A Slice of the Pie?
By Lisa Readie Mayer
“Friday Night Pizza” is a tradition for many North American families, including one on the hit ABC television series “A Million Little Things.” But, rather than order takeout, this TV family makes homemade pizza in a beautiful, masonry, wood-fired pizza oven on their patio.
An entire episode of the series is devoted to this pizza-night tradition, with the family and friends gathered in the glow of the wood-fired oven, making and cooking the pizzas, and enjoying them together at a long dining table in the Outdoor Room that extends seamlessly from the home’s interior living space. After dinner, family and friends cozy around a fire pit on deep-seated wicker furniture to extend the evening and the fun.
Based on viewers’ online comments, the images of the pizza oven, the Outdoor Room, and the pizza-making experience resonated with the audience long after the episode ended. As one put it, the “backyard brick oven made me swoon.” Another said, “The houses on this show might be the best part.”
The takeaway: Pizza ovens are a gateway to memorable experiences. They are a vehicle for establishing pizza-night traditions with the grandkids, entertaining friends with unique live-fire dinners, hosting make-your-own pizza parties, making great snacks on football-watching afternoons, and many other types of social cooking. Pizza ovens are part of an experiential lifestyle and specialty retailers should be selling them.
Allegro from ALFA Ovens.
The Dough Is Rising
Interest in homemade, artisanal pizza is growing. According to the USDA, homemade pizza accounted for 10% of all pizza consumed in 2015, up from 3% in 2013. Market research firm Technavio forecasts the global market for wood-fired pizza ovens is expected to grow by more than 10% between 2017 and 2021.
“The category is really taking off,” says Michael Stone, director of Sales, Outdoor for Lakeview Appliance Distributing and ALFA Ovens, a line of pizza ovens manufactured in Italy. “Consumers and dealers are really understanding that it’s all about the experience of cooking over a live fire and turning an evening of dinner and drinks into an experience with family, friends, or coworkers.”
Stone, a former brick-and-mortar retailer himself, says he still occasionally encounters hesitancy from retailers who tell him, “We previously tried (selling pizza ovens) and it didn’t work.” But, he says, many are embracing the category, and he’s seeing success in specialty barbecue, pool, appliance, and hardware channels, as well as in the hospitality industry, and even among food truck operators.
Stone says, since 2018, the company has opened 120 dealers in 150 locations. “This is more than a fad,” he says. “We’ve been closing dealers even through the winter months. We expect to double our business in 2020. Our social media is growing like crazy, and consumers are realizing they can have an outdoor pizza oven and don’t have to spend $10,000 to $15,000 or have a big permanent masonry structure on their patio. Dealers say customers are coming in asking for our ovens.”
Alfa Ovens features proprietary firebrick on the deck of the oven, a baffled flue system for better and more even heat circulation, and a double-walled ceramic-fiber insulated exterior to hold up in cold climates, while remaining cool to the touch. The company offers six wood-fired models, including its latest and smallest, the Alfa One, weighing 100 pounds.
While Stone says the company’s wood-fired ovens are its most popular, its two gas-fired, models, UL-certified for indoor use, “are selling really well and are much more competitively-priced than tabletop, stainless-steel gas ovens.”
The Hale Grey Oven from DeliVita.
Joe Formisano, founder of DeliVita wood-fired ovens made in England, says his company’s sales have been steadily increasing since the company began making its tabletop, wood-fired ovens in 2016. He credits the growth in part to the “theatrics of creating fire and having friends and family over to cook together. It’s fun allowing them to create their own masterpieces,” he says.
A Vesta Award finalist last year when the ovens were introduced to the U.S. market at the HPBExpo, portable, DeliVita ovens are crafted in a traditional beehive shape with clay stone interior, and a waterproof, crack-resistant, fiberglass exterior shell available in several colors. Safe for any surface, the compact tabletop ovens weigh only 66 lbs., can accommodate a 12-inch pizza or cast-iron pan, and reach 800°F temperatures in 25 minutes.
“The oven is not just for pizzas,” Formisano says. “We have four Michelin-starred restaurants using our ovens for cooking steaks and fish, hot-smoking, baking, and as a tandoori oven. It is a quality, artisan oven at an attainable price.”
Countertop Artisan Fire Pizza Oven from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.
Russ Faulk, chief designer and head of Product at Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet, says roughly half of those who purchase an outdoor kitchen from Kalamazoo now include the company’s Artisan Fire Pizza Oven among the components. He says the trend is hottest on the West Coast, but is also very popular in households with children. “The fact you can light it so quickly and be ready to cook in as little at 20 minutes, means an after-school pizza party is always possible,” Faulk says.
After noticing customer demand increasing over the past several years, Amber Percival, president of Urban Hearth in Ontario, Canada, added pizza ovens to the store’s product mix last year. “The category is doing very well,” she says. “Outdoor cooking is going through a renaissance and people are connecting to food in a different way.”
Percival says her store’s customers are “eager foodies” who are interested in making homemade sourdough bread in a pizza oven, grinding their own beef for burgers, drinking craft brews, and other artisanal pursuits. “They are also taking pictures of it all and sharing it on social media,” she says. “Social media and other influencers are helping to grow interest.”
Percival says retailers who are successful at selling pizza ovens for outdoor kitchens are making a conscious effort to speak to consumers’ desires to connect with family and friends, make memories, and make really good food. “You have to show what’s possible,” she says. “A high-end gas grill, a teppanyaki grill, a wood-burning pizza oven – they’re all part of an outdoor kitchen and may even all be used during the same party.”
