Pizza champion working to put Detroit style in the spotlight

 
June 22, 2012 | by Alicia Kelso

Operator Shawn Randazzo has a few titles under his belt, most recently being named World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year at the 2012 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in March.

In addition to filling his mantle with more trophies, Randazzo and his mother, Linda Michaels, just opened the Detroit Style Pizza Co. They have a simple mission with their new venture: to get Detroit-style pizza on the map next to Chicago-style and New York-style pizzas.

The team has been in the pizza business since 1997 when they purchased Cloverleaf in the Detroit area. They opened a second location in 2007 and, in 2009, Randazzo entered his first pizza competition and won.

"At that time, I thought Detroit-style was known everywhere, but I was the only competitor with that style of pizza. It surprised me, but I began thinking of the win as a huge opportunity," he said.

Randazzo adopted a plan to get the word out about Detroit-style pizza and began entering – and winning – more competitions.

"People had heard of Little Caesars or Domino's, or other chains from Michigan and thought that meant Detroit style. I had people asking if it was pizza with bullet proof toppings," he said. "I want to change that perception. People know Chicago and New York. This deserves that same recognition."

What sets Detroit-style pizza apart

Earlier this year, when Randazzo transitioned from Cloverleaf to the Detroit Style Pizza Co., his biggest obstacle (besides spreading the word about the new concept) was in developing the perfect dough. Although he had been in the pizza industry for more than a decade, he had never made dough from scratch before.

After testing batch after batch, he finally settled on dough that fit his standards. About a month and a half later, his new recipe won the international competition in Vegas – and earned 30 points more than the second place pie.

Detroit-style pizza is characterized by its square shape, deep-dish crust, edge-to-edge toppings and sauce on top. This type of pizza is nicknamed "upside down" or "red top" pizza because the signature red sauce is ladled on after baking.

The square shape comes from being baked in an industrial parts tray in a deck oven. Randazzo uses blue steel pans. "They are used in the automotive industry, so it ties in well," he said.

Additionally, a blend of mozzarella cheese is spread to the edge of the pan and then caramelized. The dough contains enough hydration that it can't be spun. The moisture, Randazzo says, helps with its texture, which is crunchy on the edges and softer in the middle.

"There is a lot that sets Detroit-style pizza apart – the flavor, texture, crust, cheese. The dough is completely different. You don't ball it up, press it out and bake it," he said. "It's completely different from traditional pizza. It has a wow factor."

Randazzo adds that, while many don't know of its existence, Detroit-style pizza has an extensive history dating back to 1946. The original pie was created by Gus Guerra, who owned Buddy's Pizza, and was inspired by Sicilian style pizza.

The Detroit Style Pizza Co. menu also features Old Forge style, a thin crust pizza made in the tradition of Pennsylvania's Pizza Capitol of the World, and traditional pan style, round baked in bottom-fired deck ovens. Customers can choose from five traditional pan style round flavored crusts: Garlic Butter, Red Hot, Sesame Seed, Garlic Butter Romano and Italian Herb. A gluten-free pizza crust also was recently launched.

Detroit-style recipe highlights include the award-winning Tangy BBQ Chicken and Chicken Caesar pizzas. Specialty pizzas include Margarita in the D, the Motor City Meatball, the Motown Meat Supreme, the Hawaiian Vacation and the Greektown.

Marketing strategy

In addition to continuing on the competition circuit, Randazzo has big plans to get the word out about Detroit-style pizza.

This weekend will feature a grand opening event at the Clinton Township location and, on July 1, another event will be held to mark the opening of the St. Clair Shores location. Both are located just outside of Detroit metro. Attendees will be able to enjoy free samples and win prizes.

The company also is hosting informational group tours that include the story of Detroit-style pizza and a tutorial on its techniques. Groups are guided through the kitchen, where they learn about how to make pizza dough and how to properly position toppings for even baking. Additionally, kids have the opportunity to make their own pizzas.

"One of the ways I'm trying to get the word out is by getting younger people involved," Randazzo said. "I am putting the name out there so in 10 years, most people – 90 percent – will know about Detroit style or will have at least heard about it."

Detroit Style Pizza Co. has added a PR team and is leveraging social media extensively. Randazzo also has reached out to other Detroit-style concepts – such as Brown Dog Pizza in Colorado, and 313 in Austin, Texas – to collaborate on getting the word out about this particular style.

In the near future, Randazzo would like to develop a Detroit-style certification process and offer consultation for others hoping to break into the segment. Randazzo anticipates growing his new brand which, because of the name, should also pique curiosity. His goal is to have 20 to 30 Detroit Style Pizza Co. units by 2018.

"We're just in the beginning stages. This is a ripple that will turn into a huge wave of interest and buzz about Detroit-style pizza," he said. "We have a long road ahead, but we'll get there. I know it. I feel it."

Read more about operations management


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Dough , Food & Beverage , Franchising & Growth , Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Operations Management , Pizza Sauce


Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.
View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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