OPERATIONS: Panned performance

Sept. 21, 2005

Whether your operation uses basic deck ovens or high-tech conveyor ovens, optimizing throughput is a must for speedy service and maximum profits. But despite the enormous investments made in ovens, operators may fail to exploit those units' potential if they don't use the right baking pans.

Matching ovens and pans correctly requires meeting two criteria: finding a pan best suited to cooking a particular style of pizza, as well as one that transfers the oven's heat to the pizza optimally.

According to John Crow, owner of Spokane, Wash.-based Lloyd Pans, not only do many operators not know how to match ovens with pans, many don't believe pan quality matters much to the final product.

"A lot of people think they should get the cheapest pans out there, but they don't realize they're probably hurting themselves in the long run," said Crow. "If an operator buys the wrong pans, his pizzas probably will cook slower. And if he's really busy, what's his option? Go out and buy another $20,000 oven to speed things up? The solution doesn't have to be that expensive."

For example,

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Crow has seen operations in which conveyor ovens bake pizzas in 9 minutes at 435 F. But when baked in the correct pan, the operator can run the same pizza through the oven at a higher temperature and reduce the cook time to less than 8 minutes.

"That's maximizing the oven's potential, which means you can sell more pizza," Crow said. "On a busy Friday night, those minutes gained add up to more profit."

Part of improving the overall baking process comes from using pans best suited to an operator's type of pizzeria (carryout/delivery or sit-down) and its recipes (deep dish or thin crust). That may entail the use of different metal finishes or using discs and baffles to increase or decrease heat penetration. As you might expect, better pans cost more money. But as Crow and other pan manufacturers claim, you get what you pay for.

Surface treatment

A fairly recent advance for aluminum pizza pans is the use of hard-anodized coating. Revered for its non-stick properties, the coating also boosts heat transfer. The result, according to Crow, is a 6 percent to 12 percent reduction in bake times and a crisper bake.

In addition to Lloyd, American Metal Craft and Allied Metal Spinning make hard-anodized coated pizza pans.

Jeff Zeak, pilot plant manager in the education department at the American Institute of Baking, said hard-anodized coating is a boon to pizza operations looking to improve product consistency, reduce waste (no sticking) and limit the number of pans bought each year.

"Veteran pizza makers know bargain pans don't hold up worth a flip when it comes down to it," said Zeak, who teaches in Manhattan, Kan. "So to invest in something with a better coating on it and has added durability makes a lot of sense."

But such pans also cost about twice as much as non-coated pans. The numbers, Crow said, can scare some operators away.

"It's fair to say there is a market for lower-end pans; they do work," Crow said. "But you don't have to be all that smart to do the math. If you can get 12 percent more pizzas through your ovens, you can see how they'd pay for themselves pretty quickly."

Lloyd's hard-coated pans also come pre-seasoned, meaning operators can skip the "oil-and-bake" step required for some new pans.

Anodized pans do make clean-up a breeze, said Zeak, but some brands require additional TLC. Tossing them into a sink full of water can damage some pans' finish.

"We have some pans at AIB that floated half in, half out of the water for a period of time, and you could see the effect it had on the coating," Zeak said. "Basically you should do nothing more than submerge it for a few seconds, clean it with nothing very abrasive and then rinse it."

Menu variety driving pan variety

As pizza ovens have evolved technologically, their uses have broadened, and that's reflected in ever-growing menus. In addition to new pizza varieties, operators are

Photo courtesy of Lloyd Pans.

adding hot sandwiches and side items, and in the process, they've put an increasing workload on their ovens, particularly conveyor models. Figuring out how best to heat chicken wings, panini and pizza all in the same oven hasn't been easy for most, Crow said.

"While their pizzas are making one pass through the conveyor oven, a sandwich might make a half pass and something else might go through one-and-a-half times," he said. "With the right pan, you might be able to get it adjusted to where everything can go through in one pass."

Tools such as no-burn baffles reduce the amount of heat and airflow on a product, should it need gentler cooking while traveling through the conveyor aside other items.

"Our company decided long ago that pans aren't just a commodity; we see them as precision-engineered cooking platforms," Crow said. "Every pan should have a reason for being. ... We take them and change them slightly or drastically to make them work for specific purposes."

Throw-away pans?

As take-and-bake pizza has become more popular, Zeak has wondered whether the disposable baking trays on which many raw pies are sold could be used in baked-pizza operations. Throwing a tray in the trash eliminates washing and pan replacement, and it reduces chances for burn-related accidents.

"The cost of a bake-able tray might be attractive compared to the cost of real baking pans," he said. "An operator looking at a high-quality pan understands he's investing in it, and that it eventually must pay for itself over time. It's a business decision based on how many pizzas you have to make before (a metal) pan pays for itself in savings. It would be interesting to compare the costs."

Told about a rumor that a major pizza chain was experimenting with a bake-able pizza box, i.e. no pan used at all, Zeak said it was news to him. Given advances in boxes for microwavable foods, he said he wasn't surprised someone was considering it for pizza.

"But I guess until I see it, it'll be hard to understand if it works well," he said. "Right now, the pans we have do the job."


Topics: Operations Management

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