Pandemic prompts pizza-oven innovation


Along with the campfire, using a wood-fired oven to bake flatbread is among the world’s oldest technologies, dating back more than 3,000 years. But even in the tradition-steeped pizza-making arena, new ideas pop up from time to time, and never more so than over the current pandemic period.

According to Datassential’s Top 2022 Pizza Trends, consumer interest in tech innovations has risen from 35 to 42 per cent since 2019, particularly when it comes to embracing hands-free processes, which are perceived as “safe.” This means QR-code menus, phone ordering, GPS tracking and drone delivery are all on-trend.

Robot Chefs
The industry is also on the cusp of adopting robotics solutions; for instance, UsxRobotics in San Francisco is already marketing its xPizza Cube, a robot that looks something like a souped-up vinyl-record player that’s designed to spread the three most popular ingredients (sauce, pepperoni and cheese) onto the dough. It’s small (about 20 inches wide), and its manufacturers claim it can prep between 100 and 300 pies per hour. They also maintain that three of its machines could cut down staff time by 70 per cent in a high-volume kitchen.

Another California company, Santa Monica-based Piestro, is producing pizza vending machines. Last fall, it entered into a partnership with Carbone Restaurant Group (CRG), which was already operating six FAST FIRED by Carbone locations in Manitoba and Saskatchewan at the time, and which expects to have at least 50 franchise partners by the end of 2022.

But the traditional pizza oven — whether wood-fire or electric — is still an industry staple, says Todd Griffith. Based in the Baltimore, Md. area, he is the vice-president of Sales and Marketing for Marra Forni, which produces electric, gas and wood ovens, including modular options for high-production facilities.

“For us and for Canada, there’s a lot of lessons that we’ve learned from COVID,” he says. “Diversification of the business is very important for the pizza community. Pizza is one of those products that, even during COVID, continued to do well.” As businesses re-open, Griffith predicts more use of mobile ovens for catering, food trucks and other innovative ways of getting pizza to the public.

“This is an option to get back into the market with a more controlled amount of cost,” he says, suggesting more outlets will be adding pizza to their menus for the first time. (Marra Forni offers test kitchens in various Canadian locations where operators can try out the equipment.)

More Than Just a Pizza Oven
Helen Roberts is the account manager and culinary specialist for national supplier Celco Inc., which is based in Mississauga, Ont. Celco represents EarthStone Ovens — traditional brick-based, wood and gas-fired models — and, more recently, the Forza STi from Celcook by Pratica.

“The two lines that we have chosen to be associated with can be used for more than just pizza,” she says. “The EarthStone can cook a whole chicken. It can bake bread or calzones.” Then there are variations such as breakfast pizza with sausage and bacon, or dessert pizza with fresh fruit and chocolate sauce: “it’s not just pepperoni anymore; it’s allowing them to use that footprint to the maximum.”

In particular, the countertop Forza STi, which has been available in Canada for about 18 months, is “literally plug-and-play,” Roberts says. “It requires no ventilation, is stackable, has a very small footprint and can cook up to a 16-inch pizza in under three minutes.” Also, she says, “it has a removable catalytic converter that can be removed by the operator, so they can handle the cleaning; they don’t have to have a servicer come in, and they can keep the machine running with very little down-time.”

Going Electric
Joe Di Donato is vice-president of Operations with Faema Canada in Toronto, which sells Moretti Forni gas and electric ovens from Italy. Lately, he says, “we’ve been selling more of the electric than gas, because they offer better control of heat distribution. They’re also more modular; they can be put sideways in tight locations.”

He explains that each deck of the electric units is separately controlled, allowing for two different temperatures, and says that “even the big chains are now using electric ovens” since the fine degree of heat control makes them so versatile.

Griffith says Marra Forni has just released a stackable modular electric deck oven. “It’s a stone hearth oven with a vertical profile to save floor space in the kitchen and maximize energy efficiency through four cooking decks,” he says, noting “we are seeing electrification being driven in the States by legislation that’s specific to green energy.”

California and New York City are mandating that commercial kitchens must begin switching to electric power over the next 10 years, he says, so “the electrical evolution will continue.”

Saving Labour, Energy and Cheese
New equipment modifications can help operators shave labour, ingredients and energy costs. For instance, Faema, which handles a full range of tools, now carries the Queen line of dough mixers from Sunmix, from Italy. “It has digital controls; you can pre-set the recipe, so you don’t need the pizzaiolo; a student can do it,” says Di Donato.

Celco carries Kelvinator, Silver King and Randell prep units. “When you spread the ingredients on top, the one that gets wasted the most – and it’s probably one of the most expensive – is the cheese,” says Roberts. “Our newest piece of equipment has a rack that catches cheese in a refrigerated area so you’re not wasting it.”

Equipment such as sheeters and dough ballers “save labour and increase the production,” says Griffith. “Marra Forni has an integrated exhaust hood that eliminates need for a separate hood, which is a cost saving. It has a proprietary forced-air power bar that is extremely energy-efficient; it reduces costs by about 60 per cent.”

Whether it’s the primary offering or an add-on to a broader menu, pizza is a perennial go-to for thrifty kitchens. “Even with great ingredients, the margin on pizza is incredible, Griffith says. “It is an iconic comfort food that will survive COVID and other disruptions that come our way in the industry.”

By Sarah B. Hood

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