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Hearth & Home December 2014

Fogazzo pizza oven.

Pizza, Please!

By Lisa Readie Mayer

If you’re not selling pizza ovens, you’re missing one of the hottest (and tastiest) categories in the outdoor market.

It might not surprise you to learn that pizza is the number one food-related search on Google. Or even that pizza has been in the top ten Google food searches for the last 129 months (that’s more than 10 years!). After all, in a country that boasts an average per-person consumption of 43 slices annually, most of us can probably account for at least one Googling of the nearest pizza parlor.

But, it might surprise you to discover that “pizza dough” was one of the top ten recipe searches on Google in 2013. The statistic likely indicates a lot of people are making pizza at home and, frequently, it seems, on the grill. Google searches for “grilled pizza recipes” have skyrocketed from virtually none before July 2006 until peaking in 2012 and 2013 (searches are down slightly in 2014).

It definitely does not surprise Elizabeth Karmel and Robert Blumer. The authors of “Pizza on the Grill: 100+ Feisty, Fire-Roasted Recipes for Pizza and More” say, “When you think about crossing the most popular food with the most popular cooking technique, it only makes sense that grilled pizza would captivate our palate.”

Karmel and Blumer’s book is just one of a dozen or more on the subject, according to Karen Adler, president of barbecue book wholesaling company Pig Out Publications. Besides the dedicated titles, Adler says many more new grill books include pizza chapters. “There has been a huge leap in popularity of grilled pizza books. It’s a very strong category,” says Adler, who, with Judith Fertig, co-authored her own grilled pizza book, “Patio Pizzeria,” this year.

Manufacturers and distributors of pizza ovens and accessories are finding the category is strong for them as well. “We have seen a lot of interest in the pizza category and sales of those items have been brisk,” says Frank G. Mello, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Bull Outdoor Products.

Russ Faulk, vice president of Design for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet believes the growing interest is at least partly attributable to consumers’ increased exposure to wood-fired pizza restaurants opening all over the country. “More people are discovering and demanding artisan pizzas each year,” he says. “Pizza-making can be a very social style of cooking and it encourages creativity and experimentation more than other types of cooking. The most passionate of these pizza foodies are thrilled to bring professional-quality pizza ovens into their outdoor living spaces.”

Tranquilli Forni pizza oven from Sopka.

It appears that many are doing exactly that. Although there are no industry-wide sales numbers available for the category, a new ordinance in suburban Chicago is evidence that pizza ovens are becoming more and more mainstream. According to an article in the “Chicago Tribune,” the village of Winnetka, Illinois, is proposing an amendment of its fire code in response to the increased demand for outdoor kitchen and wood-fired pizza oven permits.

“Outdoor pizza ovens are trending in the village,” says Winnetka fire chief Alan Berkowsky.

The article goes on to quote the village’s director of Community Development, Michael D’Onofrio, who says, “I want to dispel the rumor that we are out searching for pizza ovens. But we are seeing more residents making improvements that include outdoor kitchens on patios and porches, which include pizza ovens, so we asked the fire department, ‘How do we want to deal with this?’”

Debates about the need for the regulation aside, the fact that pizza ovens are becoming popular enough to warrant the discussion is exciting news. Homeowners who want to add a pizza oven to their patio have plenty to choose from. There are easily 30 different brands of outdoor pizza ovens available in the U.S., with plenty of variations within the field. Some ovens are fueled by wood, others gas, and a few can use both. Some sport old-world-style looks, others are extremely contemporary. Preheat times range from ten minutes to several hours, and prices are equally all over the map.

Most outdoor ovens are “black” ovens, in which the fire burns right within the cooking chamber. Because the food is adjacent to the fire, it benefits from the smoke flavor (that is, if the oven is fueled by wood), but cooking requires some extra diligence. For instance, the pizza or cooking dish will need to be monitored and rotated to prevent burning and ensure even browning.

