With costs rising on everything from labor to cheese to rent, not to mention the higher prices for gasoline and utilities, pizzeria operators are increasingly seeking to do more with less.
Not only are operators looking to make their employees more productive, they're looking to make their equipment more productive as well. And equipment makers are rising to meet the demand.
San Antonio, Texas-based Roto-Flex Oven Co. produces a "rotating deck oven" that company president Richard Dunfield says can produce more pizzas than a typical deck oven in the same amount of space.
"Our typical customer is a guy who has a couple of deck ovens, but wants to do more volume" Dunfield said. "He needs two deck ovens but can't give up the floor space."
What Dunfield's company did, he said, was to take a deck oven and look for ways to make it better. Rather than a flat, stationary cooking surface, the Roto-Flex oven features a cooking surface rotating around a center spindle.
The oven also features vertically-sliding glass doors so an operator can load the oven from one side and unload from the other. A typical deck oven is loaded and unloaded from the front.
"A deck oven often has hot spots and you have to spin the pizzas, so you really rely on a good oven man to get those pizzas perfect," he said.
Dunfield's typical customer is doing about $600,000 or more in annual sales and an operator cooking 300 or more pizzas between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. on a Friday night is a good candidate for Roto-Flex, he said.
According to a poll of small business operators conducted by the Northfield, Ill.-based Small Business Research Board, small businesses intend to expand their operations mainly through the addition of or enhancement of their facilities, rather than through changes to their product or service offerings.
Most operators responding to the poll said that improving staff training, adding more staff and adding more automation or technology would be the top three methods for increasing productivity. Only about 19 percent of respondents said they planned to expand their businesses by adding locations.
"Real estate is expensive," Dunfield said. "Why not be able to do more with the space you have?"
Need for speed
Most chain pizzerias rely on conveyor ovens to handle the cooking chores. A typical conveyor oven can cook a large pizza in about 7 or 8 minutes; however, a busy night can lead to backups. Oven makers are dealing with that issue by producing conveyors that cook nearly twice as fast.
Earlier this year, Atlanta-based TurboChef Technologies introduced an oven dubbed the Hhc 3240, which the company says is the fastest conveyor oven on the market. The oven cooks about 40 percent faster and takes up less space than a traditional conveyor oven, enabling operators to cook nearly twice as many pizzas in the same amount of time.
The company also produces a stackable tabletop version that operates on electricity. Conveyor ovens typically are fueled by natural gas.
And because the ovens cook at a faster speed, they use less energy to do the same amount of work.
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"The Hhc 3240 can cook a 16-inch pizza in 2 minutes and 45 seconds," said TurboChef Technologies spokeswoman Joy Zappi. "Because we are cooking it faster we are using less energy. Our ovens also have a standby mode, so when they are not being used it is not being used. They aren't using energy like a typical conveyor that is constantly running."
Papa John's conversion nearly complete
The potential for increased energy savings is one of the reasons Papa John's International Inc. began outfitting all of its U.S. company-owned stores with high-speed ovens made by the Elgin, Ill.-based Middleby Corp. The oven, the Middleby Marshall 770 WOW! Oven, bakes 30 percent faster than a normal conveyor oven, while reducing energy consumption by about 25 percent.
"We have deployed the WOW! Oven to about 70 percent of our company restaurants," said Papa John's spokesman Chris Sternberg. "We expect to complete the remainder of our corporate restaurants in 2008."
The oven links to Papa John's proprietary in-store point-of-sale system, operating at varying energy levels based on order flow. The POS integration feature is expected to result in lower energy consumption during slow periods.
"We've seen energy savings of 20 to 30 percent at some of our restaurants," Sternberg said.
Papa John's also is banking on the new ovens to help the company boost service times, especially during lunch, typically a slow period for pizzerias. The new ovens shave about two minutes off the cooking time compared with the company's previous ovens.
Although franchisees won't be required to convert to the new ovens, several have opted to do so.
"I would estimate that about 10 percent of the franchise system is on board with installing the WOW! Oven," Sternberg said. "We expect additional franchisees to follow suit as the benefits play out in the market."