It wasn’t that long ago that wood-burning ovens for artisanal pizzas were high on the foodservice radar. But the pandemic has tipped the scales for some operators to turn to faster, more versatile equipment as a growing number turn to pizza options to shore up flagging revenues.
“We’ve seen a significant uptake in the pizza segment in the foodservice market over the last 18 months,” says Jeremy Newman, director of Sales – Eastern Canada for Nella Cutlery in Mississauga, Ont. “Restaurants have been forced to pivot with menu items that are more conducive to takeout options that are quick, easy, cost effective and reliable. Pizza is a significant player in that.”
Newman reports an ‘incredible demand” in rapid-cook countertop ovens that can range from $1,500 to $6,000 depending on the model. “They’re revenue-generating pieces of equipment that can be set up quickly. They don’t take up much counter space and you don’t need to change ventilation.”
“QSRs are looking for [rapid-cook] ovens, as well as restaurants, bars and cafeterias — anyone who wants to put pizza on their menu” says Helen Roberts, account manager and culinary specialist with Celco Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. “They can be utilized for other things like toasting sandwiches, heating pasta or baking cookies as well.”
Newman is also seeing more institutional businesses buying combi ovens, such as Rational and Lainox, for high-volume batch cooking. “You can run 20 pans at any given time while all staff has to do is press a button. We’re seeing this a lot in the healthcare sector.”
Another popular option is rapid-cook conveyor ovens, he adds. “Turbochef and Lincoln [conveyor ovens] are getting popular because you can pretty much set and forget them. Once they’re calibrated, you can get consistent products every time, which is really good when you don’t have a lot of skilled labour.” Conveyors typically run from $3,000 to more than $10,000.
Toronto’s Pinsa Romana produces its sourdough crusts in a gas-fired Italforni conveyor oven from Italy that can reach temperatures up to 800°F. “One key advantage is that you can set two temperatures for the top and bottom to regulate what you want done on either side,” says Joe Fuda, foodservice consultant with Pinsa Romana.
The convenience and reliability are also key given the challenging labour situation in foodservice, says Fuda. “More and more people are looking to get a better product without having to pay for added expertise.”
Speed on autopilot
The ultimate in speed and convenience that is gaining traction with consumers looking for a no-touch/low-touch experience is the PizzaForno automated pizza oven. Founders William Moyer and Les Tomlin introduced the Adial pizza-vending machines from France in 2018. Today, there are 40 units in Canada and an additional four in Michigan, with another 70 on order.
The automated pizza-oven technology has been in Europe for well over a decade, says Tomlin. “When we landed in France to take a look, we saw an 85-year old lady walking up to one to buy two pizzas. We knew it was a cool technology that we could bring to North America.”
The kiosks can hold 70 hand-made, pre-assembled pizzas in eight flavours. Consumers use the 32-inch flatscreen to select a flavour. Robotic arms transfer the selection from the refrigerated side to the dual-element convection oven and cooks it for up to 150 seconds.
Ovens are equipped with web-enabled and real-time sales data, inventory management and troubleshooting that can be accessed through a smartphone or tablet. Units cost licensees $115,000 to $125,000.
Fire in and out of the house
Wood-burning ovens have not fallen off the radar, says Newman, although “gas is still more popular because it’s cleaner, fires quicker, is more efficient and easier to operate.”
Some operators are realizing there’s more to their ovens than meets the eye. Ben Wilkinson, co-owner of The Hole in The Wall and Bothams in Toronto with his brother Jack, finished installing their new custom-made wood-burning pizza oven from Stovemaster (Orangeville, Ont.) six weeks before the lockdown.
The 100-sq.-ft 9’X9’ oven was part of a major new-build project. “It was probably close to $100,000 by the time everything was in,” he says. When COVID-19 hit, they decided to make the oven a focal point for most of its takeout offerings, from seared meats and roasted vegetables to bread baking and, of course, pizza.
“There wasn’t a grand plan to use it for everything. But sometimes things take a life of their own, and we grew into the decision as we started using it more and more,” says Wilkinson.
He’s the first to admit they would not have tapped into the product’s versatility if it hadn’t been for COVID-19. “We’ve come up with uses we may not have seen at the beginning of all this. It’s been a godsend and kept us open despite this terrible climate. It really has helped us get through this.”
Although sales of wood-burning ovens have levelled since the pandemic, pellet-fired outdoor pizza ovens such as Ooni have become extremely popular, Newman says. “They’re light, portable and mobile and can be gas or propane fired. While they were more of a residential product, they’re now in demand for outdoor patios, tournaments and golf.”
He adds that Brantford, Ont.-based Crown Verity produces a mobile pizza unit that complements the barbecues it sells. “Forni and Clementi also offer larger [outdoor] wood-fired units, but they’re not just pizza specific.”
Hands on deck
The tried-and-true deck oven continues to be the staple for the industry, says Newman. “They are by far the most simple and common ovens in use. What we are seeing however is more requests for double- or triple-deck ovens.”
Pat Finelli, COO for Pizzaiolo in Mississauga, Ont., says it’s happy to stay old school with its deck ovens. “They’re great for creating a light and fluffy crust. It’s like cooking on stone.”
Franchisees can choose from Moretti (electric or gas) or Blodgett (gas) ovens. “Both cook very well.,” says Finelli. “Typically stores have three to four ovens.”
The other stuff
While some operators outsource dough making, those that make their own typically use planetary mixers with a dough hook. Newman explains that they differ from standard mixers in that pizza dough requires a higher torque. “They need to have the power to rotate the dough. The most popular options are Hobart and Globe.”
Other necessities include dough sheeters, which come in either a vertical or horizontal format. “Somerset dough sheeters are used by a number of chains across Canada.”
Last, but certainly not least, is the ubiquitous prep table with refrigerated bases, doors and drawers and inserts for toppings. “Almost every place has something like that,” he adds. “They have a deeper cutting board versus a sandwich table for laying out the dough for sauces and toppings. True, Delfield by Garland and Traulsen are popular brands.”
One key item at Pizzaiolo is separate coloured pizza pans to delineate gluten-free from regular doughs. “We use black pans for traditional dough and silver for the gluten free,” says Finelli. “Having two colours makes customers feel safe.” They also keep separate cutters for gluten free, vegetarian, meat and vegan offerings.
Whether working with deck ovens, conveyors or rapid-cook equipment, there’s an ongoing push for high-quality, artisanal-style pizzas, says Roberts. “Artisanal-style pizza seems to be the way to go. The nice crisp bottom, the bubbling top — everyone is looking for that.”
The good news is there are plenty of technologies — from traditional to leading edge — that can deliver on that promise in a matter of minutes.
Written by Denise Deveau