Pie Five Pizza Oven Technology Drives The Fast Casual Business Category
One of the major headlines in the restaurant industry throughout the past three years has been the swift growth of the top-your-own pizza segment.
This trend may come as somewhat of a surprise considering that many trace pizza’s origins back to the 1700s and early 1900s in the United States. The differentiator this specific category brings, however, is personalization and speed. You can now walk into any fast casual pizza joint and ask for a pizza (not a slice) topped with whatever you want and receive it either at the register or within 5 minutes at your table.
The idea may seem simple, but it wasn’t until the creation of quick-bake ovens that the segment was able to fully get off the ground. Now it’s full speed ahead.
“High speed ovens are a huge enabler (for the segment). Consumers want their pizza fast, but they aren’t going to sacrifice quality,” said Pie Five CEO Randy Gier. Dough technology has evolved as well and new ovens work well with this food chemistry, such as proof time, blend and protein content of the flour, he added.
Many of these fledgling concepts are even putting their ovens in the marketing spotlight. Chipotle’s pizza concept, Pizzeria Locale, uses an oven that bakes a pie at 1,000 degrees. Darrel Suderman, president of Food Technical Consulting, said the concept is driven by its oven technology.
“Someone had to develop an innovative oven that could cook multiple pizzas in 2 minutes at a predetermined flow-through rate. In other words, the oven cannot be the rate limiting factor as in the Theory of Constraints,” Suderman wrote.
Drew French, founder of Your Pie, touts his concept’s brick oven that yields a pizza in 3 to 5 minutes.
“We then finish it in our brick oven so it gets kissed by the flame,” French said.
Firecrust Neapolitan uses a wood-burning oven at 900 degrees for about 90 seconds. And Blast 825° was actually named after its oven, which cooks pizzas in an 825-degree oven.
The technology’s emergence
Of course, the high-heat oven is as old as pizza itself. The difference is now it’s scalable and even more controllable.
“Though technology has improved with computer-controlled modules for controlling some of the heat of our ovens, we still believe that our cooks need to have some personal control over the intensity of the flames. This is akin to how the historical Neapolitan pizzaiuli modulated heat when using wood. This personal control allows each of our cooks the flexibility to adjust to each oven full of pizzas,” said Brad Kent, executive chef at Blaze.
He said this type of technology began to emerge in 2002-03 and really took off in 2006-07 when VPN and similar pizzerias began popping up in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco and New York.
The chicken or the egg?
So, what came first, the oven technology or consumer’s demand for fast, customizable pizzas?
PizzaRev co-founder Irv Zuckerman, who uses a Woodstone open-flamed stone hearth oven, said the fast casual pizza segment is accelerating because of innovative oven technology.
“Pizza is a go-to entrée, so with the advent of the very hot oven, we are now able to offer a pizza that previously took 10 or 15 minutes to make to just 3 minutes. This changes the paradigm, especially for lunch, by fulfilling a desire by consumers to have a high-quality offering quickly served, so that they can enjoy one of their favorite foods with minimal time commitment,” he said.
Gier, who uses TurboChef ovens in his Pie Five restaurants, said the demand for quick, customizable, personal pizzas has been around for decades, but solutions were not high quality – basically pieces of pizza being reheated in a deck oven.
“What has happened is the technology is enabling a quality solution to meet the customer’s needs,” he said.
Kent, however, says that oven technology came first; high speed ovens have been around for hundreds of years.
“Currently many oven manufacturers are jumping on a bandwagon of rotating deck ovens to (seemingly) address the assembly fast casual segment, but we feel that a static oven performs best,” he said.
Because of this, if there is one disadvantage to the high-speed ovens, Kent said it’s harder to train employees than a conveyor oven.
Gier said there are no disadvantages from Pie Five’s TurboChef oven. He said the equipment is less expensive, doesn’t require a hood/ansel system, produces consistent product, cooks a variety of crust types and can also make desserts and salad shells.
“It’s a very versatile,” he said. “It’s not just the technology of the oven, but our ability to adjust temperature, air flow, speed and top and bottom conditions to work with our dough types.”
Blaze’s Woodstone ovens also provide plenty of advantages as the centerpiece of each restaurant. Kent said they require less ventilation to evacuate the exhaust and do not produce grease-laden byproducts that require the use of harsh chemicals to degrease and clean.
“Our oven has a tremendous thermal mass that makes it much more efficient to operate,” he said.
With a full list of advantages, both Gier and Kent believe oven technology will continue to evolve and will continue to drive the fast-growing fast casual pizza segment.
“We’re just getting started,” Gier said. “The growth will follow consumer demand and technology will enable further growth.”
“I believe oven technology will continue to develop ‘cleaner,’ fresher types of food for consumers,” Kent added. “I foresee smart oven technology in the not-so-distant future that will allow consumers to personalize how their food is baked based on their preferences.”
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