If you want to arrive at the optimal dough managing solution, you have to consider a continuum of factors, to include costs, consistency and quality. These may seem obvious, but different pizza chains must use them to determine their specific operations needs.
"Big" Dave Ostrander is a former owner of Big Dave's Pizza & Subs. These days, he travels the globe consulting with pizza chains on optimizing their businesses. He often helps his clients decide whether to move their wares into a commissary-type operation.
For almost every pro-commissary consideration Ostrander offers his clients, there's a minus to be heard. Commissaries make for consistent dough balls, more space in unit kitchens, more purchasing power and speed and an audit trail between the amount of dough balls vs. the amount sold. Their minuses include covering the commissary's heating, cooling, equipment and transportation costs. Every chain will have a break-even point, which should be determined beforehand.
Let's see the two models in action.
Guess which chain uses the commissary
You might expect CiCi's pizza to mix and make their dough at commissaries that serve their 650 locations, but the chain doesn't employ that model. Rather, each store makes its own dough in-house every day. It's a matter of taste and savings, according to Bob Kulick, president of the company's distributing arm.
A definitive factor of this buffet pizzeria is its value positioning; CiCi's offers a $5 buffet, necessitating very closely watched costs. This makes a commissary a luxury item: "The cost of warehousing, transporting, delivering and storing a product that is about a third water makes it prohibitive to use a frozen product or commissary-delivered product and still maintain a value leading cost to our guests and consumers," Kulick said.
And consumers can pick frozen pizza dough out of a lineup, according to the company's market research. That's not a good thing.
The solution was to institute an easily mastered dough recipe that's taught to each operator to ensure consistency of production. Kulick believes in-house made dough tastes, appears and performs better, too.
Matt Galvin disagrees; he thinks a commissary produces optimal dough — at least for his operation. Galvin is owner of Paggliaci Pizza, a full-service pizza outfit in Seattle that's 21-stores strong. All of them are company owned. The company has had a commissary since the restaurant's original unit. Galvin says that contrary to prevailing opinions, making your dough in a centralized location actually does much for not only a consistent flavor profile but also a tasty one across units — provided it's received fresh every day. Each Paggliaci is within about 25 miles of the commissary, which delivers its dough daily.
"You have one source for water and can manage the temperature of your flour and inventory of products more closely," Galvin said of the commissary's advantages. "And you can better control the temperature â€¦ when not competing with five ovens in a 2,000-square-foot space."
â€˜Solutions' to avoid
Though Galvin and Kulick seem to take opposite sides of the dough management model, they both shy away from a frozen pizza dough solution. Priscilla Martel, owner of a baking ingredients company that works with smaller chain units, agrees, with an explanation. "We're not involved whatsoever in frozen dough," she said. "It's an adulteration"—especially when additives like whey protein have to be incorporated.
Surprisingly, Martel doesn't think making dough in-house necessarily makes for a better product, even though she works with smaller, more artisan-oriented pizzerias of about eight or so units. "You don't even have to mix by hand all over Italy," she said, implicitly blessing the mixers used in commissaries, "but you can make artisan pizza with a mixer. I don't think mixing by hand is a religion; (the quality) has more to do with the flour you use, its hydration and the way you handle the dough."
In fact, those that use commissaries have better buying power for better ingredients. She recommends pricier and thus easier-to-buy-in-bulk flour products like King Arthur, whose flour is made to specifications, as opposed to, say, General Mills, whose makeup may change to accommodate what's in their own inventory.