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Into the oven

Dueling baking methods compete to turn out the best pizza.
pieology pizza oven

Made-to-order pizza concepts rely on speedy, high-temperature ovens to fire up customized pizzas. While this Chipotle-style fast-casual category experienced rapid growth in 2014, according to Chicago research firm Technomic, some established pizza players are succeeding by sticking to more traditional pie-making techniques with slower deck or conveyor ovens. Here’s how the different oven styles stack up.

Training required

Each of the 50 locations of fast-casual Pieology, headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is equipped with a gas-flame, brick-lined oven that heats to 800 degrees. Once customers go down the line and choose their dough, sauce and toppings, the oven bakes a pizza in three minutes. That speedy turnaround time means that a restaurant can serve 75 to 100 customers an hour and it helps when   40 percent or orders are carryout.

Pieology founder and CEO Carl Chang sees quality and consistency as the driving forces behind his choice of equipment. “Our proprietary dough blend reacts well at that temperature,” he says of the superheated ovens, which run $50,000 to $55,000. He eschewed the notion of purchasing a less-expensive conveyor style, feeling that it didn’t produce the crisp, charred New York-style pizza crust he was after.

The trade-off is that these high-speed ovens require training to operate. “The oven we use is more artisanal,” Chang says. “It takes more skill and more care when you consider the amount of variables, the number of toppings.”

Employees spend four weeks of training at Pieology’s corporate location followed up with four weeks on the franchise site, says Chang. “We have a pretty robust training program to make sure execution is of the highest quality,” he adds.

Going with a classic

Speed isn’t the only answer, especially in the casual-dining sector where sit-down customers are not in as much of a hurry. Some pizza stalwarts, like Atlanta-based Mellow Mushroom, now in its 41st year, continue to opt for slower ovens. While each of the chain’s 170 units is encouraged to express its individuality through design, they all adhere to the traditional corporate dough recipes, menu and cooking methods. And they all use the same kind of oven.

Mellow Mushroom’s double-deck, gas-fired 60-inch stainless steel ovens are lined with brick on all the walls, “so the pizza cooks from all sides,” explains COO Paul Baldasaro. Unlike the fast-casual custom pizza concepts, the oven is not a focal point or showpiece, “but our show is in the execution,” says Baldasaro. The dough is prepared and proofed in-house and hand stretched to order in an open kitchen, so customers can see the staff prepare each pie.

Mellow Mushroom’s ovens generally cook at 475 to 500 degrees, “in order to properly produce the texture and color that we want,” says Baldasaro, noting that pizzas take about 12 to 14 minutes per pie. “Our dough is known to be crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. We get the best flavor profile at that temperature and time.”

The cost for the double-deck ovens, which can hold about 14 large pies at a time, runs $15,000 to $18,000. “We like the ovens to be not too complex for easy workability and repair with a really strong recoup time on temperature, so that the oven stays hot throughout service,” says Baldasaro. 

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