LAS VEGAS -- Neither a burgeoning war with Iraq nor concerns about air travel slowed the flow of one of the largest crowds to the Las Vegas Convention Center for the 2003 International Pizza Expo, held March 24-27.

According to show organizers, 5,100 attendees and 4,100 exhibiting personnel manning 950 booths turned out for 19th edition of the tradeshow.

Some regarded the strong turnout as a measure of the pizza industry's strength.

"I think it's great news for pizza," said Larry Getzoff, owner of Beach Pizza, a three-store operation with units in California and Nevada. "I think it shows that everybody's doing pretty well, even in this economy."

"Business is way up over last year for us," said Richard Dunfield, a sales representative for Roto-Flex Ovens in San Antonio, Texas. "If business is bad, it hasn't hit us."

Indeed, the exhibit hall aisles were crowded throughout most of the three-day event, as attendees moved between morning and afternoon seminars and the show floor.

Several new products were unveiled at the show, including two phone order speech-recognition systems from NSC Corporation and a partnership between Jacent Technologies and Breakaway International.

Via Jacent's OrderStream technology, callers to restaurants using Arlington, Texas-based a Breakaway POS system can place phone orders

pizzaConnects unveiled and demonstrated its new Web site templates for pizza operations.

without the assistance of an employee. Orders then are delivered to the store's POS system automatically.

According to Shawn Cunningham, vice president of marketing with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Jacent, the system will include Spanish speech recognition by year's end.

Chicago-based NSC's AIVIA system, which is due for a commercial introduction sometime in April, also eliminates the need for human assistance by using speech recognition and interactive voice technology. Its speech interrupt feature allows phone customers to "barge in" to a recorded a store's message or prompt to speed up the ordering process.

NSC also said AIVIA will recognize Spanish speech by the end of the year.

Danville, Calif.-based Web site developer pizzaConnects auditioned its new Web site product that allows techno-phobic operators to gain an Internet presence quickly and affordably.

"For $20 a month, no start-up fee and no long-term contract, you can be on the Web in minutes, literally," said Steve Payne, managing partner for pizzaConnects. "This is geared for people who almost hate computers."

By choosing one of several Web templates, operators simply enter information from their menus, update and delete items as needed, and add or subtract special offers. Users are encouraged to provide e-mail addresses, allowing operators to target promotions.

"We're trying to put all the strength of a dynamic database that big companies pay a high dollar for, into the hands of a little pizzeria owner at a price he can afford," Payne said. "In a sense, he becomes his own Web master."

Food producer ADM served up pizza slices topped with its line of new soy-based, meat-free toppings. Representatives of the Decatur, Ill.-based manufacturer said growing requests for high-protein vegetarian offerings and rising obesity concerns led the company to develop its Meatless Italian Line.

"These are brand-new products: soy-based sausage and soy-based pepperoni," said Mark Merryfield, business manager for ADM. "They have zero cholesterol, zero fat, a third of the sodium and calories of regular toppings, plus more protein."

Merryfield said the products' high protein content also exceeds government standards for school nutrition.

Nation's Packaging's Quick Ease gloves.

"It's more healthful than a meat topping," he said. "You've got a vegetarian pizza with a topping that tastes like meat, and that adds protein, but not fat."

Nation's Packaging's Ron Blitzer demonstrated his company's clever and newly developed Quick Ease sanitary glove system. The plastic foodservice grade gloves slip on without the user's hands touching the gloves' exterior.

"This is a patented, safer, easier way to put on and wear gloves," said Blitzer, owner of Nation's Packaging. "Not only does this put the gloves on about 10 times faster than conventional gloves, there's no contamination because you never have to touch the outside."

It's still about pizza

At the rear of the exhibition hall was a reminder of the show's raison d'être: seminars and a contest all centered on pizza.