While some say “black ovens” are most authentic, others say “white ovens” offer advantages for home cooks. In this style of oven, the fire is built in a separate area below the cooking chamber, where it supplies heat but, depending on the oven, it sometimes creates less smoke flavor.

Wayne Robinson, president of Inmar Industries, says his Tuscan Chef Outdoor Ovens offer the best of both worlds thanks to a unique design that circulates smoke from a segregated fire chamber into the cooking chamber. “You get the flavor benefits but don’t have to be as concerned with watching the food and the fire,” he says. “It’s an easier way for a consumer to cook.”

Of the outdoor ovens sold at retail, unfinished modular kits like those from Stone Age Manufacturing, Earth Stone Ovens, FireRock Outdoor Ovens, and Chicago Brick Ovens, offer the greatest opportunity for customizing. When the modular components are assembled and finished with stone, brick or stucco on the patio, they look like old-world, custom-masonry wood-fired ovens, but come together in a fraction of the time.

Preassembled ovens are plug-n-play units, ready-to-cook upon delivery. Depending on the model, preassembled ovens can be placed on a tabletop or mobile cart, or built into an outdoor kitchen. The preassembled units, like The Oven by Summerset, Alfresco Home’s Fornetto Wood-Fired Oven and Smoker, Pacific Living’s Pizza Oven and Chicago Brick Ovens cart and countertop models, have many advantages. They offer little to no installation time or expense, portability (unless built into a masonry surround), shorter preheat times, and sometimes, but not always, smaller price tags. While prices for preassembled outdoor ovens can be as low as $1,000 to $2,000, restaurant-quality, stainless-steel ovens like those from Wood Stone Ovens, which start at $13,500, can run much higher.

Artisan Fire pizza oven from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

Despite its price tag of around $7,000 (nearly $14,000 when combined with a cart base), Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s Artisan Fire Pizza Oven has been a big seller for the company, according to Faulk. “It replicates the heat of a large, wood-fired oven, but it is easier to use and does not require installation,” he says. “It can cook a Neapolitan-style pie in just over two minutes, making it perfect for parties.”

While clearly not an issue for everyone, sticker shock could be one thing that’s preventing the category from exploding. Jovgen Sopka, president of Cleveland-based Sopka, Inc., recently started importing and distributing Tranquilli Forni wood-fired ovens from Italy, a premium-priced line to complement the more moderately priced line of Alfa Pizza Ovens he also distributes. The traditional-looking Tranquilli Forni is a “white oven” that contains the fire in a separate chamber and starts at $4,500 retail, while the contemporary-looking Alfa Pizza Oven incorporates the fire within the cooking chamber and starts at $1,600. “The response to the Tranquilli Forni has not been what we thought,” says Sopka. “We think it’s due to the higher price, and that we got a late start bringing the product to market in August,” says Sopka. “But, I believe by next summer, the high-quality and classic design will win over more dealers and consumers.”

“We see lots of growing interest and activity, but it’s still a push to get over the retail price barrier for some,” agrees Robinson. “Besides price, the weather and the overall economy have a big influence on sales. These are complicated times and economic factors are definitely holding the category back a bit.” Still, he says 2014 was “quite acceptable,” with outdoor oven sales flat to up. “We had a busy October and fall, so we are optimistic that trend will continue into 2015.”

Happy Pizza Oven from Wittus.

Wittus is equally optimistic about its Happy Pizza Oven, an outdoor oven it has begun importing from Italy. The wood-fired portable unit comes with a removable door, stainless-steel shelf, rolling cart base and other features. It heats up in 10 minutes and comes in a choice of lively colors including red, green, white, yellow, maroon, blue, and gray, as well as stainless-steel finishes.

John King, president of Hearthlink International, has been pleasantly surprised at sales of the Morsø Forno pizza oven his company imports from Denmark. The cast-iron, powder-coated Morsø Forno, “sells better than I thought it would, for a product that is a niche item,” he says. He attributes its success to its unique, contemporary design, which has been especially popular near urban areas, and its price point. “There are not many pizza ovens that retail for under $2,000,” he adds.

