LAS VEGAS -- Be it due to the lingering gloom of 9/11, recession-pinched pockets or the simple fact that business is tough all over, attendance and exhibit numbers were down slightly at the 2002 International Pizza Expo, held Feb. 11-13, in Las Vegas.

But despite reduced traffic, numerous exhibitors said quality prospects filled the aisles at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Between endless handshakes and hellos from clients and friends, Geno Fontanini, president of Fontanini Italian Meats in Chicago, said, "Traffic has been excellent, a nice steady pace."

"We've been busy since the show opened," said Carver Brown, executive vice president of sales with Robot Coupe in Jackson, Miss. "If attendance is down, we can't tell it. It's gone great."

Show hosts won't release official attendance figures for about another week, but exhibits numbered about 375, down nearly 150 compared to last year. Some attendees said they expected the recession to shrink show numbers some, while others said not attending the annual event wasn't an option.

"Coming here is too convenient for us," said Bob Graham, founder of 700-store Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza, in Vancouver, Wash. "It gives us the opportunity to talk to all our purveyors and vendors in one spot, which means they don't have to come to Vancouver to see us."

E. Jay Myers, president of Goodfella's Pizza in Staten Island, N.Y., said the chance to see old friends and new products is too much to pass up.

"The networking is great here, and you can find a lot of great deals," said Myers, whose company will open its sixth store in March, and recently signed a New Jersey/Philadelphia-area development deal for 10 more stores. "And it's Vegas, too. We love it here."

Products Aplenty

From point-of-sale systems that track bartender pouring accuracy by radio transmission, to ovens able to bake a pizza from zero to done in 90 seconds, the show floor provided a glimpse of every product necessary to running a pizzeria.

'Tree's a Crowd ... Brad Fletcher, president of ATM manufacturer MoneyTree, said sales to pizzerias were growing, especially in those serving alcohol. Several low-price cash machines were on display in Fletcher's booth, where he said that traffic had been non-stop on the first day.

"People don't want to put beer on a credit card," said Fletcher, "but if they've got $20 cash in their hands, they're more likely to buy a pitcher of it."

The pizza business still is largely a cash business, said Fletcher, and that avoiding payment of credit card surcharges by offering a cash dispenser helps each operator's bottom line.

"If you have a surcharge to use it -- and I always tell these guys to charge just a dollar -- you can turn a profit," Fletcher added.

Brown in 90 Seconds ... TurboChef's high-tech C3 oven was on display for operators considering an alternative to decks and conveyors. According to TurboChef vice president of sales, Al Harvey, the oven combines multiple heating sources to cook pizzas in as little as 90 seconds.

"The fact that it's also vent-less is a big deal," said Harvey. "People realize they don't have to put in a hood at $1,000 per linear foot to run this."

Harvey said the C-3, which Subway has used in its nearly year-long, 30-market pizza test, costs about $9,000 and cooks up to 40 large pizzas an hour. A busy pizzeria, he added, would likely need two to four C-3s to replace a large double-stacked conveyor oven, and that the cost of such a purchase eventually would be offset by utilities savings.

"The nice thing is that I can shut them off when I don't need them, but with other ovens, you've got to have them on all the time," said Harvey. "With this oven, you also can cook pastas, roast chicken or broil steak if you want ... it gives you a lot of ways to extend your menu that you couldn't with conventional pizza ovens."

Accurate to the Last Drop ... Precise portion monitoring at the bar was one highlight of Vital Link's Beverage Tracker P.O.S. system. The San Francisco company has developed tiny radio-transmitting pouring spouts that accurately meter the amount of liquid passing from the bottle to a tenth of an ounce. Once the bottle is upright, the amount poured is recorded in the system.

"If I'm the bartender and I'm pouring an ounce-and-two-thirds, you're going to know I'm over-pouring consistently," said Larry O'Connor, vice president of sales for Vital Link. "If sales say I should have gone through a bottle and a half of Stoly, but inventory shows I've gone through two bottles, then I can go back and see that it's because I've over-poured."

O'Connor said if an operation has a bar, the system would begin paying for itself immediately.

"If you sell liquor, then what's in the speed rack is where 60 percent of your (liquor business) is," said O'Connor. "If you can shave 1 percent off your liquor cost, and you easily can with this, that's all bottom-line money."

On Shakey's Ground ... The booth occupied by Garden Grove, Calif., Shakey's Pizza showcased architects' drawings of eight new prototype designs. The 50-year-old company hopes the new look will provide some new life and attract new franchisees.

"We've been busy since the show opened. If attendance is down, we can't tell it. It's gone great."

Carver Brown
EVP, Sales, Robot Coupe, Jackson, Miss.

According to Ron Stillwell, vice president of operations, Shakey's U.S. store numbers are down to about 75, but international units are up to 500.

"We're trying out several new concepts that are focused on middle-income family diners," said Sean Flynn, president of Shakey's, who spoke via Stillwell's cell phone. "We really want to use the entertainment theme, strengthen our brand and look into the future."

Flynn said the company's new leadership team brings a fresh approach to its menu, marketing and overall look.

"We've signed our first new U.S. franchisee in eight years, which is significant for us because most of our franchisees are second- and third-generation franchisees," said Flynn. "We wanted to work with people who had a strong belief in the Shakey's brand and its product."

Stillwell also mentioned Shakey's new Triplets items, which are appetizer size portions of larger dishes. Among them are Pizzatrios (three connected mini-pizzas), Striplets (boneless chicken strips), and MOJOs (potatoes).

Cut to the Quick ... Orders for Robot Coupe's vertical cutter mixer and hand-held mixers are growing despite their unconventionality, said an ever-enthusiastic Brown.

"Most of the industry's used to planetary mixers, but when you show them that a VCM can make a batch of dough in 45 to 90 seconds, it gets their interest," said Brown. "This machine also can chop ingredients for salads and soups, make sauces or dressings ... do a lot more than the regular mixer can."

Brown added that two items in Robot Coupe's product line currently are being tested by Donato's and Papa John's. "This really is an exciting time for us right now."

Season's Opener ... Excitement was the word to describe the buzz at the Innova Commercial Products booth, where the company's new Can PRO 2KM can opener netted 400 orders by late in the Expo's second day.

Unlike on a traditional can opener, which uses a blade to cut the can lid, the 2KM etches the can lid away neatly, and then compacts the can's edge back into itself. Unlike conventional openers, which touches the food in the can, the 2KM doesn't, and the lid's clean removal leaves no sharp edges.

"We've been selling them through a distributor for $300, but we've sold them at the show for $245," said Jack Kramer, president of Innova. "It was five years in development, but past five months have been an absolute ride. We've already sold a lot of them to Little Caesars and Domino's."

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