Training just one employee to replicate a pizza sauce recipe is enough of a challenge. And it seems that about the time that one learns it, he takes another job elsewhere.

So consider the difficulty of producing a consistent sauce at multiple stores. At some point, the decision whether to outsource sauce production becomes inevitable.

"The huge part for us is the quality and consistency," said Jimmy Simonte, purchasing manager for Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's Pizza. "Using a supplier partner to produce pizza sauce allows us to maintain what we consider an exceptional level of standard. This way we're not fighting variances from store to store, which is critical for any company with more than two stores, in my opinion."

Ron Peters never operated a pizzeria, but being a pizza customer showed him that operators struggled with consistency issues as their companies grew.

In 1992, Peters aimed to help them solve their sauce problems and founded Paradise Tomato Kitchens. He believed there was an opportunity to free operators from their stoves by mass producing their companies' pizza sauces. Thus unburdened, they could focus on growing their businesses instead.

"What we sell chains on is reducing other things they're having to do," said Peters. It also reduces those companies' labor costs, while saving "a little bit of money in raw ingredient costs."

It's in the details

To expand a sauce recipe from 50 gallons to 5,000 gallons, custom producers typically begin their work in the lab. There, an operator's sauce formula is broken down by technicians who pinpoint and document each sauce's components and ingredients, as well as key attributes like color, texture, opacity and viscosity.

Jon Holt, marketing director for Tomatek, a custom sauce producer in Firebaugh, Calif., said his company also interviews operators to understand their preferences for less objective standards, such as a sauce's mouth feel and flavor.

Sometimes, he said, they'll want the producer to make a new sauce altogether.

"Often the customer will say, 'This is what we're using, but it would be great if we could add this or change this,' " said Holt. "In other instances, customers come to us to create custom sauces, spreads or bases without a recipe and little more than a sense of what they'd like to see and taste."

Breaking down a pizzeria's sauce and rebuilding it to production specs can happen fairly rapidly, said Peters.

"Depending upon the workload of the lab, we've been known to turn things around in a week or two," he said. But minor tweaks and changes can take many months, he added. "It depends on how committed the customer is to turning around feedback."

"What we sell chains on is reducing other things they're having to do. It also reduces those companies' labor costs, while saving a little bit of money in raw ingredient costs."

Ron Peters
Paradise Tomato Kitchens

Once a pizza company approves the production version of its sauce, the producer will blend spices and seasonings at its facility. If the quantity is large enough, the producer may contract with a custom spice manufacturer to pre-blend that pizza company's spices in bulk.

Peters acknowledged that that does mean one more company gains access to a pizza chain's secret recipe, but he said a breach of confidence on that level would serve no party well.

"Our charge is to protect the secrecy of that formula (and) we all sign mutual non-disclosures ... five different ways," Peters said. Our reputation is worth more than a lawsuit; it doesn't do us any good to violate that trust."

Size matters

In an ideal situation, a pizza chain will be large enough to require its sauce be produced multiple times a year. According to Peters, producing from bulk paste on demand year round lessens the chance that flavors from seasonings will lose their punch. Such flavor degradation can occur if a sauce is held more than a year in a package or can.

Custom sauce producers manufacture products for some independent operators, but Peters believes a minimum-size candidate would be a 25-store chain requiring about 10,000 cases of sauce a year. Such demand would generate five 2,000-case production runs annually.

On the other end of the spectrum are companies like Domino's, which can spur production runs at a manufacturer as often as every two weeks.

Cost shavings

The use of a custom sauce manufacturer is more for guaranteeing product consistency than achieving cost reductions, said Peters.

Kiri Yu, marketing & international sales representative for Kagome in Belmont, Calif., agrees.

"Large chains pursue customized sauces because they want to enjoy the ... consistency benefits of a customized sauce," said Yu. "When they specify their own sauce, they have control over the formula."

They gain control over the cost, too, since purchasing contracts are made months and sometimes a year in advance.

Costs are reduced in labor (no one is spending time making it) as well, and reduced waste (no one's burning it on the stove or adding too much salt).

"The labor savings can be substantial," said Domino's Simonte. "There is no longer a need to hire sauce makers, let alone spend resources on others to prep sauce throughout the day."

Convincing operators of the labor-savings opportunity, however, isn't always easy, said Peters. "People see the labor (factor) a lot of different ways. Some think, 'Well, I've already got them in the store, I need to have them do something.' Others just look at it from a food cost perspective. Neither way of looking at it is wrong. It all depends on what you're looking for in terms of your sauce."

Putting pizzas together, said Peters, is the bulk of what happens in a pizza operation, so why not simplify the operation wherever possible? "They have their dough, cheese and toppings all standardized, so it makes sense to have consistent sauce."

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