Most involved in the category believe emphasizing the versatility of the ovens is one way around consumers’ reluctance over price. “We don’t even use the term pizza oven,” says Robinson. “It’s too limiting.” Instead, he suggests using the term “outdoor oven” or “wood-fired oven” to underscore their ability to roast, bake and cook much more than pizza.

 “Our product is an oven,” says Joseph Cilio, president of Alfresco Home, North American distributors of the Fornetto Wood-Fired Oven and Smoker. “It’s a specialty product and it can make pizzas for sure, but it does way more than that. You can use it to roast meats and vegetables, cook the Thanksgiving turkey, bake, smoke and more.”

To highlight and encourage this versatility, Alfresco Home offers a full line of high-heat-tolerant stoneware cookware, including Dutch ovens, roasting pans, bread bakers, baking stones and deep-dish pizza pans, all specially designed for cooking in a wood-fired oven, and finished in a beautiful red glaze to match the Fornetto ovens.

Relatively inexpensive after-market conversion kits like Kettle Pizza, Baker Stone Pizza Oven Box, or Camp Chef’s Italia Artisan Pizza Oven, may be a good way for your customers to test the pizza waters before committing to an outdoor oven. These units typically sit on a grill’s cooking grid, creating a brick-oven environment for cooking pizza directly on the grill. Another option, Pizzeria Pronto from Companion Group, is a portable, tabletop, propane-fueled mini pizza cooker. Perhaps a season of experimenting with one of these products will help parlay consumers into the purchase of a full-sized, much more versatile outdoor oven.  

Accessories are another introductory route to getting customers hooked on grilled pizza. Many grill and accessory manufacturers offer an extensive lineup of pizza accessory products, from ceramic pizza stones to cutters to peels, all of which allow consumers to try the technique with minimal investment, and offer excellent profit potential for specialty retailers.

“Accessories are a very important part of the category,” explains Cilio, whose company also offers wood chips made from Spanish cognac and wine barrels, and natural hardwood charcoal from Paraguay, in addition to traditional peels and paddles, and the aforementioned cookware.

“They help sell the ovens and complete the brand,” he says. “If you don’t sell a full complement of accessories it’s like wearing a suit without the tie. You need it to complete the look. Dealers who embrace pizza ovens, use them, and get passionate about the category, will sell them, and then the ongoing accessory sales become an annuity,” he says.

As with all outdoor cooking products, the dealers who put effort into promoting pizza ovens are the most successful at selling them. “Successful dealers display and demo the ovens,” says Robinson. “They like and understand the product, use it and talk the talk. It takes effort to make the sale. If you just put it on the floor and forget it, it won’t work.”

Manufacturers are offering support for retailers with training and marketing materials. “Wood-fired ovens require good coaching of the consumer on all the ways to use them to make sure they are happy with their purchase,” says Mello. “That is why we spent the time and money to develop several how-to videos about our ovens and how to use them.”

Tuscan Chef pizza oven.

Tuscan Chef Ovens has also recently created three demonstration videos showing consumers how to prepare bread, chicken, ribs, and of course, pizza in the oven. “They are up on YouTube, and dealers can run them on televisions in the store,” says Robinson. According to King of Hearthlink, dealers who have been most successful selling Morsø Forno ovens have offered cooking demonstrations and cooking classes.

Patti Bolker Elkon of Wittus says their dealers see an increase in store traffic when they demo the ovens outside their stores. “The smoke attracts the attention of people driving by and gets them to stop in,” she says. She also recommends that dealers host a special event party for customers like the “Small Bites” event Wittus just held to showcase its Happy Pizza Oven and other cookstoves. “Not only do customers get to see the products in action, they get to taste the delicious food that is prepared.”

Tasting is very convincing, according to the experts, and probably most influential in making the sale. “There is no way to replicate the authentic brick-oven flavor at home than in a pizza oven or on a grill,” says Adler.

“Pizza is international, fun and delicious,” adds Mello. “I believe it is here to stay in the outdoor market.”

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