Friday nights at Family New York Pizza used to be the best of times and the worst of times for Rob Papile. Business would be booming at his Tannersville, Pa., store but his two deck ovens couldn't handle the demand, even when tourists drawn by the surrounding Pocono Mountains weren't in town.
"It was tough to keep up any time it was busy," said Papile.
John Daisy created his "too busy" problem by adding 1,900 square feet and 90 seats to his 3,300-square-foot, 80-seat Breckenridge, Colo., restaurant, Fatty's Pizzeria. He knew he needed more capacity than his three deck ovens could muster to feed the mobs of skiers frequenting Fatty's during the high season.
"There was no way we could have (enlarged) this place without doing something about the ovens," said Daisy.
Both men knew that adding capacity wasn't as simple as bringing more deck ovens into their operations. They needed ovens that would help them work faster and fit into a limited amount of floor space. Those ovens also would have to cook their pizzas as well as their deck units and at an affordable cost.
Such operators are ready for an oven upgrade, said Richard Dunfield, a sales representative for San Antonio, Texas-based Roto-Flex Ovens.
"When a guy is starting to get backed up on busy nights, say an hour to an hour-and-a-half delivery times, then he's a pretty good candidate," said Dunfield. "He's got customers saying to themselves, 'Do I want to wait that long?' "
No operator wants to spend a lot of money on a new oven, Dunfield acknowledged, but when they understand they're likely turning away business because they can't meet demand, they see the expense as a necessary investment.
Ted Rowe, owner of Mulberry Street Pizzeria in San Raphael, Calif., said the impingement oven (also called a conveyor oven) he installed in the kitchen of a restaurant he relocated to 10 years ago wasn't cheap, but that the unit has more than paid for itself.
"Twenty-thousand dollars was a lot for an oven in 1992, but it used a smaller footprint, which allowed me to keep my kitchen smaller," Rowe said of his Middleby Marshall conveyor oven. "Your money's made in the dining room, not in the kitchen, and that oven allowed us more seating."
The burden of choice
What concerns operators most about buying a new oven is how it will affect their crusts. Many perfect their recipes using deck ovens -- well known for imparting a classic crispness and color to pizza crusts by cooking them directly on the hearth -- and want the same result from their next purchase.
Rowe sought that same result but said he couldn't ignore the speed and consistency claims made by impinger-oven manufacturers. Still, when he finally tested one in his operation, he wasn't immediately impressed.
"Middleby Marshall's corporate chef saw what my crust looked like and talked to one of their engineers about it," said Rowe. "When we weren't getting what I wanted, they sent some additional finger units (metal ducts that change the amount of air flowing through the oven, as well as the point at which the air contacts the product), and they got it to where it was becoming consistent."
After additional tweaking, Rowe knew they'd hit the mark by the crackling his pizza made when cut.
"I said, 'That sounds like my pizza,' " Rowe recalled. "(The Middleby Marshall techs) said, 'Who in the world other than someone who's this intense would know what their pizza sounds like?' "
Daisy also considered buying a conveyor in order boost speed, but a conversation with another operator from the East Coast worried him instead.
"I was at a seminar where this guy was talking about how famous his pizzeria was," Daisy recalled. "So when I asked what kind of oven he had, he hesitated to say he had a conveyor oven."
The operator told Daisy the oven made consistent pizzas quickly, but that even he truly preferred a hearth-baked pie.
The operator's story led Daisy to investigate a Roto-Flex oven, which features multiple, circular stone decks spaced vertically on a rotating center axle. It produced the hearth-baked crust characteristics he desired and cooked his pizzas with the speed and ease typically credited to conveyor ovens.
"Once you put it in the oven, you don't have to touch it until it's done," Daisy said. "You don't have to spin the pizzas like you do in a traditional deck oven. It spins them itself."
Jim Ferrell, co-owner of Fat Jimmy's Pizza in Louisville, Ky., stayed with a deck oven when he installed a gas-fired Wood Stone oven in his
third restaurant. The performance difference between the deck ovens in his two other operations and the Wood Stone unit, he said, is vast.
Choose the Right Oven
Narrow your choices for a new oven with these tips.
* Figure the number of pies per hour made on your busiest nights, and then find an oven or combination of ovens that will produce 25 percent to 40 percent more than that.
* If you're considering switching oven types, taste the pies of competitors who use those ovens.
* Once you've narrowed your choice to a brand and model, visit that manufacturer's test kitchen and bring your own dough. Some manufacturers will even bring their ovens to you.
* Weigh the benefits of each oven type:
Ovens in which the pizza is baked directly on the stone hearth arguably produce the best crusts, but they require a skilled pizza maker to operate them. The exception to the "skill" rule of thumb may be a Roto-Flex, which uses rotating decks requiring little to no pizza maker finesse.
Conveyor ovens arguably are the simplest to operate. Many manufacturers also build them with split belts that move products such as side items and sandwiches through the oven more quickly or slowly, depending on cooking requirements.
