Since Kraft rolled out its DiGiorno-brand six years ago, the face of frozen pizza has never been the same. Not only did it prove that pizza from the grocer's freezer could taste good, but look good and rise in the oven like a fresh pie.
Other than its competitive price (Kraft suggests a retail price for a 12-inch DiGiorno of $5.79), DiGiorno's impact on the ready-to-eat pizza market remains small, but industry interest in the self-rising pizza crust credited for its success is growing steadily and stealthily.
According to Tom Lehmann, director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking, a lot of pizza companies are looking at self-rising crusts and considering how to apply them to their own operations. However, it's an issue almost none of those companies will talk about.
"I think you're going to see major pizza companies using bake-to-rise crusts in the next three to five years," said Lehmann, from AIB's headquarters in Manhattan, Kan. "Anyone with an express site can benefit greatly by using this product."
A self-rising or bake-to-rise crust is made from dough that requires two fermentation cycles. Yeast triggers the primary cycle, while the secondary cycle is activated by the combination of heat and a chemical leavening agent, such as sodium aluminum phosphate (SALP) or glucano delta lactone (GDL).
The benefits of self-rising dough are convenience and consistency. It allows a pizza manufacturer or pizzeria operator to portion, shape, sauce, top and freeze a crust to be shelved and transported to a site for sale-before a customer ever orders it.
Such a pre-prepared product, according to Lehmann, is ideal for pizza companies that have express outlets (stores with limited menus, space and equipment, all geared for rapid-service). Todd Miller, vice president at Tulsa, Okla.-based Simple Simon's Pizza, said his company has used pre-proofed frozen dough discs in its c-store outlets for about a year.
"What we really like about it is that it alleviates a lot of labor problems, as well as liability problems associated with the dough sheeters we use," said Miller. Simple Simon's is a 220-store chain made up of free-standing, in-line and c-store sites.
Randy Charles, president of self-rising crust producer Alive and Kickin' Pizza Crusts, said labor savings is a prime motivator driving operators to examine his product more closely.
"With self-rising dough, you don't need skilled labor, a lot of equipment or space," said Charles. Alive and Kickin', which is in Green Bay, is one of just a few companies producing self-rising dough for the ready-to-eat (RTE) pizza market. "By a using a self-rising product, you have best of both worlds."
But those operators also will have higher food costs. For example, Simple Simon's pays 72 cents for each 14-inch dough disc it buys. That's about double the cost per pound of dough made fresh in its non-c-store shops. Fresh dough, according to Lehmann, generally costs about 30 cents a pound, but self-rising dough, he added, can run as high as a $1 a pound.
Charles said that the extra food cost usually is offset by labor savings, but admits that doesn't happen in every case. To understand the full scope of benefits provided by pre-made dough, operators must consider savings in other areas.
"If you looked just at food cost, yeah, you'd say it's more expensive," said Charles. "But when you factor in labor and equipment you don't have to buy, and cost per square foot of space saved-all the overhead-it really isn't. I think people need to look at it differently than they used to."
Miller said Simple Simon's didn't realize an offset of labor costs by using self-rising dough, but he pointed out that that wasn't really the company's aim. It wanted simplicity, consistency, the elimination of dough sheeters in those operations and "we've sped up service in an area that's hard to do that. That's what we were after," Miller said.
How Does It Taste?
DiGiorno's success has proven that customers like the taste of self-rising crusts, which is a major improvement over how those crusts tasted in the past, said both Lehmann and Miller. Lehmann said the taste difference between a fresh crust and a self-rising one is noticeable, but not objectionable. He said those using SALP taste a little sweeter, and those using GDL taste somewhat like a scratch-made biscuit.
To ensure regular customers wouldn't be caught off guard by a flavor change in the crust, Simple Simon's uses its Drayton Enterprises-manufactured self-rising crust only in newly opened stores, not in those where fresh dough is made. Scratch-dough production, Miller added, also will continue in those stores for the foreseeable future.
Chuck Thorp, COO at 25-store DoubleDave's Pizzaworks in Austin, Texas, said his operation won't be switching to self-rising dough any time soon. He said the company has invested too much time and effort into perfecting its fresh dough.
"I think there's always going to be a market for the freshest product you can produce, and the customer who wants that is the one we go after," said Thorp. "We're after a customer with a discriminating palate, so I don't see us switching."
Buck's Pizza purchasing agent, Jeff Akers, said the DuBois, Penn.-company's dough-making operations are so streamlined that he doesn't think many efficiencies can be gained with a pre-made product. Still, he admits that ruling it out totally isn't wise when you consider the needs of 83 stores.
"I don't know that I should say never," Akers said with a laugh, "but at this time we are not. I really don't see why we would."
As in any industry, change comes slowly and over time. Lehmann said he expects that's the speed at which self-rising crusts will make headway into RTE pizza. Ultimately he believes there is room for a wide variety of dough and crust products, but that at some point, the old way will give way to the new.
"I see it as having the potential to dominate the industry, but I don't think it will replace all the traditional yeast-leavened dough altogether," said Lehman. "I think this would become an additional item for some, but not replace their traditional product."