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Eric Lippman endured a sleepless night before the 2005 Pizza Pizzazz, a two-day best-pie competition held during the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio. In his first-ever such contest, he was 1,200 miles from Cypress, Texas, where he co-owns EJ's Neighborhood Pizzeria and Italian Eatery, he had to bring his ingredients on the plane with him and he had to make his dough at a competitor's pizzeria in Columbus.
"That's what I had to do to make it fresh," said Lippman. But learning last year that the competition is as friendly as it is serious will help him enjoy it this year, when the two-part contest resumes Feb. 19 (gourmet category) and 20 (traditional category). "I'll have more fun for sure because I know what to expect. This is a good group of people and a good contest."
But why would a Texan fly all the way to Columbus to enter a pizza contest? Because a lot is on
"We tripled our business by winning that competition," said Samosky, owner of Samosky's Homestyle Pizzeria in Valley City, Ohio. "I was on TV 10 different times, we were in the newspapers and on the radio."
Samosky said the crush of customers required not only daily visits from distributors to restock supplies, but the purchase of two new ovens in a week.
"In the first month after I won, we had a two- to thee-hour wait some nights," said Samosky, whose Philly Cheese Steak Pizza took first. "People were driving in from three hours away in Pennsylvania. After the first news appearance, I didn't work the whole day because I had to stand up in front shaking people's hands for eight hours."
When Michael Shepherd won the gourmet category in 2003, he said the business boost wasn't as impressive as Samosky's, but it went a long way to sustain Michael Angelo's Pizza during what was then the height of a recession.
"It seemed like all the operators I talked to back then said their sales were stagnant or down," said Shepherd, whose business is in Kenton, Ohio. "But we were consistently up, so I think that really helped carry us."
Mostly, the win legitimized his pizza. "Before that, we'd never advertised that we had the best pizza, because it's so clichÃ©. But when you say yours was voted the best pizza, it gives it a whole new meaning. You can now say, 'Here's my proof, an award hanging on the wall that says, 'Best pizza.'"
Jim Reichle's victory in 1996 literally saved Angelina's Pizza, then a struggling shop in North Olmsted, Ohio, he owned with wife, Ann. That year's $300 first prize was used to purchase a desperately needed meat slicer — right off the show floor that day — but the resulting publicity put the pizzeria on the map.
"Our business has never been the same," said Ann Reichle, whose company unit count is now three. She also is the NAPICS chairwoman. A second victory in 1998 netted the couple another $300 prize, "but there wasn't a trip to Italy for the winners back then. Things have changed a lot since we won."
A unique contest
Pizza Pizzazz is the largest contest of its kind in the United States. One-hundred entries are accepted each year — 50 each for gourmet and traditional categories — while only six prizes are awarded. First place in each category wins a spot on the U.S. Pizza Team and the trip to the Italian competition, while second and third places win cash prizes of $400 and $200 respectively.
Bradie Rice, marketing coordinator for the Ohio Restaurant Association, which runs NAPICS, expects to see a lot of new faces in this year's contest.
"We've had more first-time competitors enter this year than in the past, and that's encouraging," Rice said. "But we still expect the usual tried-and-true veterans will register soon. A lot of the same people come back to this competition every year."
Over the years, many competitors return simply to see friends made in the past, and that camaraderie was a pleasant surprise for Lippman last year. He said the resulting interaction with other pizza makers gave him fresh ideas for EJ's, and getting out of his operation helped broaden his perspective of the industry. "Last year when I came back home, I had so much knowledge and energy I'd gotten from the people I met at the contest. It was rejuvenating."
Get ready to rumble
Samosky came and watched the contest in 2004, but was too intimidated to enter. His business was brand new and he thought he wouldn't have a chance against veteran operators with well-known businesses
Jason Samosky, owner, Samosky's Homestyle Pizzeria, won the Pizza Pizzazz gourmet category in 2005,
"The competitors were wonderful, and people lend you stuff if you need it. It wasn't even like a competition within that circle," he said. "Even though the best (pizza makers) in the U.S. are down there, they want to help everyone else out. That makes it fun."
Shepherd advises contestants have confidence that their products are good and to be completely ready when it's their turn at the oven. "It's pretty simple, really: Bring the best you've got, and if it's good, it'll be good. But if it's bad, it'll be bad."
And if you're lucky enough to win, Samosky said prepare for more work than pleasure in Italy. Though the four-day visit to the birthplace of pizza was exciting, he said the days were long ones.
"Competing in the World Pizza Championships with 350 other contestants was just a great experience," said Samosky, who was a top-five finisher among North American entrants. "And with all those people, it goes on for 12 hours a day for two straight days. But it's still a good time."
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