Here's what you need to know to find the perfect match between your operation and a pizza oven.
These days, John McCale can talk about his search for the perfect pizza oven with a lighthearted grin.
That wasn’t always the case.
As McCale developed his fast-casual pizza concept PizzaFire alongside colleague Sean Brauser, the man who constructed Romeo’s Pizza into an award-winning chain of some three-dozen units, the quest to find the right pizza oven was a trial-and-error adventure.
“The oven has to be everything, because pizza is what we sell,” McCale says.
After researching what other fast-baked pizza concepts were using, McCale and Brauser settled on a wood-burning stone oven for their debut PizzaFire unit in Akron, Ohio. It was a follow-the-pack mentality, McCale admits.
Though that stone oven provided ambiance to PizzaFire’s flagship unit, McCale and Brauser found rampant inconsistency with their finished products. “We needed consistency day to day and needed to take away human error,” McCale says, noting that the wood-burning oven requires experience and specific skills.
In an effort to simplify operations, the PizzaFire founders then turned to a brick oven with a rotating deck for their next handful of locations. While the inconsistency issues evaporated, the ovens proved too difficult to maintain and repair.
With plans for national growth on the mind and the fast-casual pizza space heating up, McCale and Brauser knew they needed a thorough solution. The cofounders reignited their search and found what McCale calls the perfect oven for their operation and their long-term vision for PizzaFire: a wood-gas-fired brick oven with a rotating deck and accessible service providers. “This is just what we needed,” McCale says.
As McCale can attest, picking a pizza oven these days can be a daunting task. In addition to rampant innovation ranging from forced-air technology to LCD screens that control temperature and the number of rotations, there’s also an abundance of choices between manufacturers and heat sources, including gas, wood, and electric.
It can be dizzying, requiring restaurants to fully understand their options and, more importantly, their concept. These seven questions, according to the experts, should help any operator in search of the perfect oven.
#1: What’s the concept?
If the concept is a quick-service or fast-casual restaurant pushing out 100 or more pies in a two-hour lunch window, then a gas oven with a rotating deck would be a smart play. If the concept is a more upscale spot focused on ambiance over speed, however, then a wood-fired oven delivering aromatic scents and a more sophisticated, sexy feel might be the better option.
“You want the oven to perform in your platform,” says Anthony Pilla of Maryland-based oven manufacturer Marra Forni.
#2: What’s the menu?
Sure, pizzas will be central to the concept, but will the kitchen team be using the oven for other purposes, such as baking bread, roasting vegetables, or cooking proteins? If so, how often?
“If you’re only selling 20 percent pizza, then you likely don’t need a wood-fired rotating oven because you’re not going to spend as much time in front of that oven,” Pilla says. “If your revenue in a 200-seat restaurant is 80 percent pizzas, though, then a rotating oven will likely be a wise choice.”
#3: What is leadership’s long-term vision?
If robust growth sits top of mind for leadership, then scalability must be considered. To wit, PizzaFire’s decision to purchase rotating ovens for its stores was fueled by its plans to be a 500-unit chain.
“If you intend to franchise out in the near future, you need to think about automation,” says Fash Asvadi of Pizzaovens.com, one of the nation’s leading pizza oven distributors.
#4: What’s the level of pizza-making fluency in the kitchen?
As it takes time and training for staff to cook consistently with a static oven, rotating ovens have emerged as the more popular option given their ease of use. Rotating ovens represent about two-thirds of Marra Forni’s oven sales, Pilla says.
“If you have experience with a static oven and are an artisan concept, then a non-rotating wood oven makes sense,” Pilla says. “If not, then the rotating oven is much easier from a operational standpoint and leads to savings in labor and shrinkage.”
#5: Can the building house the selected oven?
Cheyenne Raida of XLT Ovens, a manufacturer of conveyor pizza ovens, says it’s imperative that restaurants get the correct-size oven for their applications. This includes finding out if the building’s floors can hold the weight of the oven. (Some ovens, after all, top 7,000 pounds.) If not, operators could have an oven they cannot use in their establishment or a costly bill to reinforce the floors.
In addition, operators would be wise to research local fire guidelines. Some municipalities, Pilla says, do not allow wood ovens or require a scrubber system, which can add $12,000–$18,000 to the final bill.
“Avoiding the headache of wood storage and fire codes are two reasons a lot of operators choose gas,” Pilla says.
#6: How important is design?
In some cases, oven design might be of minimal interest. In others, the oven might be a central piece of the restaurant’s design aesthetic, particularly in restaurants punctuated by exhibition kitchens.
PizzaFire’s now-standard oven from Marra Forni features red cracked tile and the concept’s flame logo on the side, a branding element that McCale says helps distinguish PizzaFire from competitors. Similarly, XLT allows its clients to customize oven appearance.
“Even if you’re a one-off, you still want to stand out,” McCale says.
#7: Is there any added value that comes with the purchase?
Beyond the initial investment, Raida and Asvadi say, operators should review the bottom-line pricing of equipment, including elements such as warranties, the pricing and availability of parts, energy-efficient components, and general maintenance costs. This will help a restaurant get the most out of its equipment.
Other manufacturers, meanwhile, toss in other value-added opportunities worth a look. Marra Forni, for example, offers a free consultation in its factory and its company kitchen with the firm’s culinary director, which affords operators an opportunity to review areas such as menu development and marketing.