Pizza delivery driver J.W. Callahan works by this motto: Better presentation. Better tips.
Callahan, a 15-year delivery veteran and president of the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers, claims that customers who see a cloud of steam escape upon opening his vinyl delivery bag tend to reward him well.
"I like to see the expression on my customers' faces when the steam comes pouring out," said Callahan, who lives in Warner Robbins, Ga. He said he gets that effect from vinyl bags costing $20 each.
But Callahan's love of low-tech delivery bags puts him well off the trend toward use of high-tech heated bags, vessels engineered to allow that show-stopping steam to escape and keep the pizza piping hot and dry.
If it's steamy, it's soggy, said Bob Check, owner of Troy, Mich.-based Check Corporation, a manufacturer of heated delivery bags. Driver tips, he believes, come from pizza that's delivered hot, not in a cloud of moisture.
"When it cools down, that means there's moisture in there," said Check. "If you've got a bag that keeps the pizza approximately the temperature it is when it comes out of the oven, then you've got no moisture in there."
Check said the idea for his company's heated bags came from products he manufactures for automotive seat heaters. Lightweight electrical elements run between layers of insulated fabric and distribute heat across the top and bottom of the bag.
"It's very durable," he said. "You can turn the bag inside out to clean it. You can ball it up, sit on it -- drive over it if you want. It's a tough product."
And somewhat expensive as well. The average Check Corporation bag costs $79.95, but they're typically sold in "systems," meaning six to 12 bags that require a holding rack plus power units that heat up the bags. A six-bag set-up costs $1,259, and a 12-bag system runs $1,834 -- and this isn't the market ceiling.
Typically, to outfit one store with a magnetic induction-heated bag system manufactured by Chicago-based CookTek, the price is $3,500. More expensive still is Vesture Corporation's system for high-volume stores, which will set an owner back $5,500.
Vesture Corp's induction bag "recharger."
Big bucks, no doubt, but bucks well spent, say some operators.
Liz Hodge, head of purchasing, for Johnny's Pizza House, a 26-store chain based in Monroe, La., said her company wouldn't deliver without heated bags.
"They've been worth the investment for sure," Hodge said. "We've used a lot of bags we didn't like, but we've used the heck out of these."
Barry Kennedy, a franchisee of Buck's Pizza in Mocksville, N.C., only uses his heated bags to hold pizzas in the store after they're baked and cut. Once inside the bag, he said they'll remain at optimum quality for 30 minutes.
"But you've got to be careful after that, though, because those bags will cook it," said Kennedy, who uses cloth bags for delivery. "I mostly use them to hold pizzas for the carryout customer who says she'll be there in 20 minutes but isn't there that fast."
Designs behind heated delivery bags run the gamut from simple to scientific.
Similarities between products are generally limited to their use of fabrics that allow steam to escape. How heat is delivered and retained differs with every bag.
CookTek's bag has no cord tethering it to a charger; contained in the bottom of the bag is a metal-alloy plate that generates heat when the bag is placed atop a magnetic-induction charger.
According to CookTek marketing director Tricia Cleary, once the metal-alloy plate reaches a predetermined temperature, it becomes non-magnetic and won't get any hotter. An initial charge of the bag takes two minutes, and half that much for a recharge.
That a CookTek bag lists at $119 and a charger costs $599 sounds expensive, but Cleary said buying a charger for every bag is neither necessary nor recommended. "A normal configuration of our system in a busy store is two chargers for 20 to 25 bags. Our bags don't need to be on the charger all the time."
Vesture Corporation sells both high-end and low-end systems. One uses a single induction-heated disc in the bottom of the bag, while a more expensive model adds a second disc that's electronically heated in the top of the bag.
"That system can deliver a pizza 15 degrees hotter than a non-heated bag, and that's what we hear operators telling us they want," said Byron Owens, co-founder of Vesture. The high-end model, he added, has green and red lights that indicate whether the bag is fully heated and maintaining temperature. "It'll flash green until the point that the temperature has fallen below a certain set point."
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According to Check, once his company's bags are removed from the in-store charger, they're plugged into the cigarette lighter in the driver's car. Under those conditions, he said the bags can maintain a desired temperature for several hours.
