MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Brett Bleazard has no experience running a pizzeria; comparably, Ann Reichle's eight years as co-owner of two Angelina's Pizza stores makes her an industry old-timer.
Don Bruner supervises bakery production for Tony's Pizza, one of the largest pizza manufacturers in the U.S., and Scott Dillingham troubleshoots flour problems for restaurant operators who use ConAgra brands.
The four make up a representative cross-section of 30 total attendees at this year's Practical Pizza Production Technology seminar (PPPT). The annual event, held this year from Oct. 21-25 at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, is both literally and figuratively the mother of all pizza classes.
Tom Lehmann, AIB's director of bakery assistance, and the man who leads the PPPT, admits the five-day blend of lectures and labs is intense. The motivation to start it 23 years ago grew out of the sheer volume of calls for help he received daily from pizzeria operators.
Tom Lehmann (bottom left), launched the PPPT 23 years ago in response to demand for help from pizzeria operators. Here he leads a class in topping take-and-bake pizzas.
"AIB had so many other classes that it seemed natural to add one about pizza," said Lehmann. "And as far as I know, there's nothing like it anywhere."
Founded in 1919, AIB teaches dozens of baking industry-related courses year round on subjects as obvious as Principles of Bread and Roll Production, and on others as obscure as Food Plant Pest Management.
No session is inexpensive; most two-day courses cost $495, while a 10-week study on baking equipment maintenance engineering costs $5,110.
The fee for the PPPT is $1,130, which Lehmann said no one complains about. For just a couple hundred bucks a day, he added, students get access to knowledgeable pizza experts -- a cost far below the day rate of a reputable consultant.
"If there's any griping, it's usually in the form of, 'Man, I didn't realize this was going to be so intense. Give us a break,' " Lehmann said, laughing. "This is not a vacation, it's a full-day's work."
Classes begin each day at 8 a.m. and end sometime between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Lectures on industry trends, emerging technologies, ingredient functionality and dough additives take up the mornings, while three afternoons are spent in hands-on lab training.
Lehmann also shares the podium with manufacturers of pizza equipment and ingredients. Builders of impingement ovens and smallwares tout product technology and performance, and makers of tomato sauce, cheese and toppings provide edible edification.
Few students -- newcomers and experienced alike -- emerge from the lecture-laden first day without feeling overwhelmed.
"You never think about how much there is to this," said Roy Ramon, gesturing toward a thick manual of formulae, recipes and guided notes given to each student. Ramon owns four Pappa's Pizza stores: one at his headquarters in Del Rio, Texas, and three more across the border in Monterrey, Mexico. "I might change some things in (my dough recipe) after this."
Reichle, whose shops are in Olmstead Falls, Ohio, also dreaded a potential dough recipe overhaul upon returning home.
"This makes me think I need to trash everything!" she said. "You think you've got it down, and then you listen to (Lehmann) talk about another way."
After the first day's dough discourse, Bleazard, one of two pizza novices in the group, was bemused.
"I'm thinking, what have I gotten myself into?" said Bleazard. A lack of "a really great pizza place" in St. George, Utah, where he lives, convinced him he might take a stab at operating his own. "I know it's not easy to run a pizza place; I hear that from everybody who does it. But this (course) makes me think I can do it."
Lehmann, who has worked for AIB for 40 years, spices his lectures with predictions on what he sees reshaping the industry, such as oven-rising crust technology (DiGiorno being the best example of all) and customer requests for more healthful pizza options. He warned the group, however, not to listen too closely to every customer's dietary whims. Too many operators, he said, have answered people's wishes for whole-wheat pizza doughs and discovered those same customers didn't even like them.
"If any of you remember the Edsel, you know it ... was a dismal sales failure because it was based on surveys of what a lot of Ford customers said they wanted," Lehmann said. "The whole-wheat crust is just like that, and it's a dismal failure, too."
Scott Dillingham, a field technical services rep for ConAgra Foods, racked a finished gourmet take-and-bake pizza.
Lehmann said a pizza crust made from 100 percent whole-wheat flour has all the "eating characteristics of a china plate," but that dough recipes that include a multi-grain flour blend can be quite good if altered carefully.
"What you want to do is replace 20 to 30 percent of your recipe's standard flour with multi-grain flour," Lehmann said. "Then add about 2 percent more water to keep the dough from getting too stiff."
The most influential trend in the industry right now, Lehmann said, is the growth of take-and-bake pizza sales.
"This is probably the biggest splash to hit the pizza pond in years," he said. "What the growth of take and bake tells me is that something might be wrong with our delivered and carryout pizza. It's as if customers are saying that there's nothing like having a fresh, crisp pizza right from the oven like you get in dine-in."
AIB's expansive laboratory is replete with baking machinery; mixers and ovens of every type and size line its cream-colored cinder-block walls.
