Perfect portions produce pizza profits

Sept. 6, 2004

Want to fatten your bottom line by $300 a week?

Then start measuring everything that goes on to your pizzas.

According to "Big Dave" Ostrander, a pizza industry consultant who ran his own shop for 25 years, serious operators weigh and measure — either by scale or by scoop — all their cheese and toppings. "Free-throwing" and "eyeballing" won't get it done, he said.

"I'd say 80 percent of all pizzas are made with the free-throw method — easily 80 percent," said Ostrander. "These guys believe that if they make pizzas faster, they'll make more money. They think their pizza makers can hit their specs well enough. And I can tell you from my own experience, they can't."

Back when Ostrander thought himself an accurate free-thrower, a restaurant colleague put his assumptions to the test by asking him to make a few pizzas and weigh them. The closest

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Ostrander got to his spec was an ounce-and-a-half — over his target. Based on the number of pizzas Ostrander sold weekly at Big Dave's Pizza, he was losing hundreds of dollars a week.

"And that was back when cheese was cheap," Ostrander said. "I don't know how people can do that now and stay in business."

When Ostrander began weighing out his cheese and toppings the scales fell from his eyes.

"It saved me a minimum of $300 a week, every week for the next 15 years," he said. Now he urges his clients to do the same, and he pounds the portion-control pulpit when he speaks on the subject at industry gatherings. One Ostrander client began saving $800 a week when he instituted a strict portion control program, though others routinely save $200 to $300, he said.

But, hey, cheese prices right now are 60 cents below their record highs of spring 2004. The heat's off, right?

Not unless you want to find yourself in the same fix next year when prices rise again. Since so much in the pizza business is out of an operator's control, a good one works to control all he can, all the time, Ostrander said.

"I saw a survey once that tracked a thousand restaurants over 12 years," Ostrander said. "Over that time, 93 percent of their owners had left the business. ... The remaining 7 percent had one thing in common; they all had a total command of their food cost."

Spec it, measure it, check it

The two most accurate means of measuring pizza ingredients are scales and spoodles (basically a flat-bottomed ladle). Unlike spoodles, scales come in a wide variety and cost $35 to $500.

Dial or "spring-balanced" scales are the cheapest ($35 to $75), but also the least accurate. On the make line, they're all but impossible to use due to the need for speed and cleanliness.

Dash-pot scales ($100-$150) are more accurate and quicker-reading, but due to their construction, they're not ideal for the make line.

Digital scales ($300 to $500) are the most accurate and the quickest reading, but they're also the most expensive. Scale makers insist, however, that such scales' accuracy alone will make them pay for themselves in quick order.

"If you spend $2 a pound on cheese or meat, and serve 300 pizzas a day with an excess of just a half ounce per ingredient over a 30-day month, you'll waste $562.50," said Bob Kitchens, of Weigh-Tronix/Avery Berkel. "And you know most places are wasting more than that, because they just throw handfuls of stuff on the pizzas."

If an operator saved just that amount alone in a month, his electronic scale would be paid for, Kitchens added. "It's not cheap; it's 500 bucks a scale. But they'll get their money out of it when they use it."

Carl Joslyn, industrial markets manager for scale manufacturer Ohaus, said he expects operators will complain that his company's $500 scale is too expensive when it rolls out in September. But like Kitchens, he believes a good scale will pay for itself not only in food cost savings, but in long-term customer satisfaction.

"You don't want a customer saying, 'I had a great pizza there with lots of toppings once, but when I went back there, I didn't get as much,'" Joslyn said. "Consistency might not sound very appetizing, but when it's the same high-quality pizza every time, that establishes a great reputation. You can get that with a good scale."

Ostrander said he's tried multiple digital scales over the years, but many weren't durable enough for the kitchen, or they were difficult to keep clean. To weigh a pizza accurately, he said, the pizza maker has to "tare," or reset the scale to zero after applying each ingredient. Food-coated hands made that messy if the scale was tared by a pushbutton. The tare button on some scales then moved to the floor, where the pizza maker triggered it with his foot. Great idea, Ostrander said, but cleanup crews typically tore up the pedals.

"How many times can an electronic pedal take being hit with a broom or have mop water sloshed on it?" he said. "What you wind up with is a bunch of broken parts."

Manufactures finally got it right a few years ago, he said, when they made scales that not only fit nearly flush into the make line, but utilized a touch-free tare.

"When you want to tare the scale, all you do is wave your hand in front of an infra-red sensor, and it clears," he said. "No dirty hands, no pedals, perfect and fast."

Plenty fast. Ostrander said that despite operator complaints that using a scale slows production, he said the change in pace is negligible. "About five seconds per pizza. To me, that's nothing to worry about, and it's

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worth it to reclaim that money you're losing."

And what about the belligerent employees who don't want to use the scales?

Give them an incentive, Ostrander said.

"When you ask them to make a radical change in the way they make pizzas, you're asking for trouble," he said. "Doesn't matter if you know it's right, you have to answer the question that's in their heads: 'What's in it for me?'"

Sharing the savings with employees not only motivates them to follow portion control guidelines, it ensures they'll do it when you're there and when you're not, Ostrander said. "If we don't give our employees tools, we can't set measurable expectations."

Simple, fast and effective

Most operators already use spoodles for sauce, and that's it. But in some cases, they're handy measuring tools for vegetables if they're diced small enough. Onions and peppers would apply here, and perhaps olives. But the more oddly shaped the topping becomes, such as mushrooms and banana pepper rings, the less accurately they're measured. If you can't spoodle it, Ostrander said, weigh it. "A lot of people make the mistake of saying, 'Vegetables are cheap.' Well, they are compared to cheese, but they're never free."

And don't forget portion control on the final product, said John Crow, president of Lloyd Industries in Spokane, Wash. His company makes the Equalizer pizza cutter, which slices a pizza perfectly in one stroke.

"It controls the size of each slice perfectly," said Crow, who sells the tool through the company's subsidiary. "Nobody wants to grab the runt of the litter, especially on a buffet. But it's most important for operations that sell to schools. Every portion has to be correct in order to meet nutrition requirements."

Topics: Cheese , Pizza Toppings

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