The Pizza You Serve Is Only As Good As the Oven It Bakes In

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For years, pizza has been a staple in the restaurant industry. From pickup and delivery outlets to fine-dining restaurants, there has been a constant evolution in taste and style variations — thick-crust classic pepperoni and cheese pizzas to thin-crust gourmet delicacies featuring truffles, organic meats and hearts of palm. But the one common element behind any successful pizza is the oven used to bake it.

Doug Feltmate, director, Foodservice & Hospitality for WSP Canada Inc. in Ottawa, says pizza ovens can be broken down into three categories: deck, conveyor and fire deck (wood burning, gas-fired, hybrid). “Twenty years ago deck ovens were far and away the most popular choice. Now, I would say deck and conveyor are used equally. Pizza Pizza, for example, uses a deck oven; Domino’s uses all conveyor.”

Garland, Bakers Pride and Blodgett are the largest suppliers of deck ovens for the industry, Feltmate notes. On the conveyor side, Middleby Marshall and Lincoln (the oven of choice for Boston Pizza’s operations) are the dominant brands. Staple brands in the fire-deck market include Wood Stone, EarthStone and Beech.

All pizzas on deck
Toronto-based Pizza Nova has been a steadfast deck oven user since the company started, says president Domenic Primucci. Its 140 locations in Ontario have an average of four Bakers Pride gas-operated stone deck ovens, which cost about $12,000 each and can hold up to 10 pizzas at a time. Ventilation systems add between $12,000 to $15,000 to the capital cost at each location.

For the most part, technology for deck ovens hasn’t changed over the years, Primucci adds. “They’re very simple and very good workhorses that last a long time — about 20 years. You just turn them on and away you go.” He notes that even though every model is the same, “You have to know your oven and learn how to manage it. Sometimes it will have hotter spots in the corner or at the front or back. It’s more a matter of adjusting cooking times than temperature.” As far as maintenance is concerned, ovens need to be calibrated every so often to ensure the temperature readings remain true. “You may also need to change the pilot light or regulators on occasion,” Primucci says.

A faster conveyance
Conveyor ovens are quickly gaining ground with operators, in large part because they are easier to use, produce consistent products and can handle steady volumes, Feltmate says. “There’s much less human element at play. You simply set the time for the product and it comes out done; and you can adjust settings for different types of crusts. They also cook faster than a deck oven.”

Conveyor ovens come in a variety of sizes both in terms of width (single or double) and the length of the “tunnel” (two to six feet). “The longer the tunnel, the faster the belt goes,” Feltmate explains. One caveat is that conveyors can be double the price of a deck oven, Feltmate warns. “In choosing, you really have to look at your product and peak demands.”

Martin Bernard, director of Franchise Development for Gino’s Pizza in Halton Hills, Ont. says heavy volumes and consistency were the reasons behind choosing Middleby Marshall PS540 conveyor ovens as its brand standard. “As of two years ago, all new stores get two ovens. In that way, we can cook a perfect pizza every time without having to worry about consistency.”

Each oven costs about $26,000 and can cook up to 60 pizzas in an hour. “You can’t do that type of high volume with stone deck ovens. Deck ovens also require more skill and training and can generate a lot of heat in stores during busy periods. If you have four deck ovens going all the time, no [amount of] air conditioning can keep up with that heat.”

For smaller, low-volume environments, Ovention’s countertop conveyor oven is a good option, says Don Landon, president, Kingston-based Brown’s Dining Solutions. Brown’s just purchased a single unit for a small high-school cafeteria operation for around $10,000.

“It has a built-in catalytic convertor so it doesn’t require an exhaust hood, which was important given that there was simply no space to a put a hood in,” Landon explains.

The system is the size of a large microwave, with an additional 24 to 30 inches of space needed to accommodate the conveyors on either end. Users can cook multiple items in small quantities without using oil to address the provincial government’s PPM 150 memorandum restricting the use of cooking oils and other additives in food preparation in schools.

“A lot of items stood up very well after cooking under a heat lamp because there’s no oil in them,” Landon says. “And it’s risk-free because you can simply put a timer on and walk away without having to worry about over- or under- cooking. As long as you program it right, you can cook almost anything.”

A blaze of glory
Where pizza ovens really shine is on the fire deck side of the picture, Feltmate says. “When you have a dome-style fire-deck oven with a visible flame, it becomes much more of a show. They also are much more flexible in terms of the products you can cook because they are engineered to have different temperature zones within one deck.” The downside is they demand a lot of skill and training because of the need for constant manipulation of the flame and placement of the product in the chamber. They are also expensive to install — not only because of the size and weight of the oven, but because they require a dedicated ventilation system.

The choice between wood burning, gas and a hybrid model depends on intent (it’s more authentic to use wood) or legislation (there are municipal restrictions on the use of wood-burning appliances).

For Roberto Scala, co-owner of Queen Margherita Pizza in Toronto, it was wood burning all the way. Its west-end location showcases a hand built, custom wood-burning oven that includes a drying chamber for the wood. “The oven is made from the volcanic soil in Naples and is from Stefano Ferrara who personally flew in from Italy to build it,” Scala says. “There’s no other oven like it.” The other two locations use Stefano Ferrara ovens ranging from $15,000 to $20,000 each, with ventilation adding 15 to 20 per cent to the cost. Scala notes that experience has a big part to play when using a wood-burning oven. “I’ve been doing this for five years and still learning what I can do with it.” Maintenance, however, is minimal, he says. “Every morning we brush the base with a special tool and every three months we bring in someone to clean out the chimneys.”

When Robbie Kane took over a site for his Café Medina in Vancouver, the facility came with a gas-fired fire-deck pizza oven from Wood Stone. “The city of Vancouver makes using wood-burning stoves very, very difficult,” he explains, citing municipal legislation banning the use of wood-burning appliances for the most part. “You pretty much have to use gas.” He estimates the oven originally cost $40,000 to $50,000 including the venting.
Kane uses the oven to produce the vast majority of items on his Middle Eastern/North African-inspired menu. “We cook all our dishes in it, from large batches of fricassee to meatballs and sourdough flatbreads. Because of its dome shape, it creates and holds the type of heat a conventional oven doesn’t.”

Whether an owner opts for a deck, conveyor or fire deck oven, Feltmate says they all do a good job. “The one thing about pizza ovens is, once owners make their choice, they’re usually loyal to a fault: all of them firmly believe that their success hinges on the type of oven they use.”

Volume 48, Number 7

Written By: Denise Deveau

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