The Expo's annual Pizza Festiva saw pizza makers -- representing five categories: Exotic, Winged, Traditional, Vegetarian, Seafood -- compete for Pizza of the Year. Daniel Bothman from LaFiamma Wood-Fire Pizza in Bellingham, Wash., took top honors with his Finn Pizza. The seafood category finalist combined basil pesto, shrimp, artichoke hearts and a blend of mozzarella, provolone and Asiago cheeses.

In addition to his all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas, Bothman won a $1,000 prize from the contest's sponsor, the California Milk Advisory Board. (CMAB also is sending all five finalists, with all expenses paid, to the Practical Pizza Production Technology seminar at the American Institute of Baking, in Manhattan, Kan., in October. [See related story "Pizza School.")

Other finalists included:

* Exotic: Mike's Spaghetti Pizza, made by Bob Katerzynske, from The Pizza Factory in Princeton, Wis.
* Traditional: Bolognese Pizza, made by Fred Manion, from the Pizza Express in Bloomington, Ind.
* Vegetarian: Potato Gorgonzola Truffle Pizza, made by Bob Knudson, from Casa Mia in Olympia, Wash.
* Winged finalist: Thai Pie Pizza, made by Anna Wallaker, from Bistro 151 in Nellysford, Va.

Pizza Today contributing columnist Pat Bruno held an open question-answer and pizza-making demonstration for operators interested in new ideas.

Pat Bruno and Jeffrey Freehof dispensed quick tips and quips for attendees during a pizza Q&A.

"Don't ever be afraid to think outside the box with pizza," said Bruno, who also is the food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Yeah, pepperoni is the most popular, but there's so much more you can do, and people will want to try it."

Bruno talked about a Mexican breakfast pizza he developed using salsa instead of pizza sauce, chorizo sausage, refried beans, scrambled eggs and cheese. Once baked, the pizza is garnished with cilantro.

The huevos rancheros variation, he said, won him a marriage proposition from one admirer.

"A Mexican woman that tried it said she wanted to marry me," said Bruno. "I was flattered, but I had to tell her I was already married."

Bruno dispensed some quick tips and quips about gourmet pizzas:

* Take care in using fresh mozzarella because of its high moisture content. "Take the ball and dice it (1/3-inch dice) and sprinkle it over the pizza evenly, but not too thick," he said. "If you do it too thick, the moisture run off could make it sloppy."

* Variations on the classics are good, but test them first. Case in point: Pizza Margherita. "I tried a Margherita recently that used basil pesto instead of fresh basil. 'Neat twist,' I thought. But whoever made the pizza used way too much pesto, and that stuff's strong. Go light with it."

* While assisting Bruno, past Pizza Festiva champion Jeffrey Freehof, discussed his Thanksgiving Pizza: "I know it sounds weird, but it's really good," said Freehoff, owner of two Jeffrey's Pizza & Gourmet stores in North Attleboro, Mass.

To make the pizza, Freehof grinds the seasonings from a box of Stove Top Stuffing in a food processor and adds some to his dough recipe. Atop a dough skin, he spreads pureed jellied cranberry sauce, followed by diced turkey, cranberry-raisins, diced cooked sweet potatoes and caramelized onions (all of which are first tossed in garlic, butter and sage).

* BBQ Pit Pizza: Freehof suggested this idea could be accomplished by adding corn meal and sugar to a standard dough recipe. The dough then would be topped with pulled pork, barbeque sauce, baked beans, caramelized onions and bacon as a garnish.

* Fully cooked or raw meat toppings: Bruno said that the combination of safety advantages and flavor and texture advances in fully cooked meat and seafood toppings has convinced him they're a great choice for operators. Ever the storyteller, Bruno weaved in some recent news about a famous food poisoning to make his point.

The night before the recent final round of the Bay Hill Invitational golf tournament, Tiger Woods' long-term girlfriend Elin Nordegren fixed the golfer a pasta dinner -- which made both very sick. Though Woods not only played the final round and won the tournament, he vomited several times on the course. Nordegren collapsed on the course and was taken to a hospital.

