College basketball has March Madness, but from mid-February to mid-March, the U.S. pizza industry has contest madness. Held within the span of a month are two of the country's most important pizza bakeoffs: Pizza Pizzazz (held during February's North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio) and Pizza Festiva (held during March's International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas). Though each awards different prizes, competitors say the real trophies are the "best pizza" bragging rights and the resulting sales-spiking PR boom.
Yet, despite the hundreds of different competitors who enter both contests annually, many of the same names appear among the finalists and winners each of event. Are these pizza makers just lucky?
The lengthening string of repeat finalists and quick-study winners could be proof of how seriously many of them approach these competitions and similar events. Hoping to learn a little more about this mini-phenomena, PizzaMarketplace interviewed five pizza contest winners to uncover their secrets. Read along to learn how their pies continue to come out on top.
Tip No. 1: Be organized, detailed and triple-packed.
Jodi Aufdencamp, co-owner of four-unit Mama Mimi's Take 'N Bake Pizza in Columbus, Ohio, is organized to the teeth before a contest. She compiles a detailed checklist of everything she needs to produce not one, but three of the same pizzas for each contest.
"You'd be surprised what you'll forget if you're not thorough," said Aufdencamp. She and husband, Jeff, placed first in Pizza Pizzazz's gourmet division in 2001, and they were the vegetarian pizza finalists in 2004 at Pizza Festiva. This year they're Festiva finalists with the Mama's Marmalletta Amore entry. "One time we entered a sausage, mushroom, onion and pepper pizza in Pizzazz, and when we got there, we realized we forgot the sausage. We had to go and find an exhibitor at the show who had the sausage."
many contests are hurry-up-and-wait affairs, when the call to bake comes, you've got to be ready, Aufdencamp added. So she arranges all ingredients and utensils so they're at her fingertips. "If something goes wrong, you need to have enough stuff to slap a new pizza together at the last minute."
Mama Mimi's Take 'N Bake owners Jeff and Jodi Aufdencamp won Pizza Pizzazz in 2001, were Pizza Festiva finalists in 2004, and they're returning to Festiva as finalists in 2006. — Photo by Fred Minnick
Brad Rocco gets equally organized by replicating what he does daily in his shop, Pizza Plus, in Bexley, Ohio.
"We prepare by having everything portioned out and ready to go," said Rocco, who won the 2006 traditional category in Pizza Pizzazz. His business partner, who runs their second shop, won the same category two years before. "This year, we woke up at the crack of dawn to prepare dough and do what we always do."
Andrew Scudera, a pizza maker at Goodfella's Pizza in Staten Island, N.Y., is taking all his ingredients on the flight with him when he travels to Vegas to compete in Pizza Festiva on March 14. To ensure his dough is perfect, his boss, E. Jay Meyer, will be his water boy.
"Yeah, we're actually bringing our own water," said Meyer, co-owner of the eight-unit company. Another Goodfella's pizza maker won Festiva in 2001. "I know they'll have plenty of ingredients there for us to use, but we want to bring what we know will work: our own basil, yeast, Pecorino-Romano, smoked mozzarella—just about everything."
Tip No. 2: Don't get fancy, go with what you know works.
Meyer learned through multiple contest losses that trying to impress judges with trendy pizzas doesn't work. This year's Festiva finalist, the Smokin' Goodfella, is anything but.
"Sausage and roasted peppers; it's simple, nothing special, but it tastes like New York pizza is supposed to taste," he said.
In only his second try, Eric Lippman won the 2006 Pizza Pizzazz gourmet category. He also believes in entering pizzas that are proven.
"Do what you do well and do that normally, not differently," said Lippman, co-owner of EJ's Neighborhood Pizzeria and Italian Eatery in Cyprus, Texas, near Houston. "I believe making my product that day, as if I would make it at the store—right down to the dough—is the best way. Trying something different could be distracting."
Tip No. 3: Research past contest-winning pizzas.
Learning what ingredients past winners' pizzas used may reveal some clues about what judges like. This is especially important in regional contests, such as Pizza Pizzazz, where the majority of the judges come from that area.
Historically, Pizzazz's traditional category has been dominated by meat-laden pizzas built on pan-style crusts. Sean Brauser, a two-time Pizzazz champ and owner of four-unit Romeo's Pizza in Medina, Ohio, won the category with the same pizza, the Butcher's Shop. Don Schmitt, one of Rocco's pizza makers at Pizza Plus, won this year with the Mega Meat.
