Grabbing a slice of the action

Whisper it quietly, but a growing number of suppliers in the commercial pizza oven sector are starting to believe the market might just have turned a corner.

“I’m feeling rather encouraged at the moment,” says Mark Hutchings, managing director of Merseyside-based Cater-Bake, which provides conveyor and deck ovens, and serves as the UK distributor for the Zanolli brand.

“There have been times over the past couple of years when you’ve known business is harder to come by, but lately you can feel the industry moving a bit quicker — hopefully this is a positive sign of things to come.”

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The good news for suppliers is that pizza remains as popular as ever among fast food customers and casual diners, and so long as that’s the case operators will need to invest in suitable equipment.

Onlookers say the booming pizza market in London is leading the way, while the rise of restaurants serving traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas, not to mention street vendors such as Pizza Pilgrims, which is now putting down its own roots, is all helping feed the frenzy.

Steve Morris, sales director at Jestic, agrees demand is strong, especially when it comes to stone hearth ovens like the Wood Stone units that it supplies.

“There is growing demand for artisan, authentic pizzas, especially in the takeaway sector, and ovens of this type are perfect for producing that type of pizza,” he says. “Stone hearth ovens also bring with them the added attraction of open flame cooking which really draws the eye and this explains why a number of restaurants make them a centrepiece rather than hiding them back of house.”

White’s Foodservice Equipment is a Redditch-based pizza oven supplier that has made its name in the conveyor and wood-fired categories with the XLT and Valoriani brands respectively. It is the sole UK supplier of the XLT range and the manufacturer’s conveyor ovens have just been granted Pizza Hut-approval, having been Domino’s-approved for a number of years.

Like Cater-Bake’s Mark Hutchings, managing director, Tim White, is also confident that things are on the up, describing the market as “buoyant” right now. But it hasn’t always been that way, he says, particularly as buyers of pizza equipment retain a degree of prudency.

“The biggest challenge, as it has been for the last few years, is the lack of finance available to individual operators, meaning they are, more than ever, looking for the most cost-efficient option,” he says.

“Luckily with the XLT oven and AVI hood they can make massive savings in terms of their energy bills, as the hood only takes the heat from the oven and not from the store like a traditional canopy. This means less air — most of the time cooled — needs to be returned to the store. The ovens also now come with a five-year parts warranty, which is the longest warranty for any conveyor oven.”

Those who aren’t totally convinced that the market is gaining momentum at least agree it is stable. Killian McGarry, director at Katerbay, for instance, says it is currently selling roughly the same number of deck ovens as it has in previous years. Katerbay specialises in the supply of electric deck ovens with 620x620mm decks and 920x620mm decks, and he insists the company is able to meet demand for customers that want a solution for a competitive price.

“There are many brands on the market and the end-user is not brand-conscious,” he says. “Most of them are buying on price in these recessionary times and many double deck ovens, such as our own Mazzoni CD6262, have a street price of under £1,000, so competition is fierce.”

With everyone from high street fast food chains to specialist pizzerias and high-end Italian restaurants offering their own variation on the pizza trend, there is plenty of business out there to fight for. And depending on how much an operator intends to produce, what they want it to look like and how they want it to taste, there is a whole raft of equipment to cater for every need.

“The pizza oven market is still growing as more operators are adding pizza onto their menus,” observes Tim Charlton, managing director of Euro Catering Equipment, the UK importer of Italforni ovens. “It is not only giving a bigger choice to the customers, but it’s also a way of increasing profit margins — ingredients, labour and running costs are low compared to a regular meal. Additionally, pizza ovens can be used to cook a range of products, not just pizzas, which makes them very flexible.”

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When it comes to specifying the right pizza oven, Linda Lewis, managing director of Linda Lewis Kitchens, the UK distributor of Cuppone pizza ovens, insists that buying an established brand name from a company that specialises in pizza equipment is essential.

She points out that although pizza ovens appear uncomplicated, there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. “The design, construction and components all need to be of excellent quality in order to ensure that the heat is retained inside the oven and the core temperature is maintained,” she explains.

