Raw Deals

Sept. 11, 2003

Few foodservice concepts work as simply as take-and-bake pizza. A staff assembles and sells pizzas that customers cook in their own homes. No delivery, no burned pies and no sweat, right?

If so, then why has it caught on so slowly? It's been a bona fide pizza concept since at least 1980, when Figaro's Italian Pizza opened in Salem, Ore. But 21 years later, it accounts for about $425 million -- 1.7 percent -- of the entire $26 billion ready-to-eat pizza market. By comparison, Papa John's alone went from zero to $1.8 billion in 16 years.

But despite its somewhat slow growth, Tom Lehmann, director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., believes take-and-bake pizza is only in its infancy.

"When you see how it's growing on the West Coast, there's no question there's a demand for it," said Lehmann. "Will it take over the whole industry? No, because people will always love pizza from a pizza shop. But anybody who's saying it's not going to be big has his head in the sand."

One key to the current and future growth of take-and-bake pizza, according to Scott Adams, CEO of Nick-N-Willy's, a 14-store take-and-bake chain headquartered in Lone Tree, Colo., is helping customers understand the product's benefits.

"There's certainly nothing new about baking a pizza at home, so what we have to do is help the customer understand what it is we offer: freshness and convenience," said Adams. "Everybody's really pushing the quality of their delivery containers, and we're spending more time thinking about the ingredients."

Billy Lane, owner of Pizza Lane, a full-service shop in Sumter, S.C., said the customers who buy his take-and-bake pizzas typically live far away and like the fact that his pizza travels well.

"A dedicated customer usually is somebody who might live out a ways and doesn't want to drive all the way in," said Lane, who parbakes his pies and instructs customers how to finish them. "By the time you get a baked pizza home to one of those places, it's cold and dried out."

Out of the $900,000 in annual sales Lane said he does at his 188-seat store, he admits only a fraction of it comes from take and bake. Though everything he reads tells him the trend has arrived, his cash drawer, however, doesn't reflect it.

"I can't seem to get it wound up here for some reason," said Lane, who's been tweaking his take-and-bake program for almost two years. "People here just aren't catching on to it."

Half a Country Remains

Why the concept has worked out West, but not in the East is a question for which no one has a consistent answer. Tom Morrell, president of Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza, believes that customers east of the Mississippi simply don't know much about take and bake -- despite attempts by Pizza Hut and Little Caesars to sell the product. Why they failed, he surmised, was because of the difficulty of marketing raw offerings beside better-known fully baked goods.

"They created a dilemma for themselves, because they had to convince the consumer that taking 20 minutes to bake a product for them was worth a few dollars more," said Morrell.

Some operators say take-and-bake pies are a natural out West, especially in states like Washington, Oregon and Colorado, where the weather is generally cold. Heating up the house by baking a pizza in the oven, therefore, is a good thing, unlike in the hotter South.

Ron Paul, president of foodservice industry research firm, Technomic, Inc., believes that pizza's relative newness on the West Coast has allowed take-and-bake pizza to grow fairly quickly since it isn't competing against the well-established names in the East.

"People on the West Coast don't have a standard of identity in terms of pizza as they do in Chicago and New York," said Paul, whose company is based in Chicago. "There a lot more spots for pizza in Chicago, and our needs are well served there. But on the West Coast, there are nowhere near as many choices, and the type of pizza you usually find is California style."

Other pundits simply shrug their shoulders and point to the obvious: The West Coast is where take-and-bake pizza started, and only time is blocking its eastward spread.

Currently, Papa Murphy's is leading that charge. In early 2001, the nation's largest take-and-bake chain signed a 100-store deal with The Burrell Group, to develop markets around and inside Chicago over the next seven years. This marked the first time the 675-store company signed a major franchisee deal. Since its founding in 1986, it has awarded franchise contracts largely on a store-by-store basis.

"We're just beginning to penetrate in the Midwest, and in California alone we've not even touched Metro Los Angeles," said Morrell. Papa Murphy's 2000 gross sales were $347 million, the company is growing at a rate of 100 stores per year. "We believe we have every opportunity to triple in size if we wanted to."

As confident as Morrell is about his chain, even he admits that competing against high-quality independent pizzerias on the East Coast is a battle he'd rather wage later.

"Those areas around New York ... we'll develop other areas first," said Morrell, smiling. "That's really a different customer than what we serve right now."

A Cheaper Concept?

In many respects, a take-and-bake operation is less expensive to start and run than a conventional delivery and carryout (delco) pizza shop. Without the cost of ovens and exhaust hoods, an operator can reduce equipment expenses by a minimum of $15,000 to $30,000 per store.