Half the class watches Lehmann mix a 40-pound batch of dough, while the other half learns to round dough balls. In Bleazard's thick, wide hands a 16-ounce ball nearly disappears, but his powerful paws provide him no real advantage in shaping the dough correctly. He figures out that he's not alone when Jeff Zeak, an AIB instructer who coordinates the lab sessions for PPPT, admonishes the group to be gentle with the dough.
"You just want to pinch it in from the bottom rather than pulling from the sides or the top," said Zeak, a 15-year AIB veteran. "The point is not to tear it. That'll make it prone to tearing later when you shape it."
During each lab session, students prepare products that will be tested the following day. Dough made on this day is balled for use in thin-crust, thick-crust and pan-style pizzas, as well as shaped for hot-pressing and freezing for a take-and-bake experiment. At the end of the session, nearly 150 dough balls are rolled to the cooler for a one-day retardation.
The next day, "Big Dave" Ostrander, a former operator turned pizza consultant instructs the group on slapping and tossing the dough. Experienced hands like his and those of Sue Cottrill, a Four Star Pizza franchisee from Washington, Pa., shape their dough pieces quickly and uniformly, while several neophytes struggle with tearing and elongating theirs. Whether pretty or pitiful, each dough skin gets sauced, cheesed and baked in one of four ovens: an infrared conveyor, two impingement conveyors and a tried-and-true deck.
A student uses crushed Doritos chips as a topping on a Mexican-style pizza.
Students analyze and compare how each oven cooks their pies before eating their finished experiments.
"This is the best part of this class," said Lehmann. "It's just not the same in the cracker class."
As a regular speaker at pizza industry tradeshows, Ostrander has earned a reputation as a giant killer who defeated stores planted in his town by Domino's Pizza and Little Caesars. Lehmann now hires him to encourage PPPT attendees to fight hard and fairly for their share of pizza profits.
Ostrander ran Big Dave's Pizza for nearly 30 years in the tiny town of Oscoda, Mich. When Pizza Today published in the mid-1980s that his one store generated more than $1 million in annual business -- most of which came during an annual five-month tourism spurt -- the chains moved in.
"Landing in the top 25 of that list made my head huge; it was like being on the cover of Rolling Stone," Ostrander said. "But about 90 days after that article broke, major competition came in."
Ostrander learned quickly that pizzas "delivered whenever the hell we got 'em there" couldn't compare to Domino's 30-minute delivery guarantee. And bargain hunters culled away by Little Caesars' two-for-one deals spanked his bottom line.
Rather than getting mad, Ostrander said he got aggressive. He upped Domino's delivery ante by promising pies at the door in 29 minutes, and he developed a radio-dispatched "express truck" to get them there in 20 minutes.
He also began accepting Little Caesars' and Domino's coupons at his store.
"I simply let them be my printing presses," said Ostrander, adding that accepting competitors' coupons raised his food cost 7 percent but dropped his advertising costs almost to zero. "At the end of the year, I dumped all those coupons into two boxes, taped them up and sent them to the managers of those stores. I knew at some point they'd be looking at a quarter-million dollars of their coupons in my box."
To get detailed customer information, Ostrander confessed that he and some of his staff members would dig through competitors' dumpsters after hours.
"Yeah, I went dumpster diving with my crew ... I held the flashlight while they went in," said Ostrander, as the crowd guffawed. "No, I'm not proud of it because it's not a pretty job, but it works and I think it's legal."
Ostrander admitted that his message -- serve the best products, and serve the customer as best you can -- isn't original, but that operators who follow that recommendation are unique in the pizza business.
During a break between labs, 'Big Dave' Ostrander (far left) entertained some PPPT students with a tale about a particularly troublesome customer at a pizza shop he once owned.
"You can be great or be cheap and you'll stay in business," he said. "But if you sit somewhere in the middle, you're at risk.
"Do the unexpected and you'll get the customer's attention. Do that with a quality pizza and great service. Deliver what you promise."
Listening to and networking with operators like Ostrander and others there, said Pappa's Pizza's Ramon, made the time and expense devoted to the PPPT worth it.
"It's good to hear what's going on elsewhere, to learn that every customer in every geographical region has different needs," said Ramon. "When you hear a lot of different opinions, you can pick and choose what ideas of theirs you want to try."
Cory Albert, owner of Pizza A Fetta in Cannon Beach, Ore., said he came to AIB looking for answers he couldn't seem to find elsewhere. A wide grin on his face revealed he found them.
"I wanted to know why my dough reacted the way it did one day and not the same way on another day," said Albert. "I knew there had to be a scientific answer, which is what I wanted, not a guess."
Zeak, who spent a full month coordinating and preparing for the lab portions of this year's PPPT, said the patchwork of personalities in each class keeps the work interesting for him.
"We get a real mix of people who come to this: retailers, big corporate giants, the Pizza Huts and the Domino's -- you name it," said Zeak, who worked at a pizzeria before joining AIB. Several years ago a dentist attended the PPPT along with his wife, who aspired to open her own shop. "I asked him what he did for a living, and he told me he came here to tag along with his wife. We get all types here and from all over the world. It's never the same; it's fun."