MARKET REPORT: Why the key to the perfect pizza is the right oven

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People love pizza. Whether it’s crispy, authentic Neapolitan, American deep-pan or thin base, the demand for the Italian food stuff has always been high and it’s certainly not looking like that will change. The key to perfect pizza and, by extension happy customers, is the right pizza oven.

But with so many options to choose from, and market trends constantly shifting, it can be difficult for operators to decide which oven offers the best investment. Trying to predict the market is one way of making educated choices.

“Fast casual pizza is the buzz word at the moment,” says Clive White, director of White’s Foodservice Equipment, who envisages the fast casual sector becoming ever more prominent in the UK after taking the US by storm.

“The public seem to love the idea of walking up to the counter, choosing their pizza, watching it being cooked, eating and leaving. We expect this sector to explode over the next year,” he adds.

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Manufacturers generally agree that the fast casual sector is seeing the biggest growth, and speed alone is no longer enough for the customer, according to Justin Towns, sales manager of Euro Catering Equipment: “Conveyor ovens have been popular in the past because of their speed, making them popular in the take-away/delivery market.

But with turntable stone deck pizza ovens we see this being an area of growth.”

In addition to speed and quality, customers increasingly want firey theatre and aestheticism to add to the dining experience. Establishments most commonly achieve this by installing front-of-house wood-fired ovens, for all to see.

Michael Eyre, product director at Jestic Foodservice Equipment, regards an oven’s aestheticism as one of the most important factors.

He says: “Ultimately, this will have a huge effect on the customer’s perception of the establishment and therefore impact on whether they return to the business.”

In addition to front-of-house, theatrical ovens, mobile ovens are also moving into the mainstream market. Andrew Manciocchi, director at Valoriani, says: “There is a massive boom in the mobile oven market, which is being driven by the phenomenal street food trend.”

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Linda Lewis, director of Linda Lewis Kitchens, agrees that mobile caterers visiting festivals, outdoor markets and weddings are increasingly operating wood-fired mobile ovens. The huge rise in mobile ovens is such that the sector could see sizeable shifts in brands, according to Lewis: “We may see some oven brands disappear, as the market attracts more new entrants and those that don’t adapt struggling to survive.”

Elaborate, theatrical wood-fired ovens may well be the ‘next big thing’, but there’s no getting away from the necessity of functionality and efficiency. Establishments in certain sectors often prefer to use electric pizza ovens which have a much smaller footprint, waste less energy and don’t need large or expensive ventilation systems like their wood-fired and gas counterparts.

“A superior wood-fired pizza oven should literally weigh a tonne!”

Helen Applewhite, marketing manager at Lincat, says: “Ventilation is required for wood-fired ovens, which can be difficult in kitchens that are short on space. Gas pizza ovens provide power, but are often expensive to run. They also require a gas interlock system and adequate ventilation, which can be costly. As a result, electric pizza ovens are increasingly popular. They are versatile and can be easily cleaned.”

Some consider the benefits of electric ovens to be so great that suppliers like Foodservice Equipment Marketing (FEM) only supply electric models. Mark Hogan, marketing and sales manager, says: “Electric pizza ovens have the benefits of safety and convenience. They are also not affected by the new HSE guidance and do not require a dedicated extraction or ventilation system.”

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He claims that stone-baked electric ovens can replicate traditional, wood-fired ovens but avoid the inconvenience and cost: “[Stone-baked electric ovens] allow caterers to produce pizzas with the aroma and taste closest to a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria. They mimic the cooking conditions of traditional wood or gas-fired pizza ovens, enabling authentic tasting pizzas to be quickly and easily produced.”

Although Towns, of Euro Catering Equipment, admits that all categories are witnessing growth, he says that “small footprint machines have been our biggest area of growth. This is most commonly seen in sites where pizza has become “a” menu item and not necessarily the “main” menu item.”

Meanwhile, Daniel Phillips, sales representative at Pizza Equipment Ltd, notes how an increased awareness of energy efficiency among oven manufacturers could lead to new technologies designed to cut running costs: “We expect to see further developments in this area resulting in ovens capable of using only the energy required to cook the pizzas without any energy being lost or used unnecessarily.”

Searching for the ultimate oven

When it comes to investing in the ideal commercial pizza oven to help take a business forward, there are a number of important ingredients to consider.

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Key to any investment in this area is knowing exactly what you need your pizza oven to cater for. Each operator will have different requirements and it’s paramount to acquire the oven which suits your specific needs, so as to maximise performance and value for money.

In particular, Jestic’s Michael Eyre highlights the importance of having peak capacity in mind when looking at pizza ovens: “Capacity should always be a key consideration when specifying a new pizza oven as installing an appliance that is too small will severely limit service during the busiest times of the day. Ultimately, operators make the greatest return on their equipment when it is being used to full capacity, however under-sizing an appliance will have a detrimental impact on this.”

Linda Lewis agrees that businesses should asses what they need their ovens for, but look to find versatility to capitalise on value: “Operators need to analyse what they wish to get from their oven. They need to look at their available space within the kitchen and assess what they wish their menu to be. They should think of a pizza oven as being a piece of equipment that can do much more than just cook pizza, whether that is bread, roast vegetables, jacket potatoes, desserts or roasted meals.”

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As well as buying to suit individual needs, suppliers are keen to stress that it’s important not to scrimp on a cheap oven, even though it may be tempting. Many operators experience ‘oven burn-out’ on a regular basis, where ovens haven’t even lasted 12 or 18 months before disintegrating, or having cracked floors that cannot be replaced as a ‘part’ within the oven, forcing the whole thing to be scrapped, according to Andrew Manciocchi.

He says: “An operator needs to check that their oven has insulation, that the floor can be replaced without having to buy a new oven and that it isn’t manufactured using metal technology that sees metal expanding and contracting and causing stresses on the body, leading it to crack.”

Mark Hutchings, managing director at Cater-Bake, reiterates that quality should be a top priority when picking a pizza oven: “Whilst pizza ovens are generally a solid bit of kit, there’s still that bottom rung of products that are simply substandard. Pizza ovens get worked hard, so it’s a false economy to be totally price led, even if the budget is tight.”

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Pizza Equipment’s Daniel Phillips agrees: “We are firm believers in the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’. With deck ovens, the higher the cost of the pizza oven, the more features that pizza oven will have in order to retain heat and spread it evenly through the oven.”

On wood-fired ovens specifically, Phillips adds: “A superior wood-fired pizza oven should literally weigh a tonne! The best wood-fired ovens will have a base and dome built from brick and not a dome constructed from concrete moulds. The bricks will retain heat for longer than concrete or other aggregate material and will not have air bubbles, so heat will be spread more evenly.”

Companies unanimously agree that quality should be at the top of any buyer’s list. But Applewhite from Lincat and Hogan from FEM disagree on which country produces the best ovens. Lincat maintains that the UK manufactures the best quality pizza ovens. It says British products are designed and built to stringent UK and international quality standards . But FEM insists that Italy – “the home of pizza” – is the place to purchasethe very best pizza ovens.

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Regardless of where the ovens are manufactured, businesses need to take their time to decide on which model or technique will deliver the most profit for their establishment. Rushing a decision on a purchase or scrimping on a poor quality oven is a sure-fire way for a kitchen to suffer in terms of profits and customer satisfaction.

Pizza percentages

  • 65% of consumers aged 18-34 order pizza at restaurants when eating in at least once per month.
  • 33% of consumers order pizza at independent limited-service operations at least once per month.
  • 24% do so at full-service restaurants that do not specialise in pizza.
    Source: Technomic
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