Imagine never having to leave your operation to shop for an oven or refrigerator or make table. Rather than going to an equipment dealer's showroom, the dealer would come to your shop and offer a personal demonstration.
Sound far-fetched? It isn't. And it's happening in the pizza industry.
Ordinary-looking trailers loaded with fully equipped test kitchens are pulling up to pizza shops everywhere, demonstrating their wares -- hoping to make a sale, of course.
"It's all about convenience for the shop operators," said Shawn Stoffer, corporate chef and manufacturer's representative for Koehler-Borden. The 53-year-old Canton, Ohio company sells conveyor ovens to commercial foodservice operations, in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan. "Small shop owners have very little time to spare. If it weren't for the use of mobile test kitchens, they'd have to go to the factory to test an oven."
The ability to drive up, open the doors of the mobile kitchen and start making pizzas, Stoffer said, gives shop owners a real-world, try-it-before-they-buy-it experience. That's especially valuable given that new oven costs range from $5,000 to $30,000.
Lincoln, the oven brand Stoffer reps, has offered the service for eight years. Keeping that standard up and running, said Stoffer, takes 60 percent of his working hours.
Koehler-Borden's mobile test kitchen.
Similarly, the schedule of appointments for Roto-Flex Ovens' mobile test kitchen has kept John Simmons crisscrossing the U.S. since last May. In that time, the senior vice president for the San Antonio, Texas, company has visited 220 restaurants for demonstrations lasting 60 minutes to six hours.
"The restaurant people are in awe," said Simmons. "They're able to see pizza being made in real time, right before their eyes, and they can do it in the comfort of their own environment."
Additionally, operators are able to use their own dough, sauce and cheese, not the foodstuffs on hand in a dealer's test kitchen.
"We don't get any complaints about the final food product and how it tastes, or how the ovens work," Simmons added. "If they make a purchase, they'll know exactly what to expect."
Call Us, We'll Come
Simmons said demos at the door are done by appointment only, mainly because the service is expensive to offer. A fully equipped trailer and towing vehicle costs between $75,000 and $100,000 -- not including operating expenses like gasoline, propane, electricity and salaried personnel.
"It's a very expensive proposition for us; it's astronomical," said Simmons. "There is not only the cost of the truck, there are out-of-pocket expenses. It makes selling pizza ovens very expensive."
Stoffer declined to discuss the dollars devoted to keeping his 18-foot demo kitchen rolling, saying only, "It's worth doing." However, he said the effort and cost are worth it since, according to him, 60 percent of the demonstrations result in a sale.
"Seeing is believing," he said. "If they've only seen the oven in a catalogue, you can explain it all day long. By going to them, they get to see what it can do."
Despite the costs involved, neither company charges its customers for the service. That, plus the convenience, pleases pizzeria operators, like Joe Kelley, owner of three Joe's New York Pizza shops in New Hampshire.
When he first saw a mobile test kitchen in operation at the International Pizza Expo, held last Feburary in Las Vegas, he made an appointment for a demonstration.
Inside Koehler-Borden's mobile test kitchen.
In late March, Roto-Flex's Simmons pulled up to Kelley's Hampton, N.H., store and, using Kelley's own dough and toppings, gave the 26-year old entrepreneur a private three-hour demonstration in which they baked more than a dozen pizzas.
"Using my own ingredients, I wanted to see if it cooked as well as the ovens I now use," Kelley said. "I liked it. It had a good bake, and I liked its ease of operation."
Kelley insisted he would not have traveled any distance to a factory to see the oven. "An on-site demonstration is very convenient for me. Even while he was here, I was able to do other things."
And while he did not make a purchase, Kelley said he's giving it serious consideration. "I've never done anything like this before. It's like taking a test drive before you buy a car."
Bert Reynolds, owner of Kingys Pizza Pub in Canal Winchester, Ohio, loves the mobile demo-kitchen.
"It's a perfect service for us," said the 22-year pizza veteran. An upcoming move to new location means he'll have to purchase ovens, and that could change the way his pizzas bake. "I'm already here; I didn't have to travel anywhere."
Using his own pizza dough and breads, Reynolds said, "We did more than a dozen pizzas, from simple cheese toppings only to 'all the way' pies that are loaded. I was able to immediately compare pizzas and subs made in my current oven with his oven, and there was really no difference. It was very convincing."
Stoffer added that seeing the equipment in action, rather than on a showroom floor or in an advertisement boosts customer satisfaction with his products.
"A lot of the equipment brought from catalogues is returned," said Shawn Stoffer. "The use of mobile test kitchens reduces the risk involved in making such a major purchase. This way they know what they're getting and that it will work."