• Attendee traffic steady, say exhibitors, but N.E. Pizza Expo numbers down overall

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Show organizers won't publish the final figures for several days, but exhibit and attendee numbers at the fifth-annual 2002 Northeast Pizza Expo, held Oct. 1-2, were visibly down compared to past shows.

In 2000, the number of attendees was about 2,200, but that number declined by a few hundred more the following year, when the Expo was held just three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

According to several exhibitors, the apparent drop-off in turnout at this year's show wasn't a surprise because they've seen the same declines at other foodservice industry tradeshows this year.

"Yeah, traffic's been down everywhere, but business still seems to be good," said Steve France, sales manager for pizza box manufacturer Arvco Containers. "That's just business, though. It's always changing."

Show-floor scuttlebutt included reports that Louisville, Ky.-based Macfadden Protech, which organizes all three U.S. Pizza Expos (Las Vegas, Chicago and Atlantic City), will cut the Chicago Expo from its 2003 calendar because of low attendance there.

Wood Stone corporate chef Michael Brockman served up a 30-inch-wide basil-topped pie.

The news pleased some Northeast Expo exhibitors, who said two annual pizza shows is enough.

"Chicago was not a good show for us, but this one has always been good," said Tom Bronson, president and CEO of Rockland Technology Group, whose POS software company is in Lewisville, Texas. "With Las Vegas, a company like ours can only justify one more show. Three is too much."

Arvco's France has exhibited at every Pizza Expo since the first in 1984. But he said cutting back by one show still may be wise.

"We feel like we have to be at every show, but it's a different economy right now," said France, whose company is in Kalamazoo, Mich. "It's probably a good decision for them to do that."

Multiple exhibitors mentioned rumors that Macfadden Protech is considering a modified two-show format in 2004. The annual International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas would remain the anchor event, while one show would rotate between Chicago and Atlantic City every other year.

Linda Keith, vice president of meetings and conferences for Macfadden Protech, declined to comment on the rumors.

The wave of wireless

Despite the slightly reduced number of exhibits, several new products were introduced at the show, including a high-tech wireless POS terminal and belt-mounted receipt printer developed for pizza delivery.

PayRight Merchant Services demonstrated the Apriva wireless POS delivery payment unit.

"A delivery driver can swipe the card at the door and have an authorization in three to five seconds," said Sam Zietz, president of PayRight Merchant Services in Haledon, N.J. "What this also does is completely eliminate bad credit card debt and cut (the operator's) credit card processing rate in half."

The PopTart-size unit, which is manufactured by Apriva and distributed by PayRight, is essentially a pager with a credit card reader attached to the bottom. It uses both radio and satellite signals to approve customers' credit cards at the door.

Because the customer's card can be authorized at the door, Zietz said, operators are charged the low qualified rate of 1.59 percent per transaction. Non-qualified rates of 3 percent to 5 percent are assessed on credit-card transactions that aren't electronically authorized at the time of the transaction.

The Apriva Point of Sale unit tracks customer loyalty programs and can be equipped with GPS tracking for driver monitoring.

Apriva's belt-mounted credit card receipt printer.

"It sells for $499, but we lease it for $19 a month, which is very cost-effective," said Zietz. "If you look at somebody who's doing as little as $2,000 a month in deliveries, you're saving them 1 1/2 to 2 percent, and you're eliminating their bad credit card problems and charge backs, they're going to make out."

Zietz said two large pizza chains are beta-testing the unit and that several independent operators are using it, but he declined to reveal those companies' names.

A piece of the rock

Toronto, Ontario-based PiCARD Bakery Equipment introduced a massive and unusual granite-belted conveyor oven. Company president Gilles Picard said similar "tunnel oven" units made by the company have operated in bakeries for about a decade, but that the company redesigned the oven for pizzeria use just last year.