"He should have dropped that broad right away," Bruno said, laughing. "The point is that you've got to be careful about how you're handling your pizza. These toppings are a matter of health."

Eat and learn

Two Power Breakfasts held during the show saw two pizza chain veterans share their many lessons learned about the industry.

Jim Grote, founder and executive chairman of Columbus, Ohio-based Donatos Pizzeria, shared how he founded the company 40 years ago, and compared that experience to running it now under McDonald's ownership.

Jim Grote, founder and executive chairman of Donatos Pizzeria.

"Selling your own pizza business is like letting one of your children go," said Grote, who sold the company in 1999 for an undisclosed amount. "I knew I could only take it so far myself, and in getting there, we'd accumulated a lot of debt.

"So when McDonald's -- the largest foodservice company in the world -- approached us about selling, what better could happen?"

Grote said McDonald's has kept its word about not changing his product, and that it has provided the company with resources he'd never had before.

When McDonald's approached him about using focus groups for product testing, Grote admitted he'd never even considered them.

Listening to test subjects' remarks, he said, was tough.

"I'm sitting there on the other side of the screen listening to what they're saying, and I wanted to beat on (the screen)," he said. "But what they said made some sense. They wanted a greater breadth of menu" and more service options, now evident, he said, in Donatos new Pizzeria format.

Grote acknowledged that 2002 was a tough year for Donatos; it closed 36 stores, 23 of which in one fell swoop in Atlanta. When asked about what McDonald's plans to do to help Donatos grow beyond its current 181 stores, he was vague.

"We're in an incubation stage, and I don't know how long we'll be here," he said, adding that the company wants to add to its three stores in Germany. "Right now we're looking to grow in continuous improvement."

The following morning, Louisville, Ky.-based Pizza Magia president Dan Holland skipped the more

Dan Holland, president of Pizza Magia.

traditional speech and engaged attendees in an energetic and candid question-and-answer session.

Holland, who has worked in the pizza industry since 1971, also served as president of Papa John's, also based in Louisville, from 1989 to 1995. During his career, Holland said consumers have changed as much as the industry.

"We face a very sophisticated customer today who knows he has a choice," said Holland.

In the '70s and '80s, he said, industry pioneers, Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza and Little Caesars, all set standards within their own niches: dining, delivery and value price, respectively. Today, however, the customer wants every pizza operation to be an amalgam of those three.

The most profitable opportunities in the industry, he said, are franchises with proven business models and products, operations that fit within a 1,200-1,500 square-foot facility and offer delivery and carryout only.

Operators also need to be well capitalized, he said, to promote their operations heavily after opening.

"You could have advertising expenses as high as 15 percent (of sales) in the beginning," he said. But as the market matures and exposure increases with time, "you can lower that to about 7 percent."

Despite what many believe is a saturated pizza market, Holland said the southern U.S. will fuel his 40-store company's growth for at least the next five years. "We expect to double in size this year, and then potentially double again next year. Right now we're running double-digit comps in our stores."

Will that growth necessitate adding a commissary to the one it currently uses? Holland said not anytime soon. Its current $2 million facility is for dough only, and the company's increased use of frozen dough for its more remote stores has kept demand on the current commissary manageable. "But we will eventually do another one, probably in Atlanta or the Carolinas."

Asked whether delivery charges were a good idea, Holland said not for his company.

"My personal feeling is that if you need to get that extra dollar from the customer, it should be reflected in the price," he said. Larger chains, he said, have reported mixed results with delivery charges, which leads him to believe it's not for Pizza Magia. "I know it could help some, but I'm not willing to be a pioneer here."

When asked about Pizza Magia's ongoing trademark violation lawsuit, which was filed by Papa John's in 2000, Holland said it was a distraction, but not a deadly one for the company.

"Of course, I can't share any details about that, but I believe it will be resolved sometime this year," he said. The litigation "will not pull us out of the business."

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