizza industry is on a true rebound. "I did see some exhibitors who, in a more depressed economy, were not getting much traffic, but this time they were swamped. ... I also heard from a lot of them that they had a great show."
Steve McPherson, a buyer for Jack Palmer Foodservice, Shelbyville, Tenn., admitted he isn't the typical pizza seminar attendee. But he said he attended some seminars to learn more about helping Palmer's pizza customers.
"I have 300 customers out there trying to make a living, and most of them don't have the luxury of being here this week," McPherson said. "Our customers are independents, so we try to help the little guys compete with the big guys."
In a seminar led by Bill Marvin, McPherson said he learned the importance of differentiating one's business from a competitor's by making meaningful contacts.
Pizza maker Nick Tedesco added a little flair to his presentation during the Pizza Festiva contest.
Sean Brauser, owner of Romeo's Pizza in Medina, Ohio, sat in on an e-mail marketing seminar he found helpful.
"I thought it was awesome because it talked more about how to get it started, how to put your database in Excel and how to manage your list," Brauser said. "It wasn't some pie-in-the-sky thing, (presenter Joel Cohen) taught how to get it going from scratch."
Scott Anthony, a one-store Fox's Pizza franchisee in Punxsutawney, Pa., said the wide choice of seminars was a little overwhelming.
"If I compared NAPICS (North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show) and Vegas, I'd say that though NAPICS was a smaller show, I liked the seminars better because they were more focused and longer," Anthony said. "You really could sit and take a lot of notes and get a lot more out of them. It also seemed like there were so many of the same seminars talking about the same things at the Expo." (Read related NAPICS stories: First-ever North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show draws 4,000 attendees and North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show serves up strong slate of speakers, panels)
Tom Bowyer, owner of Gotti's Grinders in Chesapeake, Va., said he spent most of his time meeting with suppliers and networking with attendees.
Blue Bunny displayed its line of low-carb sweet treats.
Bowyer, a former retail merchandising executive, said he'd have found the seminars more attractive if they were centered more on teaching pizzeria operation basics.
"Having consultant-type people up there speaking--people who aren't even in the business--instead of hands-on operators teaching others how to solve real issues, that's not what it's about," he said. "To be more valuable to these people, the seminars need to be about the nuts-and-bolts of the business itself. They need to know more about that than marketing at this stage."