The Bull Gas Fired Pizza Oven form Bull Outdoor Products.
A Pizza Oven on Every Patio
While old-school, custom-masonry, wood-fired ovens may be impressive eye-candy on the patio and provide the most visual theater, they are not the only options. Today, manufacturers offer fully assembled and ready-to-use pizza ovens in a wide array of price points, sizes, and materials.
Traditional wood-fired ovens generate tremendous heat and offer smoked-kissed flavor, but ovens are also now available fueled by propane, natural gas, and wood-pellets. Faulk says gas ovens offer the advantage of faster heat-up times, consistent temperature control, and greater convenience, while still delivering the intense heat required for Neapolitan-style pizzas. “It removes the guesswork and learning curve of managing a wood fire,” he says.
In addition to Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s Artisan Fire Pizza Oven, the Lynx Napoli, Earthstone Ovens, and Twin Eagles Salamangrill are other premium, gas-fired, stainless-steel units that can sit on a tabletop or cart base, or be built into a masonry surround.
Bull’s propane- or natural gas-fired Pizza Oven preheats in 15 minutes to 900°F. Made in Italy, the domed unit can be built into an outdoor kitchen, or placed on an optional wheeled cart base. The gas-fired, stainless-steel Summerset Outdoor Oven has two racks for cooking two pizzas (or other foods) at once, as well as a wood-chip holder to impart smoke flavor.
Camp Chef’s Italia Artisan Pizza Oven is a lightweight, portable oven that can be powered with a 1 lb. propane cylinder for camping or tailgating. It preheats in 15 minutes, offers adjustable flame control, and reaches temperatures up to 700°F. Mont Alpi also makes a portable, tabletop, propane pizza oven, as well as a dome accessory that fits over a sideburner to convert a gas grill into a pizza oven.
Italia Artisan Pizza Oven from Camp Chef.
Ooni’s roster of petite tabletop pizza ovens includes the Koda gas-fired model with a 13-inch stone that heats to 900°F in 10 minutes, and collapsible legs for easy portability. Its multi-fueled Ooni Pro model accepts gas, wood pellets, wood chunks, or lump charcoal fuels, has a 17-inch stone and a window in the door to monitor what’s cooking.
While prices on some premium, preassembled ovens can be steep, there are lots of moderate and even entry-priced options available that allow a much broader base of consumers to get into the category.
The gas-fired Firepod is a clever, compact, and versatile pizza oven that preheats to 700°F in 10 minutes, cooks a pizza in four minutes, and runs eight hours on a 1 lb. propane cylinder (or can be adapted for a 22 lb. tank). The unit has a dual stone floor separated by a little gap for better heat distribution and convection. The stones are reversible for easy cleaning, or one can be reserved for gluten-free pizzas.
An optional, reversible, cast-iron skillet and griddle accessory can be swapped in for the pizza stones to enable grilling, searing, sautéing, making breakfast, and more. The oven can also be used to heat a lava stone or Himalayan salt block. The tabletop oven has an optional floor stand and comes in four cool colors – turquoise, eggplant, red, and black.
A very low-risk way to get customers to test the pizza-making waters is the All-in-1 BBQ accessory from House of BBQ Experts, a line of accessories manufactured by Canadian retailer BBQ Quebec. The unit fits any standard-sized charcoal kettle grill and converts it into a pizza oven, as well as a rotisserie or smoker.
Ooni Koda from Ooni Pizza Ovens.
Other Ways to Roll in the Dough
Just as with any outdoor cooking appliance, the best way to increase sales of outdoor ovens is by demoing. “The most successful dealers make sure salespeople understand how to use the ovens, and cook on them regularly to educate customers,” says Stone. “There is a bit of a learning curve because ovens cook from both the top down and the bottom up.”
“Seeing is believing,” adds Faulk. “The Artisan Fire Pizza Oven really comes to life when the flame is on. It’s one thing to tell a client our oven cooks a Neapolitan-style pizza in less than three minutes. It is another thing to show them and let them taste the results.”
In addition to in-store demos, cooking classes, and events, some dealers have put pizza ovens on a mobile trailer for large-scale demoing at local community festivals, events, and outdoor markets.
Others allow customers to rent pizza ovens and accessories to try making pizza at home. According to Stone, one dealer displays an Alfa Oven outdoors on a trailer with a sign that says “Rent Me.” Sometimes rental “test drives” lead to sales.
Another way to monetize your pizza oven expertise is to create a mobile pizza catering service to make and serve artisan pizzas on location for private and corporate events, including company picnics, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, retirements, and sports team parties.
If your store already offers cooking classes and is adept at food handling, this should be an easy transition. The catering service could also sell artisan pizzas at local fairs, food festivals, and concerts, and at cross-marketing events with local craft breweries, wineries, specialty food markets, and more.
DeliVita served up an estimated 30,000 pizzas last year as part of its catering operation, according to Formisano. “To show how strong our product is we use our (catering) to advertise its capabilities,” he says. “These mighty little ovens are showstoppers. We are now starting to franchise our catering business outside of the UK.”
Pizza ovens are not a more convenient or less expensive alternative to take out, but they are a way for customers to create unique, memorable experiences, and fantastic food at home with family and friends. It’s time to revisit this category and get your slice of the pie.