“The dealer must also ensure that the end-user buys an oven with the right capacity to serve the restaurant during peak times. Equally, multi-decks must be considered when cooking a wide range of foods. Good service and back-up from the manufacturer is also essential, as generally the restaurant cannot function without the oven.”

Choosing between gas and electric power is one of the first decisions that a specifier or buyer will need to make, and that usually involves following the same logic as other categories of equipment.

“Due to gas regulations we are seeing a trend for customers switching to electric ovens — these tend to be cheaper to install and maintain,” says Euro Catering’s Charlton. “Dealers need to ascertain the usage of the oven — is it on view to the customer, what size and how many pizzas per hour does the customer intend to supply, how quick will the oven recover its temperature, does the oven have a standby mode to help with energy costs, and are manual or electronic controls required as these give a higher accuracy control of the oven temperature.”

Jestic’s Morris agrees that the likely peak capacity and type of pizza being produced will heavily influence a buyer’s choice. He also says that proper consideration has to be given to space.

“The biggest unit is not always the best,” he notes. “It might be better to have a double-stacked unit if space is an issue. If it isn’t then having two separate ovens might be preferred — one can be switched off during quiet periods to save energy and, furthermore, if one breaks down they still have a back-up unit.”

Focusing on features that give the end-user reassurance should be an important consideration for dealers, insists Peter Hunkemoeller, VP sales for northern Europe at Manitowoc, which owns the Lincoln pizza oven brand.

“The Lincon Impinger range features adjustable temperature and speed controls to allow for different pizzas, while the Advanced Air Impingement Technology enhances bake quality and uniformity,” he says.

“The latest development in the form of a ‘fast bake’ option reduces cooking time by a further 30% to gain maximum output from the machine. Fast food giant Pizza Hut recently chose to supply 80% of their restaurants with the low-profile Lincon Impinger oven, some of which produce up to 150 pizzas an hour. The continuous flow of the range coupled with the fast bake option has enabled the franchise to increase kitchen output, while reducing labour costs.”

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Another key factor to consider in the selection of equipment is the level of automation required. To complement the Zanolli conveyor ovens it offers, Cater-Bake also supplies equipment to automate the production of pizza bases — from mixing the dough to automatic portioning, rounding of dough balls and then rolling them out to flat bases.

“This sort of thing is perfect for the takeaway sector, which will tend to want to work with a lower skilled staff,” comments Hutchings. “A gourmet restaurant with a skilled pizza chef, however, will have no need for any such safeguard over the baking and will, with a similar investment in a Zanolli deck oven, easily outstrip the output of a conveyor oven,” he says.

Linda Lewis says Cuppone sales increase 40% over the past year, a feat that she suggests has been assisted by the rate at which pubs and other catering establishments are introducing pizzas to their menus. Additionally, the gourmet trend for ‘posh pizzas’ is also impacting favourably on the sales of high-end ovens as the authenticity of the product is central to the offer.

LLK focuses primarily on gas and electric deck ovens, and Lewis believes advancements in the quality of the equipment and ease of installation makes them a viable alternative for customers that would once have only considered wood-fired models.

“Cuppone’s Giotto oven has fast become a popular choice with high-end pizza restaurants,” she insists. “Not only is it the first ever oven with a revolving stone base, its space-age design means it looks good front of house.”

One thing’s for certain, suppliers of pizza equipment are passionate about the business they are in. White at White’s Foodservice Equipment says dealers should never be afraid to pick up the phone if they need specialist advice.

“We have a couple of decades of experience on the end of the phone and we love talking about Pizza equipment. It’s very sad, I know, but ask our wives and they will tell you the same!”

Fit for the job

The important questions to ask to determine the perfect pizza oven.

– What type of establishment is it?
– What sort of power supply is preferred?
– Will the oven be sited front or back of house?
– Does the oven have to fit a corner space?
– What size pizzas will be cooked?
– How many of each size need to be cooked at once?
– Will the cooking be carried out in pans or on the base?
– Is an extraction hood required?

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