A dirty duty done well

Feb. 20, 2006

Oven cleaning is a dirty job, but Randy Boswell's willing to do it—especially now that he makes his living at it.

Like a lot of pizza store managers, Boswell hated cleaning ovens when he was a manager for Domino's Pizza. The first time he was told to do it, no one showed him how, and the result, he said, was costly.

"I wound up not putting it back together right, and the next day it wouldn't work," said Boswell, CEO of Bosco Services Group, a pizza oven-cleaning service based in Alexandria, La. "We lost the lunch shift and half the afternoon because of that, and we had to pay a technician $350 to fix it."

When Boswell's wife began having children several years ago, he searched for a business opportunity that would allow him to devote more time to his family. He knew from experience that there were thousands of store managers like him who not only didn't want to clean ovens, but who didn't do it well.

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He also knew the potential downside to cleaning ovens poorly themselves was large, such as broken equipment and lost bonuses if site inspectors found the machines dirty. He figured that if he could make it affordable, outsourcing the dirty duty would be attractive to others.

He was right.

"I just saw an opportunity where so many had the same problem and no opportunity to fix it," Boswell said. "I knew that if I could clean their ovens, they wouldn't have to think about it anymore. Then they could concentrate on selling pizza."

Today BSG and its six franchisees clean ovens in about 1,800 U.S. pizza stores spread out nationwide. To Boswell's knowledge, BSG has no real competitors. Those who get into the business don't stay long, he said. They see the promise in the nitty-gritty niche, but they struggle to stick with it. After eight years in the business, that makes him oven cleaning's crustiest veteran.

"For most part, the competition we've run up against are people who'd rather not be doing it," he said. "Some were (pizza) area supervisors who didn't want to play the corporate game anymore—like me, really—and thought they'd give this a try. But they're pretty transient."

I'll do it myself

Convincing pizza operators to hire him can be a tough sell, Boswell said. Most see oven cleaning as necessary but lowbrow work done after-hours by salaried managers and staffers looking to make some overtime money. But even under those "affordable" circumstances, the end-result isn't always the best.

Oliver Tiller, an eight-store Pizza Hut area manager in Lafayette, La., said getting the job done consistently by a pro outweighs any cost savings gained in having staffers clean the ovens.

"I'd rather have the professionals do it, because they're a lot quicker and a lot more thorough," Tiller said. "The chemicals they use also are very good, and they just know what they're doing."

Based on an annual contract, Boswell charges about $240 for each quarterly cleaning of the average pizza shop's double-stack conveyor ovens. The work is done after closing in about three to four hours.

That fee, Boswell believes, is a small investment in relieving the manager of a duty he doesn't want. It also guarantees the result will pass a corporate inspection.

"A lot of these managers make a bonus of 15 percent of their store's profit," he began. "If we charged a guy $240 to clean an oven, and that comes out of profits, in reality that cost that manger $36 bucks out of his pocket. And I have to ask them, 'Is that amount worth it to you to clean it yourself?'"

Former Domino's area manager Jim Moran said he wouldn't spend the money.

"I liked cleaning ovens and would not pay $240, but I am not surprised people do," said Moran, now a consultant with Restaurant Trainers. "Trainees need to know how to do it anyway, so I got my own oven cleaned enough when I was training (managers)."

Phyllis Senn said the money she spends on cleaning is more than worth it. As the facilities construction/property manager for Papa John's 600 corporate stores and non-traditional sites (such as arenas and stadiums), Senn has seen plenty of problems arise when inexperienced workers clean the company's ovens.

"The biggest risk is damage to the oven," Senn said. "If it's put back together wrong, you're there the next day calling a service company because it doesn't work right."

Boswell's heard worse from his clients.

"I know of a store where the guys cleaning the oven put some of the parts outside in the trash just to get them out of the way for a minute," he began. "While they went back inside, the trash company came and took it all away.

"I also know of another store where they took the oven apart and put all the parts out in the parking lot to clean them off. And before they could put everything back, someone in a car outside ran over all the oven fingers."

Senn has her horror stories, too, but "none I want put in a story," she said, laughing.

Moran said the worst he recalls happening was someone replacing oven "fingers the wrong way and having pizzas coming out way overcooked."

More reasons, Boswell said, to hire a pro.

"I always tell people, 'You're in business to sell pizza, we're in business to clean ovens,' " he said. "And if a service is doing the cleaning and something breaks, it's our liability, not theirs."

Good chemistry

Boswell said he used to clean ovens at several CiCi's Pizza stores, which he called among the industry's dirtiest "because they cook so many pizzas. You can't believe how many they cook, and they have triple-stacks in almost every store." The CiCi's operators wanted to increase the frequency at which their ovens were cleaned, but they wanted a volume discount that Boswell decided was unprofitable for his business.

The disagreement presented an opportunity, however, to meet in the middle. Since most municipalities' restaurant codes don't allow the oven cleaning chemicals Bosco uses to be stored near food, Boswell designed a vat that holds them outside the pizza shop. After closing, operators can disassemble their ovens and put the appropriate parts outside in the chemical bath, and in the morning the parts are rinsed and reinstalled.

"We go to those places once a quarter and strain the chemical bath," Boswell said. "Labor is way cheaper this way because you don't need so much cleaning."

Topics: CiCi's Pizza , Operations Management , Papa John's , Service

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