Pizza Pizzazz: We’ve come a long way, bambinos

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Twenty-five years ago, pizza began to make a splash in concessions operations at cinemas. It was determined that moviegoers love pizzas as a snack alternative. The cost of building a pizza almost matched the profitability of sodas and candy; therefore, it met the cost-of-goods criteria for cinemas. Over time, the pizza category has seen a plethora of modifications to fit the cinema objectives of speed, entertainment and convenience. Today we are seeing a revolution in the way pizzas are prepared and served.

The affordable microwaveable single-serve pizza could offer a representative product with little expense and a speedy “bake” time. The advantages were pre-constructed pizzas, consistent cost, little if any waste, and cooking as needed in under two minutes. Next, we were introduced to the “Turbo Chef,” which would take a frozen pre-engineered pizza and bake it in under three minutes to embody the quality and likeness of the local pizzeria. Not to be satisfied, some aficionados began making scratch pizzas, using dough balls for the crust, authentic pizza sauce, aged cheese and elevated ingredients to meet the standards of competitive pizza diners. What this industry realized is that every time a food category is introduced in cinemas, patrons’ expectations are so modest that poor quality is acceptable—until conventional likenesses raise their game. So the theatre channel had to improve its offerings to meet or exceed patrons’ higher expectations.    

Today, cinemas are in a new pizza culture where microwaveable pizzas are no longer suitable. While the vector ovens offering three different types of cooking methods—infrared, microwave and conventional heat—still exist, it is possible this method is leaving the arena of pizza production. There are now advanced means of baking pizzas being tapped for the unique styles that cinemas employ.

The right oven makes a considerable difference to individuals with a passion for pizza. One of the first sloggers was the stone deck oven. Baker’s Pride has been the primary manufacturer of this style of oven. These ovens delivered a consistent, well-baked pizza—until the baker allowed for blackened meal and uneven temperatures applied to the ingredients. The oven is the most important asset for making the ultimate pie. The objective is to have every pizza taste exactly the way it should. In other words: How can we produce consistent pizza every day on every request?

Basic deck ovens are conventional and make a delicious pizza, but should be used in locations that experience low to moderate business. Deck ovens are very good for multiple size pies, single serve or 18-inch pies that be divided and served by the slice. These ovens can support various types of pizzas, such as par-baked dough, pre-made or handcrafted crust. Deck ovens will bake thin-crusted pizzas evenly and will support the thicker crust as well. They generally bake at 450º to 650º F depending on the recipes developed. The advances in these types of stone-bed ovens now make heat distribution more reliable, which leads to more consistent results.

Impinger ovens, also known as conveyor ovens, are characteristically used for the highest volume. The impinged-style oven operates with a conveyor that moves the pizza under heat, as jets of hot air blanket the pizza. The critical piece to conveyor ovens and their performance is the number of columnating panels in the unit. Columnating panels provide coverage and distribution. When programing the settings, there are three basic points: speed of the conveyor that times the heat allowed, bottom heat temperature and top heat temperature. The user must consider how much heat to apply to the bottom/crust and how much heat is applied to the top. Based on preference and the speed of the conveyor, these components should be tested regularly to maintain consistency. The process and settings will block the jets of air, which can allow, for example, 100% open on the bottom heat and maybe 50% open on the top. This will deliver a firm crust and a soft topping. If the operator desires a softer crust with a crispy topping and golden-browned cheese, the bottom jets would be at 50% and the top jets at 75%.

Hearth ovens are very entertaining and offer a “show and tell” type production. These ovens convey a specific ambience and feel that sell pizza. Hearths represent a homemade, straight-from-the-oven appeal that guests love. Like other ovens, hearths can bake bread, sandwiches, calzones and vegetables; therefore, they can be multi-use ovens. Hearth ovens can also use various types of fuel: gas, wood, charcoal, electricity or a combination. These ovens can reach temperatures of 600º F, which speeds up the baking time, yet also requires skilled personnel to watch the pizza constantly. The tradeoff for the glamour of hearth ovens is that they usually cost over $30,000, require specific installation at about one-third the unit cost, and then a specific grease-rated venting system with specialized makeup air since they generate so much heat. These ovens are best utilized when there are a limited number of pizza options, as they are only capable of baking in one way.  Hearth ovens also require more maintenance and a regular cleaning schedule.

The fact is, ingredients and recipes will dictate what kind of oven one should employ. Some pizza makers like a heavy dough, others a light flatbread. What type of cheese will you use: mozzarella with skim milk or whole milk? Will the cheese be grated or sliced? How much water is in the sauce itself? Is it made with fresh crushed tomatoes, or will you use a branded commodity sauce? Will the pizzas be baked on screens, pans or flat on the deck? In simple terms, do your homework. Create the recipes for the pizza you want to serve; then scour the marketplace for equipment that will serve those ingredients best.       

Larry Etter is senior VP at Malco Theatres and director of education at the National Association of Concessionaires.