* Seek advice from other operators. Every oven type has its devotees, folks who know the good and the bad about each type. Ask them to share their experience.
"The heat is so intense that the pizzas cook a lot faster," said Ferrell, adding that his one Wood Stone unit more than replaced two deck ovens. "Depending on the toppings, the cook time has gone from 10-15 minutes in our older ovens, to five to seven minutes in the Wood Stone."
The temperature and performance difference of the new oven required some procedural changes, such as moving pizzas off of cooking screens and onto the oven hearth for a time to add crispness, Ferrell said. But it also eliminated deck heat recovery time during busy periods.
"I've never noticed any cold spots at all," he said. "It has a glass door, which allows you to check the pizza without opening the door and letting the heat out. And the flames inside the oven add a lot of light, too."
Like a traditional deck oven, the pizza maker working the Wood Stone unit must be skilled and attentive, Ferrell said. But in the opinion of Gary Rupp, vice president of sales and marketing, Everett, Wash.-based Lang Manufacturing, that's what makes great pizzas.
"Our ovens require some know-how, but it's hard to beat what you get from them," said Rupp, referring to Lang's electric deck ovens. The units can be stacked three high, and all use what Rupp called an "air curtain" at the door to help retard heat loss. Lang ovens also have glass doors for a clear view of what's cooking inside. "If a guy wants a traditional pizza, this is the right oven for that."
Back in the hood
Cyndy Franz, director of sales and marketing for Elgin, Ill.-based Middleby Marshall, said a key concern with oven upgrades is space, not only on the floor, but above the oven in the hood area.
Conveyor ovens like those manufactured by her firm can be stacked one atop the other -- four high in some configurations -- in order to maximize floor space. If a hood system isn't able to remove the heat, any smoke or airborne grease from even a single oven, that kitchen will be an awful place to work, she said.
"Hoods are always a concern, especially if they're not adequate for a manufacturer's recommendations or what local codes dictate," Franz said. Not only is vertical clearance below the hoods an issue with stacks of ovens, Franz said operators must account for oven length, which must be within the hood's width, in order to capture exhaust properly. "It can't be too long end to end. It's still got to fit (below) the same area."
Michael Brockman, a corporate chef for Bellingham, Wash.-based Wood Stone, said the oven-hood configuration must be worked out well before the first pizza's baked. Retrofitting, he added, is costly.
"Check with an inspector first rather than waiting until you have a piece of equipment in the restaurant," said Brockam. "If you tick off the inspector, then you're doubly damned to get approval for the oven. Do yourself a favor and get plan approval beforehand."
Brockman warned operators planning to use wood-fired ovens to be especially dilligent in getting inspector approval because of those ovens' special venting requirements: "You don't want to get hit with a $20,000 venting project you didn't expect."
What's it worth to you?
Much as Dunfield said he'd like to sell an oven to every operator who thinks he needs a bigger, faster, better unit, he admits that's not always necessary.
"If you're looking to keep overall costs down, I'd probably start with a deck oven or two," he said. "If you're battling a poor labor pool, you might consider a conveyor. If you're doing a white tablecloth restaurant, I might go with a Wood Stone because it adds that ambiance. But if I'm looking to cook a bunch of pizzas without having to rotate them a bunch of times, I'm definitely going with a Roto-Flex."
Manufacturers' reps also said a new oven should supply more capacity than an operation currently needs. In other words, that oven should provide your business some room to grow so you're not faced with buying another oven too quickly.
Franz said owners of three- and four-stack Middleby Marshall configurations typically run just two of them during most of the week, but on busy nights, or when a large school order comes in, those operators simply switch on the extra ovens to address demand.
Said Brockman: "If someone's going to depend upon a piece of equipment for their livelihood, then they'd better make sure they base what they buy on the busiest conceivable hour of business they have, and compare that to the manufacturer's figures to see if it can meet that. I'd hate to see a guy put in a smaller oven, get busy again and have to turn away business."
Brockman also suggested operators visit a manufacturer's test kitchen when they get serious about a particular brand and model oven. Wood Stone's Bellingham facility is busy four days a week, he said, but that still equates to only 20 percent of the company's customers testing the equipment. Roto-Flex has a mobile kitchen that brings a working oven directly to an operator's restaurant, and large oven manufacturers often have test sites at distributor warehouses.
And if you're still struggling with which oven to buy, Fat Jimmy's Ferrell said to pick the one that looks the best.
"(The Wood Stone) is just a beautiful oven," he said. "We have an open kitchen and it's kind of the center of attention. Everybody can see it full of pizzas and see the fire and that adds some ambiance."
Daisy liked the look of his Roto-Flex so much, he wished it were more visible to his guests in the dining room.
"It's really nice looking with all that stainless steel," he said. "I just wish we had more of a view back into the kitchen. Customers like to see those kinds of things."