SPECIAL REPORT: Putting the profit into your pizza kitchen

Basilico restaurant

Good quality pizza can fetch a premium these days, making it vital for restaurants to source ovens that are fit for purpose and complement their business model. FEJ reports. 

There are myriad ways of running a pizza kitchen and what is right for one company won’t necessarily be right for another.

The size of the kitchen, the type and selection of pizza offered, and the amount of fresh preparation work carried out will all play a part in determining the optimal layout and specification that an operator adopts.

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But there is one unifying factor that binds every pizza business together: the oven is always the heartbeat of the operation.

Whether it’s wood-fired, gas-fired or electric, pizza operators are only as good as the ovens they use. That was gravely illustrated earlier this year when an ‘all-you-can-eat’ pizza festival in London had to apologise to customers after running out of pizza when its main pizza oven broke down and the remaining appliances it was using weren’t able to cope with demand.

Form and function

As the sector has expanded, so too has the variety of pizza ovens available to the UK market. With the level of sophistication continuing to increase, it can be a difficult task for operators to decide which ovens best suit their objectives, but there are some clear pointers to look out for.

Michael Eyre, culinary director at Jestic, suggests the extent to which technology and functionality is changing the sector is solely dependent on the type of pizza oven in question.

“With deck ovens, developments continue to focus on heat retention, improved insulation and an improved bake, while with conveyor ovens the enhancements are with improvements on edge to edge baking and increased speed. The similarity across all changes, however, is that these are refinements to the existing technology, such as burner configuration and the evolution of materials, rather than significant changes to the functionality.”

Euro Catering, which supplies ovens from brands such as Morello Forni, is also noticing some significant new trends in the market. Justin Towns, sales director of the company, says operators have more choice than ever.

“We are seeing the emergence of more dual-fuel ovens, which use both wood and gas as the energy source, plus the enhancement of electric ovens via features such as stone bases, on which pizza can be cooked cleanly and tastily. The Morello Forni electric ovens, for instance, have a revolving stone turntable that has adjustable speed and directional control, which allows for baking uniformity and reduced cooking times.”

While pizza ovens are often viewed as an isolated equipment purchase, there is evidence to suggest that customers are demanding broader usage from their appliance. “They need more controllability and programming so they can use their ovens as multipurpose to do a wide range of product, not just pizza,” explains Linda Lewis, MD of Linda Lewis Kitchens, adding that its higher-end Cuppone models feature up to 99 programmes that can be changed and adapted.

“It means that customers can use one deck, for instance, for cooking pizzas and the other for cooking and finishing off a range of dishes,” she says. “Programming functions are giving more versatility to pizza chefs and are becoming easier to use for everyone and can guarantee a consistent product every time.”

LLK will soon release an oven featuring patented heat-regeneration technology, which means the heat from the oven does not escape once the door is opened to add or remove items. Paul Hickman, culinary development manager at Lincat, believes that in every kitchen there’s always a place for a traditional pizza oven.

He says: “All operators require good temperature control and even cooking to produce the best pizzas, so they want an oven that has thermostatic control. They look for features such as double-glazed doors, to minimise heat escaping, and so they can see the pizza cooking. This also provides a theatre-style cooking experience, so customers can see their pizza being cooked. If ovens are being used front-of-house they need to be aesthetically pleasing, too.”

With deck ovens, developments continue to focus on heat retention, improved insulation and an improved bake”

At the entry-level end of the market, Pantheon has seen success targeting sectors of the market that demand affordability, ease-of-use and safe operation across a rolling staff roster.

The company has just responded to customer feedback by introducing a pull-out door to replace a door handle, giving foodservice operators increased control and safety.

Sales director, David Barton, thinks running costs will be more of a driver as time goes on. “Energy efficiency is a consideration that will become even more critical in the near future and will affect the choice of pizza oven for many operations, so the benefits of an electric-powered model with fast heat-up and independent controls that can be switched on only when required is attractive,” he says.

Disruptive forces

Many sectors of the market talk about ‘disruptive technologies’ and the pizza segment is no different. But there is some debate over whether the current generation of equipment has already been engineered to such an extent that it will be difficult to surpass.

Michael Eyre at Jestic, which distributes brands such as Josper, Sveba Dahlen, Alfa and Edge, is certainly among those who subscribe to the view that any further changes will be minimal, especially in the short term.

“We do not currently foresee any significant developments in high production or theatre-style pizza ovens in the next 12 months,” he says. “Operators will continue to want to see advances in energy efficiency, performance, reliability and potentially smaller footprints, however these are likely to be refinements rather than a seismic shift.”

Midddleby UK supplies a wide range of prime cooking equipment to the UK market. Managing director, Kenny Smith, sees very few disruptive forces on the horizon as suppliers have already responded to the de-skilling of kitchens by creating quality equipment that ticks the all-important user-friendly box.

He says: “Ovens must be simple to use and give a high-quality product. When volume is the issue, most customers choose a conveyor pizza oven; when it’s a restaurant-style pizza we are often asked for the Turbochef Fire oven for its speed and the quality of pizza it produces. One thing that has been noticed is the use of standard convection ovens to make pizza, giving a poor-quality end result which in turn gives pizza a bad review.”

Smith thinks quality of cook, speed and ease of use will remain the key requirements from operators and is convinced there is still room to push the boundaries even further. “I believe we can manufacture faster speeds without affecting quality,” he says.

Towns at Euro Catering suggests the most disruptive forces are likely to be legislative than technical.

He believes the company’s electric oven portfolio is perfectly suited to those that harbour reservations around wood-fired ovens as they can be easily installed at locations which are unable to use gas or fit ventilation systems for the burning of fuel.

“At the same time, high rents are forcing restaurants to economise when it comes to space and so many do not want or cannot accommodate complicated flueing arrangements.”

The problem has been a lack of engineering of fit-for-purpose pizza ovens and we are benefiting from this”

The most disruptive forces as far as equipment supplier Valoriani is concerned stem from operators being forced to replace equipment, particularly in the wood-fired oven space. Director Andrew Manciocchi says he is regularly going into restaurants to replace ovens that failed very quickly.

“The problem has been a lack of engineering of fit-for-purpose pizza ovens and we are benefiting from this, as operators recognise that they threw good money after bad ovens. Typically, the dome of these poorly-manufactured ovens has disintegrated, due to metallic components in the cement contracting and expanding during use, or the floor has disintegrated and the ovens are constructed in such a way that it is impossible to replace this one part. It has been a steep and sad learning curve for many restaurants, but at least now end-users are recognising what a good oven looks like and are asking the right questions during the buying process.”

Pizza innovation

With no sign of the pizza market slowing down, suppliers are bullish about their prospects for the next 12 months. Many have seen an increase in customers looking for ovens with a low footprint but high output to fit smaller kitchens and this trend is firmly expected to continue.

Linda Lewis says: “We expect to see more demand from customers looking to fit out their commercial kitchens with ovens that will fit into difficult spaces but which won’t mean they have to compromise on the oven that they require for a successful operation.”

2019 is likely to be a year of consolidation in the pizza oven market, with operators adapting ovens to cater for the new style of pizzas such as sourdough and the new varieties created by small artisan producers which can generate different demands on the equipment.

Euro Catering’s Justin Towns concludes: “We expect to see further innovation among end-users as they strive to differentiate their pizza offering from all the others and this should drive R&D among equipment manufacturers. They are seeking to offer new features and options that help those wishing to innovate, save energy and make pizza catering simple and less labour-intensive.”

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Andrew Seymour

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