Here's a quandary Tim Huff can't explain: Pizzeria operators will spend thousands on high-tech POS systems, yet they'll overlook shelling out a few bucks for a simple thermometer for checking dough temperature during production.
In his position as manager of bakery flour technical services for Minneapolis-based General Mills Inc., Huff helps operators troubleshoot dough problems. Nearly every time he gets a call for help, he said the problem can be traced back to poor temperature management.
"An $8 thermometer would resolve 80 percent of the dough problems in most shops," said Huff. "In dough, you're dealing with a biological experiment, and temperature is often the most overlooked part of that."
But he said it was the easiest one to fix. Once operators understand that the temperature of every element of a recipe -- flour, water, mixing bowl, mixing friction, cooler ... you name it -- influences the final product, they're able to evaluate and manipulate each to arrive at the desired end. Operators who don't can expect days of dough dilemmas.
Sound scary? It shouldn't be, Huff said. Operators needn't be scientists to remedy their dough problems, they just need to apply the basic rules of what scientists say.
"I try not to scare people with a lot of (that), but it's important to be exact every time," Huff said.
Such precision is both a Huff hallmark and proof of the dough analyst within. After graduating from Ohio State University with a food science and technology degree in 1985, he was hired by General Mills to work in its Yoplait production plant in Reed City, Mich.
Subsequent transfers over the next several years to plants in Illinois, California and Pennsylvania exposed him to the company's dry mix, cereal and beverage syrup operations. In 1990, the company moved him to Buffalo, N.Y., where he became the quality manager for flour milling.
Both the organic nature and technical requirements of the milling industry suited Huff well. Unlike working with packaged, ready-to-eat cereals, flour wasn't a static product in the hands of customers. It had to be ground and blended to suit the specific needs of end users who then turned it into myriad creations of their own.
The challenge called on Huff's technical strengths and drew increasingly on his people skills, especially when he was called to correct customer concerns.
"I really liked that connection to the customer, going out and helping them solve problems," said Huff.
Tom Lehmann, a long-time flour-industry colleague of Huff's, said Tim is a natural in that role.
"(He) does a real nice job of dealing with people," said Lehmann, director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan. "He's a good roll-up-your-sleeves-and-let's-work kind of person."
Soon enough, though, Huff had enough problems of his own. With every company move to a new state, he and wife, Cindy, welcomed a new addition to their family. And as his job responsibilities and travel load increased, the father of four searched for an opportunity that would give him more playtime than plane time.
That chance arrived in 1993, when his current technical services position came open in Minneapolis -- the same year his fifth child was born.
Today Huff not only oversees flour quality standards at all seven U.S. mills run by General Mills, he supports the company's sales force through customer assistance, and he even has added some marketing duties to his work regimen.
His best-known work is the popular Just the Crust instructional brochure regularly sent to thousands of General Mills customers. The piece is a "sort of dough production 101" for pizzeria operators, he said.
Pizza the business
Though not shy, Huff is soft spoken and unassuming. His reputation for helping operators to see their problems without "just telling them what's wrong," has endeared him to many.
"He can relate to the lay person really well," said Linda Rechtine, director of procurement for Godfather's Pizza, Inc., a 575-unit chain based in Omaha, Neb. "He's very down to earth and easy to work with."
Setting operators at ease, Huff said, begins with reassuring them that they're the experts, not him.
"I'm not coming in there to tell them they're doing everything wrong -- and I've seen some people take that approach," said Huff. "When you talk to an owner who's been in this business for 40 years ... he doesn't want to hear he has to change something. You tell him, 'This is what I'm seeing, and here's what I'm concerned about.' You have to be kind of gentle, even dance a little."
Longtime industry associate Bill Weekley shares Huff's soft-touch philosophy on customer assistance.
"We don't know all the answers, but we'll help anybody we can with what we do know," said Weekley, technical service manager for LeSaffre Yeast Corp. "That's what he's really good at."
Weekly should know. For the last few years both men have co-hosted the Pizza Crust Boot Camp, a technical and practical instructional session held at every Pizza Expo. Not only do they spend hours together preparing the program, each calls on the other when stumped on yeast or flour questions.
"If he was any easier to work with, it would be scary," said Weekley. "He's laid back and easy going, and people like that."
Huff said his feeling for the people of the pizza industry is mutual. Unlike his work with purist artisan bakers or pressured factory managers, pizza people usually are humble enough to admit some ignorance about their doughs.
"Sometimes these people are ex-construction workers, cabbies, teachers, whatever, who've opened up a pizza shop without any prior knowledge of the business," Huff said. "Over the years I've gotten at least a dozen calls on Friday nights from somebody who says they're going to open Monday, and that they want to know how to make a pizza dough. It's amazing the chutzpah these guys have."
Huff, who loves making pizza at home for friends and family, said he often entertains the idea of opening his own pizza shop. He said it would be a casual "sort of Cheers-like place," where everyone knows each other. He also said his business would serve the community rather than merely take its money.
"I think too many people get into the pizza business to become millionaires," said Huff. "They want to become rich rather than become people who serve others."
But even Huff admits that well-intended high-mindedness and rectitude will only go so far in making him a successful pizzeria operator. The financial risks, plus the blood, sweat and tears required to run such a business, may well burn the bridge between the dream and reality.
"I love making pizza and I'm hospitality-oriented enough to want to get into this business," said Huff. "But I'm also practical enough to know this is a tough business. I like my steady paycheck and good benefits, and with the first of five kids getting ready to enter college, now's probably not the best time to do that."