Topping trends

May 23, 2007 | by Valerie Killifer
** This article is an excerpt from the guide, "How to Maximize your Menu with Pre-cooked Meat." Click here to register for this report.
According to Chicago's Technomic Information Services, the popularity of pizza in American culture has allowed concepts within the segment to expand regardless of geographic preferences.
While concepts such as Donato's in the Midwest, Loop Pizza Grill in the South and ZPizza in the West are expanding their pizza brands, new players to the pizza biz are trying to get in the game.
Within the past two years, Panera Bread, Salsarita's Fresh Cantina, Dunkin' Donuts and Subway have all added pizza to their menus. And many others are considering following suit.
While pizza continues to make an industry push, toppings are increasingly the avenue for its menu growth. Gourmet toppings, such as Thai-flavored chicken, arugula and specialty sausage, have taken center stage on pizzas provided by California Pizza Kitchen and Zpizza. But pepperoni and bacon are still toppings favorites.
Though the birthplace of pizza as we know it is credited to Italy, meat toppings, according to Evelyne Slomon, are America's contribution. Slomon's doctoral thesis centered on the history of pizza and eventually became a seminal work, titled, "The Pizza Book."
"You look at wherever pizza is, and what's on it is what the people there eat most," said Slomon. "Italians aren't the meat-eaters we are here in the U.S., so you see pretty simple toppings there: basil, good cheese, some seafood, and occasionally a little meat."
Slomon said she can't pinpoint exactly when pepperoni first appeared on pizza, but believes it was sometime between 1930 and 1950. During that time, pizza's popularity began a westward crawl from East Coast cities heavily populated with Italian immigrants to Midwestern cities where it had never been served before. Near those cities were vast herds of livestock, and within them were slaughterhouses and food production plants churning out vast quantities of meat.
In the decades since, pork sausage, ground beef and pepperoni have become the standards for pizza toppings. Beyond the also popular mushroom, demand for most all other toppings is profoundly smaller.
Over the past decade, chicken toppings have taken flight as well, first as a specialty topping and more recently as a menu standard. At DoubleDave's Pizzaworks in Austin, Texas, barbecue chicken pizza is a strong seller, and garlic chicken strips sell well on pies at Shotgun Dan's in Sherwood, Ark. But as the three-store company's general manager points out, winged toppings will never fly like those made of beef and pork.
While sausage has reigned as the most favored pork topping, Sugardale Foods' director of foodservice sales, Mark Slaughter, said bacon has become the fastest-growing meat topping category in the past 10 years. The Massillon, Ohio, company produces fully cooked toppings, such as diced bacon.
Cost analysis
Choosing the right meat ingredients goes beyond picking the best flavor profile, it also includes an analysis of cost and profit-margin goals.
John L. Raulerson, quality assurance and research and development director for Florida-based Firehouse Subs said they would never consider making a switch to raw meats, mainly because of the expense. Firehouse currently uses fully-cooked meat products for their subs and sandwiches.
Raulerson said operators may believe they could save money by using raw meat, but the cost of equipment and other expenses would counteract the savings.
When brothers Chris and Robin Sorensen started Firehouse Subs about 13 years ago, money was tight. Instead of taking on the expense of purchasing the equipment needed for raw-meat usage, the pair decided on pre-cooked meat products to save on costs.
But just as important to the cost impact of fully-cooked meats is the ease of portion control. Getting the staff to put the same amount on every time and establishing consistency in the finished product and food cost is easier with pre-cooked meats.
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To help restaurant operators understand the cost difference between fully-cooked and raw meats, Nevada, Iowa-based Burke Corporation provides an online calculator at the Web page:
Quality and efficiency
In today's market, restaurant operators can easily source fully-cooked meat products that offer quality and efficiency, as well as versatility. In turn, these pre-cooked meats can help provide the consumer with quality and consistent menu items, all important aspects of attracting and retaining a broad customer base.
Whether in a single independent restaurant or across a chain, fully-cooked meats can help with quality control, ensuring that the product is the same each and every time. Through the use of pre-cooked meats, operators can more easily provide meat-centered products consistent in flavor, size, texture and appearance, regardless of who cooked the meal.
John L. Raulerson, quality assurance, research and development director for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Firehouse Subs, said having a consistent product is crucial to a restaurant's operation, especially those looking to expand or that have multiple locations.
"If you gave employees raw, they could each cook it in a different way," Raulerson said. "We're really going uphill here so we have to be more consistent than (our competitors)."
Pre-cooked meats also aid in the timeliness of pushing out orders.
For example, Firehouse restaurants can push customers through in about eight minutes using fully-cooked meat products. Raulerson said that adds to the restaurant's operational efficiency because they can serve customers in a timely manner. It also reduces waste and, subsequently, cost.
For a chain that serves approximately 26 million subs a year and uses about 1.2 million pounds of pre-cooked steak, the efficiency gain is significant.

Topics: California Pizza Kitchen , Operations Management

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