"When we demonstrate our bags at Pizza Expos, we'll put a pizza inside a bag at 9:30 in the morning and leave a thermometer inserted to show that it stays hot for the duration of the show, which is about five hours," said Check.
A newcomer to the heated bag fray is manufacturer SweetHeat Technology, based in Bolsover, England. Founder Chris Hill said the heating elements in his company's bags lie between a layer of foam insulation and what he calls a revolutionary exterior fabric.
Just a year old, the company's current UK customers include several Domino's Pizza franchisees, some PizzaExpress outlets and several Safeway grocery stores. That chain began delivering stone-oven baked pizzas from its grocery stores throughout Central London earlier this year.
"We're hoping to expand to the U.S. next year and start making bags there," said Hill. The high U.S. import tariff, he said, made it cost prohibitive to ship the bags from England. "We really hope to introduce it at the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas."
SweetHeat bags also plug into car cigarette lighters, which Hill said allows them to hold an internal temperature of 190 F for hours.
He admitted that such time and temperature performance is overkill, but he pointed out that the British government has warned it will begin enforcing temperature standards for food delivered in the UK.
"Having a bag that can keep it that hot lets (operators) know that we're addressing the fact that (the government) will enforce this soon," said Hill, who estimates that a SweetHeat system, including 10 bags and rechargers will cost about $2,500 once they're made and sold in the U.S. "What this does is allow a company to extend its delivery area and still provide a really good and safe pizza to its customers. Bags that aren't heated won't do that."
Is simpler better?
David Schafer, president of Aurora, Ill.-based Bag Solutions, believes pizza delivery operations don't require bells-and-whistles bags, only good delivery systems.
"Let's face it, if a pie isn't delivered in 20 minutes, it's late no matter what bag you've got it in," said Schafer, whose company manufactures non-heated bags. "My competition has made this more a thing than it is. ... If they'd cut all the technical language out, they wouldn't be able to justify selling those kinds of bags."
Bag Solutions' Web site prices two bags for $16 (the lowest in the industry, it claims), plus shipping costs. Schafer said he can sell his bags for so little because they're made in Asia, where work quality is high and labor costs are a fraction of that in the U.S. or Mexico.
Bag Solutions pizza bag.
Schafer said the bags are made of a urethane-coated nylon weave that retains heat and releases moisture, and that any decent delivery driver using them will have more than enough time to get a pizza to a customer before it cools off.
"When we tested our bag this past summer," Schafer began, "the pie came out of the oven at 185 F, and our worst loss (in the bag) was one degree a minute. And that was a thin crust pie in a car with the air conditioning blowing on the bag."
Howard Pruitt, vice president of operations for 33-store Austin, Texas-based DoubleDave's Pizzaworks, uses Bag Solutions bags, and said they're more than sufficient for his company's needs.
"If you get your pies to customers quick enough, you don't have to have a crutch like a heated bag," said Pruitt. "And if we had issues with heat and moisture, we'd look at our drivers and kitchen to try to find out why we're not getting the pies to the door fast enough."
Pruitt said that when he compared the cost of Bag Solutions' bags to others on the market, he couldn't help but be curious about the product. DoubleDave's made a systemwide shift to Bag Solutions more than a year ago.
"It's amazing the quality you get for the price," said Pruitt. "I believe that if you find a good deal, you stick with it. There's no question it's a good value."
Paul Melotte, a Little Caesars franchisee in Spartanburg, S.C., doesn't deliver, but he uses Bag Solutions bags to hold his pizzas when they come out of the oven.
Price, he said, motivated him to consider the bags, but their quality sold him.
"A lot of bags are closed with Velcro, which eventually wears out," Melotte said. "But (Schafer's) bags close by zippers. That keeps them closed all the time, unlike Velcro, which leaks (heat) because it isn't totally sealed."
Could any of these systems please Callahan, the career delivery driver and lover of low-tech bags?
"I cannot tell you how much I hate heater core bags," Callahan wrote in an e-mail. "I wish I had a dollar for every time I've accidentally hit something or someone with a dangling cord from a heated bag ... .
"(Cloth bags) ... slide all the way across the back seat if you aren't excessively careful. A panic stop with a cloth bag in the front seat means the pie is in the floorboard. ..."