"Granite is the best stone for baking and heat retention, and it gives you the best crust you've ever seen on a pizza," said Picard. The oven, he said, combines the consistency of conveyor ovens and the browning of deck ovens, but without the deck oven's propensity for heat loss.

"Baking on the stone in a regular deck oven is good, but the problem is you have to open the door too often to check the pizza" and you lose heat, he said. "With ours, the heat never goes down."

PiCARD Bakery Equipment's granite-belted conveyor oven.

The unit is 55 inches wide, nearly 10 feet long and, because of its weight, must be assembled on site, Picard said. Price for the oven is an equally weighty $30,000.

To justify such a purchase, Picard said, "you must have a high-volume restaurant that insists on quality pizza."

Financial peace

Exhibitor Michael Maffei, a registered representative of R&R Financial Services, fielded multiple questions from operators interested in his company's financial planning services for pizzeria operators.

Maffei said that while many operators are skilled at running their businesses, many don't know how to start or manage a long-term retirement plan. After witnessing his own father work himself into such a corner, Maffei left his job as a broker on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange a few years ago to help him and others plan for their futures.

"He was very successful as an operator in the pizza business, but he had no exit strategy, no plan for where he was going," said Maffei, whose office is in Mt. Laurel, N.J. "I've got four uncles and three cousins in this business, and we were all brought up same way: with cash in our pockets and never worrying about money. The problem was that nobody allotted any money for the future."

Maffei said that poor financial management by pizzeria operators includes everything from not saving enough for the future to lying about their shops' revenues. Too many owners, he said, will gross $10,000 in sales in a week, report only half that amount, "and then take on the burden of the IRS for $300 a week in sales tax. That's crazy."

He said his goal is to guide well-meaning but ill-informed operators like his relatives toward good retirements.

"The two biggest things that erode our wealth are taxes and inflation. And if you don't know how to take those elements out of the equation, or at least lower them, then you've got some serious issues," said Maffei. "You not only want to look for a good rate of return in a retirement plan, but also a way that benefits the distribution of that money when it comes out. ... I'm afraid there's too many operators in this business who don't know how to achieve that."

Sweet treats

H.C. Brill Company's quality control director, Lloyd Caldaway, Jr., believes he has a sweet way for operators to offer unique, no-hassle desserts. The company's customizable cookies and cakes, he said, make affordable quick hits with customers.

"We want to give operators some ideas, that might be an easier, better way to go than making it themselves," said Caldaway, whose company is in Tucker, Ga. "We would send them to you pre-iced, and you'd write Happy Birthday on them, or put your own design or message on them."

Brill distributes nationally and wants to expand its business beyond retail shops and restaurants.

"We've been around for a long time, but we've just now started on trying to go to the pizza industry," Caldaway said.

Mix master

Fleetwood Food Services' Joe Miano demonstrated a barrel mixer -- a device rarely seen in pizza shops -- that he said was affordable for small operators who don't need a large multi-function planetary mixer.

"This is for people who are looking to mix 30 to 40 pounds of dough per batch," said Miano, who priced the unit at $1,400. "This is for a shop that just wants to make dough as opposed to using a mixer for grinding cheese or beating eggs."

Fleetwood Food Services' low-friction barrel mixer keeps dough cool during kneading.

By design, Miano said, barrel mixers' low-friction kneading action ensures doughs are mixed at cooler temperatures, which helps control yeast activity. Additionally, he said barrel mixers have fewer working parts than planetary mixers, which reduces the cost to purchase and repair them.

"Maintenance-wise, it's more economical," said Miano, whose company also manufactures large planetary mixers. "There's less of a drive system -- gears and shafts -- than a planetary mixer. The less things you have, the less things can break."

As the show wound down on Thursday afternoon, Rockland's Bronson said he was pleased with the sales activity at his booth, regardless of whether attendance was down.

"This is always a good show for us, and this year was no exception," said Bronson. "Sometimes you wonder if you'll sell enough to pay for what it cost to bring you there. But this more than did that."

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