By contrast, a minimal-meat pie from Goodfella's was a finalist in 2004, but it couldn't close the door that year on Brauser's Butcher Shop. After the contest, Meyer learned one judge's opinion on why it finished second.
"The guy said, 'It was a really good pizza, but it was a little too Italian for me, son,'" Meyer recalled, laughing. The pizza, he added, bore only a smattering of sausage. "I had to grab (my pizza maker) by the shoulders and walk him away."
In the days after each Pizza Pizzazz, Lippman said contestants receive written remarks from judges about their entries. Those remarks helped him decide what to bring to this year's competition.
"Some said last year my dough was not flavorful, or that it didn't cook up well or hold up well," he said. "That made me decide to come back with my pan crust, which has more oil, salt and sugar. And I like it better anyhow."
Tip No. 4: Murphy's Law rules.
For his Pizza Pizzazz victory in 2002, Brauser won a spot on the United States Pizza Team and traveled to Salsamaggiori, Italy, to compete in the World Pizza Championships. After making his dough for the competition, he asked the chef at the hotel where he stayed to store it in the walk-in. When he went to retrieve it the next day, he said the dough had "mysteriously disappeared. That was real nice."
Brauser and several other past winners said refrigeration is touch and go wherever they've been. Sometimes it's not cold enough, other times it's arctic and other times it's non-existent.
"Two years ago at Festiva, some of the refrigeration froze some dough," said Aufdencamp. "And the temperature of the (Las Vegas) convention center is always an issue because the kitchen is at the back of the hall, where the doors are. If it's cold outside, it's cold back there, too. ... We had to put our dough out in the sun in the convention center parking lot so it would proof."
On the flight to Vegas in 2004, Aufdencamp's thermometer was confiscated by airport security, and to add insult to injury, the dough mixer wasn't working immediately when they arrived. "They have the challenge of setting up a makeshift kitchen, so you can't expect it all to go perfectly."
While test-baking his pizzas at the World Pizza Championships, Rocco had to get used to the extreme temperatures of the only oven available: a wood-fired model.
"It cooked somewhere between 700 and 1,000 degrees, which is how they do it in Italy," he said. "We had to keep the oven door open so it didn't burn the pizza. We weren't ready for that."
Tip No. 6: Don't hesitate, just enter!
After competing in the 2005 Pizza Pizzazz, Lippman entered two regional contests that same year. With each bakeoff, he became more relaxed and confident.
"Definitely don't get discouraged if you don't do well in a contest," said Lippman. "Each time I went to a new contest, it got easier and I got better feedback. Go out and learn from the mistakes you make."
Rocco and business partner, Jack Atlas, watched Pizzazz from a distance for a few years before mustering the courage to enter, and Brauser hadn't considered entering it until a consultant urged him to take the
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Both wound up winning it on their first tries.
"We entered three days before the contest and we won first place," said Brauser, who still entertains the thought of a little beginner's luck. "Who knows? Maybe it was. We always knew we had a really good pizza, but it was amazing to have it judged and actually win."
Rocco said his pizza shops also participate in the annual Columbus Pizza Challenge, an annual September showdown between some two dozen local companies. The regular participation generates positive PR.
"Because every shop's name is on a lot of printed materials and all over the newspapers and TV, it's a great way to keep your name out there," he said.
Tip No. 7: Relax and have fun.
Aufdencamp recommends competitors keep another pizza maker alongside before and during the event to soothe their nerves and help when needed.
"You definitely need someone there to keep reminding you to stay positive, that this is what you do every day," she said in an interview four days before the 2006 Festiva. "Jeff's the positive one who keeps telling me to stay calm. But though right now I'm the nervous wreck, by the morning of the contest, the roles will switch."
Aufdencamp and Lippman said one of the best ways to relax during the event is to make friends with other competitors. Not only does that pass the time while waiting to bake, it forges long-term friendships with people who become great business resources.
Brauser said he draws on lessons learned while playing defensive end at Bucknell University.
"I always thought if you played relaxed, you played better," he said. "Some people get very intense and get all angry-looking. But I just go in with attitude that I make hundreds of pizzas a day and I know I can make just one more."