Depending on food equipment used in the store, operator insurance costs can be lower, too. Without ovens, no one gets burned, and without delivery, auto accident liability is a non-issue. (Factor in a piece of equipment such as a dough sheeter, however, and insurance costs may rise.)

Labor and employee benefit expenses also are reduced because employees aren't needed run the ovens, take-and-bake stores typically don't deliver, which eliminates drivers, and store operating hours are commonly shorter. Since most customers are neither home to bake pizzas during lunch nor motivated to fire up the oven late at night, companies such as Papa Murphy's stay open only from about noon until 9 p.m.

Still, some of those savings are offset by other expenses, such as higher-than-average franchise license costs. According to presidents of both Figaro's and Papa Murphy's, a franchise at each costs $175,000, quite a bit higher than the cost of a comparable regional chain delco site, such as a Pizza Magia ($125,000, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee) or a Pizza Time ($100,000, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming).

Since take-and-bake shops open later and close earlier than typical pizzerias, gross sales also are often fall short of those posted by the latter. Industry wide, the average delco grosses about $550,000 a year, but at Figaro's the average is $375,000. At Nick-N-Willy's it's $350,000 a site, said Adams, and at Papa Murphy's Morrell said the average is $500,000.

Also helping keep sales lower than average is the cost of most take-and-bake pizzas; since they're raw, operators know customers expect a price break. Papa Murphy's average one-topping price is around $7, whereas a comparable baked pie would cost about $1 to $3 more. (Interestingly, since take-and-bake pizza technically is raw, the government views it as a "grocery" product, which allows take-and-bake stores to accept food stamps. As much as 3 percent of sales at Papa Murphy's stores in some urban markets come from customers paying with food stamps.)

Prices at Brothers Take & Bake Pizza in Tampa, Fla., are the exception to the rule. According to owner Bill Najmark, the average 16-inch pizza costs $13.50 -- and he's proud to charge that.

"When people get tired of eating crappy chain pizza, they'll eat my take-and-bake pizza and not worry about the cost," said Najmark.

Nick-N-Willy's $10 average pizza price reflects the use of high-end toppings and cheeses, such as feta, fontina, gorgonzola and fresh mozzarella. The chain also sells salads and soft drinks, and its stores are built with a front counter with stools, where customers can sit, sample cooked pizzas, listen to music and watch pizzas being made while they wait.

"Ten dollars for a 12-inch medium might sound high to some, but people know that if they want gourmet pizza, they'll spend a little more," said Adams. "The pizza category is littered with people selling what's the cheapest on the street, so there aren't a whole lot of unique flavors going on in the industry. That's what makes us different."

Differences in concepts and products aside, Morrell believes the bottom line always tells the real story as to whether a take-and-bake concept makes money.

"It's important not to overlook the fact that labor is less, and that helps the bottom line," said Morrell. "Sales at our stores typically get stronger over time as the market learns about us. That's usually the same time we have enough stores in a market to afford (mass) advertising."

Bake and Take or Take and Bake?

Figaro's Italian Pizza lets customers choose between raw and fully baked pizzas at all of its 94 outlets. Ron Berger, its president and CEO, admits that even he and his wife want it both ways.

"My wife says you can't get the same quality at home as you can in a commercial pizza oven, so when I get pizza, I get one take and bake for me and a baked one for her," said Berger, whose company grossed $38 million in sales in 2000. "We also feel our customers ought to be able to enjoy our pizza however they want it, baked at home or in the shop."

Lehmann said that a generation ago, he might have agreed with Berger's wife. But with the skill that take-and-bake operators have tweaked their recipes for home use, he said customers can get a great product.

"Growing up in Chicago as I did, I guess I can't really help but like pizza from a pizzeria," said Lehmann, who consults with pizza companies all over the world. "But anyone who denies how good take-and-bake pizza has become hasn't had a good one."

Asked to describe typical take-and-bake customers, no operator could pinpoint one demographic. And perhaps when take and bake draws the attention of food researchers, operators will get a little help with that profile.

Morrell's hunch is that families are core consumers of Papa Murphy's pies, mostly because of its affordable price point, and because a mom on the go can grab a pie, toss it in the car and run her errands in the meantime. Adams said Nick-N-Willy's attracts time-crunched customers with a taste for upscale ingredients. And since it offers pizza both ways, Berger simply said pizza lovers of any stripe will come to Figaro's.

In the end, perhaps every take-and-bake pizzeria operator would love to describe his customers as kindly as Najmark.

"Only intelligent people will come and get this kind of pizza, and I have intelligent customers," Najmark said.

Topics: Dough , Independent Operation , Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza

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