Twice in two weeks, two different cooks at two different Tony Boombozz Pizza and Panini stores forgot to add yeast to the company's dough recipe.
That was two mistakes too many for owner Tony Palombino.
"At that point, I knew I had to have an alternative," said Palombino, whose three-store company is in Louisville, Ky.
About a year ago, Palombino started buying frozen pizza dough made from his recipe. The decision to change, he said, was a tough one, but wrestling with ever-present and daunting dough inconsistencies became too much.
"Mostly we were having problems at the proofing stage and sometimes at the mixing stage," he said. "And there were always different problems in each location."
Palombino's custom-made dough is delivered every other week by his distributor, SoFo Foods. Not only have the inconsistency problems disappeared, his food cost rose only a cent-and-a-half per dough ball.
"Essentially, it's a wash," said Palombino. "When we made the change, my employees were so happy they about gave me a big kiss."
Subtracting the headache of dough preparation is an increasingly popular option for new operators especially, said Tom Lehman, director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan. He said frozen dough provides new operations a means to start quickly, and it minimizes capital investment by eliminating the need for expensive dough prep equipment.
"In this industry we've got a lot of what I affectionately call 'newbies' coming in," Lehmann said. "They sense a lot of what goes into making scratch dough is black magic and voodoo, and they think there's got to be a better way. So they choose frozen dough because all the work is taken out of it."
Lehmann said the enormous amount of information on dough preparation available also fuels fears of entry-level operators. They visit Internet chat rooms full of pizza long-timers discussing their own dough dilemmas, and they assume they'll struggle, too.
"They're reading that thinking, 'If guys who've been in the business this long have problems, what's it going to be like for me?' " Lehmann said. "I think it's wrong to be scared."
Vic Cassano, Jr. views such operators as more sensible than scared.
As chairman and CEO of Cassano's Pizza King in Dayton, Ohio, Cassano has turned his company's own dough commissary into a manufacturing plant for other pizzeria operators.
After his now-deceased father Victor Cassano sold what was a 100-store pizza company to Greyhound Food Management in 1986, the chain's store numbers began a steady decline. Unable to turn the company around, Greyhound sold the company to Cassano, Jr. and a partner in 1989.
But by 1994, Cassano had sole control of the company, and he saw an opportunity for his underutilized commissary.
"We'd been making dough for 50 years for ourselves, so we had the equipment and the expertise to do it for others," said Cassano, whose company now has 33 stores and is growing again. "We decided to convert that into a profit center, and it's worked out well."
Cassano's supplies dough to multiple pizza clients ranging in size from 70-store Papa Romano's in Farmington, Mich., to Palombino's three Boombozz stores, plus two Pazzano's pizza stores he owns in Cincinnati.
Though he declined to share sales figures, Cassano said the manufacturing side of his business is growing. Whether that's proof of a definite trend toward increased frozen dough use, he's not sure. But Jim Storner, national sales manager at Nation Pizza Products in Schaumburg, Ill., believes the pendulum is swinging away from fresh dough.
"There will always be room for fresh dough, but with the labor shortage and all the consistency problems, people are moving over," said Storner, who numbers several large pizza chains, amusement parks and restaurants among Nation's clients. "Everybody says flour and water's cheap, but you've still got labor cost, and equipment's expensive, too."
Storner said the quality of frozen and parbaked dough products have come a long way in the last five years, and that such cold, hard evidence is winning many converts to frozen dough.
Sean Brauser, owner of two Romeo's Pizza stores in Medina, Ohio, sits in the somewhat slushy middle ground of the fresh v. frozen issue. Fresh dough is made at one of his stores, while a custom-made frozen dough is used at the second store. Since the second store's sales volume is just 25 percent of the first store's, Brauser uses the frozen dough to control labor costs.
"But if I didn't have the lady who makes my dough in my first store, I probably would have frozen in both," said Brauser, who actually used frozen dough in his busier store until he decided it was too costly.
"It costs me $125 a week to have her make the dough, and about $250 a week for the ingredients," he said. "When I was buying frozen for this store, I was paying 70 to 75 cents a dough ball. ... Making it fresh saves me $250 to $300 a week."
Lehmann said a fair price for a frozen, one-pound pizza dough ball should range between 60 to 70 cents. But he said he's heard about many operators who are paying much more than that.
"Some are paying well over a buck a pound for dough, and that's outrageous, especially when a good rule of thumb for a one-pound fresh dough ball is 25 to 30 cents," Lehmann said.
Like any expense, Cassano said frozen dough costs decrease as unit volume increases. And mass producers' ability to buy large quantities of flour at reduced costs will soon provide another advantage over smaller operators. For example, he said his flour provider told him that this year's poor wheat harvests worldwide could drive the cost of a 100-pound sack of flour (commonly called a "hundredweight") from its current average of $16 to as high as $22.
"This same thing happened about ... 15 years ago, and I got a lot of calls from people who were using frozen dough but wanted to start making their own. My guess is that in the next two or three years, we'll see that start to happen again."
"We buy millions of pounds of flour from ConAgra, so they'll let us book that flour out in advance," said Cassano. "Distributors don't book out flour, which means their customers will pay much higher prices than I am. And because I'm not paying as much, my customers won't either."
Ease of use
Few fresh-dough proponents can overcome the ease-of-use argument presented by frozen-dough fans. Having only to thaw, proof and bake eliminates production labor and dough production equipment. Batch-to-batch uniformity also increases.
"There's no question you gain the consistency with frozen dough," said Brauser, whose dough is manufactured by Dough-Go's in Cleveland, Ohio. "We've been fighting some bubbling problems with our fresh dough right now, but the frozen browns up really nicely every time. It's very consistent."
Bill Weekley, technical service manager for LeSaffre Yeast Corp., agreed that most anyone can handle frozen dough, but he warned that it isn't foolproof.
"The frozen manufacturer doesn't have much trouble making the product, but what happens between his dock and the end-user's is sometimes another story," said Weekley, whose company is in Stillwater, Minn. "Years ago they used to throw a case of it on the truck, put a blanket over it and let it ride around until 4 in the afternoon. But now it's put on reefer trucks and sent out right away."
If the dough isn't handled properly in the store, Weekley said, many of the same inconsistencies found in fresh dough will reappear.
"It's still susceptible to temperature changes like any dough, so it has to be proofed correctly or you're going to have problems," he said. "You can't just abuse it."
But is it better?
When asked whether he preferred fresh or frozen dough, Weekley said "there's no question that the flavor profile of frozen isn't up to fresh."
He said the fact that the amount of yeast in frozen dough is nearly double that in fresh (this offsets the amount of yeast killed in the freezing process) is enough to make a noticeable and arguably negative taste difference.
"If it's over-proofed, frozen dough can get a really nasty sour taste, too," he added.
But Brauser, Palombino and Cassano all say they can't tell the difference between their fresh and frozen products. Cassano even said he'll challenge any operator to tell the difference.
"I tell people, 'I know your customers won't know, and to prove you won't either, I'll put it side by side with yours,' " Cassano said. "I know they'll find it very difficult to pick out which is which."
Lehmann said there's no denying the improvements in the performance and flavor of frozen pizza doughs, and he acknowledged that sales of such products are gaining ground in the pizza industry. However, he said he watched the industry go through the fresh-to-frozen shift before, and believes many of the very operators entering the business using frozen dough will someday give fresh a chance.
"Once their business is established and viable, I think we'll see some of these folks move into scratch," Lehmann said. "This same thing happened about ... 15 years ago, and I got a lot of calls from people who were using frozen dough but wanted to start making their own. My guess is that in the next two or three years, we'll see that start to happen again."