Canadian Pizza Magazine

Pizza Expo 2024 highlights

By Canadian Pizza   

Features News Business and Operations Trends editor pick pizza expo

The International Pizza Expo, held in Las Vegas in March, celebrated its 40th anniversary with solid educational content and exciting competitions, new products and networking for professional pizza makers and bakers. Canadian Pizza magazine was there to bring back a few highlights.

Demonstration: Multiple Cheese Blends and How to Use Them

Eric Von Hansen, executive regional chef at Caliente Pizza and Draft House in Pittsburgh, Penn., led a demonstration giving advice to other pizzerias. He is known for its award-winning pizza, including a vodka cacciatore sauce pie enhanced with butter and basil. He has also won top prizes multiple years at Vegas Expo.

At the demo, Von Hansen made a steak pizza featuring caramelized onion, mushroom, white wine and topped with arugula. Another featured pizza was made with creamy French Boursin cheese, roasted artichoke hearts and shaved parmesan. Von Hansen said he puts the Boursin cheese directly onto the crust and “it just kind of melts into the crust.”

The gregarious chef, whose fine-dining background has inspired his awarding winning pizzas with ingredients including duck breast, hanger steak and wagu beef, loves French cooking. “The things the French do with cream cheese are unbelievable,” he said.


Von Hansen finished with a tip: “The trick with feta is not to put it in the oven. That dries it out. It’s already brined and dried. Feta is a finishing cheese.”

Collaboration and Long-Term Sustainability

In an inspiring keynote talk, father and daughter team John Farrell and Jacque Farrell of Farrelli’s Pizza in Wisconsin shared learnings from a storied pizzeria career.
“We’ve never had a year when we didn’t make more money than the year before. We’ve been very fortunate,” said Jacque, co-founder with her father and current CEO.

Farrelli’s Pizza opened its original location is in Lacey, Wis., and among a dozen other locations, Tacoma, Wash., location opened in 2017. “We’ve had $30,000 days and we’ve had $2,000 days. It depends on the sun. Imagine trying to schedule around the sun,” John said, giving kudos to one manager for keeping workers on year-round and thus offering them a viable, stable career path.

In 1995, when John was 50 and Jacque was 23, they took out a loan for 30 per cent of their investment, in effect borrowing $65,000. In his work with distributor Food Services of America, John had learned that “relationships are everything.” Good relationships with distributors ensured they never ran out of supplies. Good relationships with their attorney, accountant and ingredient suppliers secured them fair prices and helped keep the business running smoothly.

“It took us nine years to go from store 1 to store 2. We wanted to clean up our backyard first,” she said referring to paying off debt, Jacque said, adding that they invested in technology.

John said of their management team, “If you trust these young people, you’ll be [pleasantly] shocked at how committed they’ll be – committed and involved. Teach them costing, teach them budgeting, give them a budget to work with. Some of the team are partial owners. The general managers all started at entry level and they take quarterly classes on business managament.

John told a story as an example of Jacque’s ability to empathize with and motivate the team on a busy and difficult night at the restaurant when the team was struggling to keep up with customer traffic. She could have been hard on the team but instead brought them all milkshakes from a nearby shop and encouraged them to keep going. Farrelli’s offers profit-sharing to its employees. “We ensure people more than 30 hours each week,” said Jacque, who helps staff set up 401Ks as investments in their future.

Growth is not all sunshine and roses, the duo warned. “If something affects one store, it affects us all.”

Be Less, Be Excellent

Peyton Smith, founder of Mission Pizza Napoletana, shared how his business has managed to maintain the healthy work-life balance that many business owners and operators dream of. Mission does not sell plain cheese or pepperoni pizza but instead specializes in gourmet pizza.

“We are not trying to appeal to everyone,” said Smith, who is known for bringing Neapolitan pizza to the Carolinas in 2014, earned a James Beard Semifinalist nod for Best Chef Southeast in 2022.

The celebrated pizzaiolo wanted to stop looking for validation through working more. “It’s about mindset, or a value system, and streamlining your processes wherever you can.” The Paradox of Choice applies not only to narrowing choices for your guests but also to narrowing moving parts for the team. “It’s not easy, but try to streamline processes and eliminate extra work wherever you can. Money matters but is it really worth the stress of chasing an incremental dollar that is diminishing in value?”

COVID caused him to rethink his business model. Pre-pandemic, they worked five days a week. They now work four days. “People who come to see me mid-week are intentionally coming to see me,” he said.

Smith set himself a dollar amount that would allow him to run the business, pay expenses, support employees and support his own family. “Once I’ve met that goal, a dollar above that doesn’t make a big difference to me,” he said.

Smith blocks off four weeks a year of vacation. The team is selling food for 18 hours a week and he now is able to give time and attention to certain areas of the business such as menu development and to his family.

Employees like the reduced hours and use the extra time to run a side hustle or further their education. “They can bring more of themselves to the work,” Smith said. “It’s a small team, with 25-30 aggregate years employed, and we stick with people we like.”

As guiding principles Smith recommended: “Figure out a way to do less work. Make the business less about the guests and more about you.”

“Business people already take on a lot of risk,” he said. “I don’t want to let other people be my boss. Vigilance is required. Boundaries tell customers who we are, what we do and what we won’t do.”

He wants his business to be known for its transparency, authenticity and integrity. For example, his team have learned how to say no to customers by telling them what you can do for them instead.

One concrete step they took was to get rid of phone orders and switch to online ordering only. “My team likes it.”

Baking and pizza books launched

There was no shortage of books launched at Expo. The World Pizza Champions launched a collaborative cookbook called The Pursuit of Pizza featuring more than 30 award-winning pizza makers breaking down advanced recipes into easy steps.
The book features a recipe for Maple Bacon Pizza by Thomas Schneider, owner of Tommy’s Pizzeria in Winnipeg. The pizza includes goat cheese, poached pears, bacon and maple syrup! Schneider has competed in international competitions in Italy and Las Vegas and in 2023 earned second place at the Canadian Pizza Summit in Toronto.

Michael Kalanty, a bakery specialist and instructor at The Fire Within pizza school, was at Expo promoting his pair of books, How to Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread and How to Bake More Bread: Modern Breads, Wild Yeast.

Canadians perform well under pressure as they showed during the International Pizza Challenge. Most notably, Cowabunga Pizza of Hamilton, Ont., took home the title of World’s Best Cheese Pizza Slice and chef Andy Huynh earned a coveted place in the Pizza Maker of the Year finals. You can read more about Cowabunga’s adventures in the next issue of Canadian Pizza magazine.

Salar Madadi of Maipai, also in Hamilton, Ont., placed second in the international division of the Non-Traditional category. Fiodar Huminski of No. 900 Pizzeria Napolitaine of Quebec placed third in the international division of the Non-Traditional category. Congratulations to all!

Check out these photo highlights. Tag yourself and your friends!

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