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Were Dante alive to see the Solo Pizza Cart, a wood-burning mobile pizza oven, he might have dubbed it "Hell on Wheels."
Its patent holders, Phil Spano and his brother-in -law, David Heinlein, who form a group called Vengo 2000, hope it will make some heavenly profits. The pair claims their mobile oven is the only one of its kind, and they're marketing it aggressively to the foodservice industry.
Since its introduction at the 1997 International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, the oven has received several patents, including one for oven design and another for materials. The final utility patent was awarded in March 2001.
"We purchased the rights from someone, right off the drawing boards," said Spano, who lives near Pittsburgh, where he works as the director of business development for a commercial foodservice consultancy. "We took a basic concept and worked with engineers to develop a unique oven and obtained patents for it."
Since '97, the oven has realized limited but growing commercial distribution, with nearly two dozen units sold.
Using just a few logs an hour, the oven, which is constructed of stainless steel and a stone hearth, heats to an internal temperature of about 950 F. Once it's up to temp, it can cook three eight- or 10-inch pizzas in about 3 minutes each, and about 60 pies total in an hour.
The Solo, which has an interior diameter of 38 inches, tips the scales at 350 pounds -- well within the load range of a light truck. To simplify transportation, a trailer hitch is welded onto the bottom of the frame.
The Solo Pizza Cart
Maintenance is simple, said Spano, since the Solo has almost no moving parts and because the stainless steel helps prevent rust. It's also health and fire department compliant.
Marlene Parrish, a food writer for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, first saw the oven used at a monthly happy-hour event at her condominium-housing complex. She calls Solo's design "a lesson in efficiency."
The unit includes: a food preparation counter, with a tray for toppings and sauces; a sink whose water is heated by the oven's heat; storage capacity for paper products, utensils and wood; and an 18-inch deep cold storage area that can be filled with ice for storing perishable ingredients.
"It's a heck of an idea and it's a perfect thing to use at special events," said Parrish. "The pizza it turns out is very good. It was very crisp and had a little smoky flavor to it."
Parrish said the unit, which was "up and ready to go" within half an hour after its arrival at her complex, is ideal for catering operations and at festivals and special events. "It's portable, so it would be great in those settings."
"Anything new like this is definitely going to be marketable," said Ray Werner, a retired Pittsburgh-based advertising executive, who rented the Solo for agency parties. "Conventional pizza ovens don't match up. Something really fine happens to the taste because of the fire and wood. Eating the pizza, I saw no less quality when I compared it to what I can get at a good restaurant. It was delicious."
Louise Basham, owner of the Uncorked, a specialty wine shop in Mansfield, Ohio, bought an indoor version of the Solo last May, and has watched incremental sales soar.
"It's the only wood-burning pizza oven in town and it has definitely expanded our business," said Basham, whose town has 50,000 residents.
The spirits vendor, who didn't sell pizzas before buying the oven, said the unit has increased her bottom line by at least 25 percent on Friday and Saturday nights. It also increased weekly "to go" lunch business to the point of equaling sales on a Friday or Saturday evening.
"People who attend these concerts and festivals are looking for something different and unique to eat. These ovens, because they are mobile, offer festivals the opportunity to sell something different, a delicious-tasting pizza."
"It means we now have three very busy days each week," she added. "People who once came only for a drink and our gourmet cheeses, now stay longer and eat pizza. With excellent word of mouth, more people are coming just to eat the pizza. It's also significantly increased our beer and wine sales."
The cost of a Solo Pizza Cart isn't so low. Where an indoor version like Basham's costs $5,000 to $8,000, an outside roller roaster draws some serious dough: $15,000 to $20,000, according to Heinlein, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio.
David Gilliam, the owner of Trio's Wood Fired Pizza, a 90-seat pizzeria in Knoxville, Tenn., uses his mobile oven for catering from May through September. He says he's long since recovered his investment.
"We definitely made our money back, and if it were fully promoted, we could gross as much as $1,500 a week by using the oven," said Gilliam. "The market is definitely there for people who are outside in warm weather."
Spreading the Word
"Right now we're dealing with a niche market, but almost anything that is somehow different and truly unique starts out that way," Heinlein said. "I really think it will develop over time and be nationwide at some point. ... (W)e're ramping up to take it all over the place."
That effort has included discussions with several large pizza chains, names Spano declined to divulge. He did say, however, that those companies are working wood-fired pizza concepts.
Spano said he also has spoken with several major symphony orchestras around the country, to ascertain interest in purchasing the oven for use at summer festivals.
"People who attend these concerts and festivals are looking for something different and unique to eat," said Spano. "They're tired of the usual chaffing dishes and sterno. These ovens, because they are mobile, offer festivals the opportunity to sell something different, a delicious-tasting pizza."
Heinlein said they've also spoken with operators of golf courses, ski resorts, vendors serving county and state fairs, auto racing organizers and large-venue amusement parks. While the initial emphasis has been on East Coast locations, the duo has begun to market in the south, southeast and southwestern parts of the country because they have longer warm-weather seasons.
"It's the flavor and aroma of the pizza that will help sell the oven," Heinlein said. "You can tell when eating it. It has a much more natural taste, and you can smell the wood smoke. It makes the ingredients and toppings taste even fresher. It's the difference between getting a gourmet pizza and getting the same old thing from a large chain."
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