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Tech Slices: The forces of evolution … of pizza cheese

The forces of evolution … of pizza cheese


March 25, 2008
By Bob McDougall

Topics

Common sense and the simple truth of business inform us that only when there is competition, is there strong economic reason to invest in innovation and improvement.


Perhaps due partly to the seeming scarcity of both common and business sense in the legislative and dairy supply sectors, we pizza makers, the largest single group whose livelihood depends upon cheese, humbly accept our annual Valentine’s Day “gift” from Canada’s dairy compact.

There is, however, one group that does not simply accept this fate. They’re a small group, but powerful; and both determined in and dedicated to carving sufficient profit from their trade. They are the cheese makers.

Once, perhaps 60 years ago, a cheese plant was relatively simple – the milk went in and the cheese came out – along with some whey and maybe some butter. Better or more efficient operations grew, and others shrank or were absorbed. If the market wanted more cheese, the plants bought more milk, and made more cheese. Growth meant higher and more efficient production, lower cheese production costs and a more competitive company. Newer or smaller plants had to be smarter and work harder, so they could grow and invest in more effective manufacturing processes. Pretty straightforward stuff.

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Then the scene changed. With the evolution of supply management, plants were allocated fixed amounts of milk based upon a historic proportion of their provinces’ part of the national total – and essentially on a use it or lose it basis. Very quickly, the only economically viable way to grow and secure efficiencies of scale, was to absorb other companies and secure their milk volumes, or quota. The overall pool of milk was essentially fixed. Predictably, like in nature, when a single essential resource becomes limited, those needing it become very focused on it, and use every means to enhance, increase or just plain stretch it.

In the decades following, cheese makers used many approaches. Strict attention to careful, exact measurement, using just the right amounts of each milk component, and wasting as little as possible were normal. Canadian cheese makers became experts in augmenting their fluid milk with skim milk powder, and in using any source of milk fat, even reusing lost cream from whey.

Many strategies were tried with varying success.

As pizza makers, perhaps we can learn something from them in their struggle. Some of their strategies have parallels in pizza production – and offer hints for efficiencies for us in reducing our cheese costs.

Firstly, do you measure and control your inputs? Do you know and use exactly how much cheese should be applied to each of your pizza types to perform properly? The best amounts can vary by crust type, counter hold time expected (slices or take out), amount and general type of toppings (heavy on meat or all veggie, for example). It’s not the same for all combinations.

Do your supervisors know the specs – and check? How are quantities measured? Are your scales accurate? When was the last time you checked? If you use volume cups to portion, when did you last verify what cheese weight they deliver? Do you post a standard method to fill the cups – and enforce it?

These are a lot of questions – but they matter. A weigh scale off by just four per cent can cost you $10 in profit on an easy night (200 pies containing 5 oz., or 150 g, of cheese per pie). A portion cup being filled incorrectly can easily over portion 15 per cent. That’s $40 a night, or over $12,000 a year, straight off your bottom line.

Even more serious is eyeball pizza making. Cheesing by eye can be time-effective even for a master pizza maker. In the hands of someone less well-trained, errors of 25 per cent are not unexpected. That’s maybe $65 a night, or $20,000 a year.

What about finding each and every way to optimize cheese use? Make sure you occasionally verify the weight on the incoming packages – cheese companies’ scales can be incorrect too.

As mentioned above, different pizzas perform best with different cheese amounts. Make sure your cheese use is adjusted by type. An easy way not to overcomplicate this is just using a higher sauce and topping/lower cheese balance on pizzas for sale by the slice. This adjustment should give you a longer-lasting and tastier offering for that market. Another approach is to adjust cheese levels slightly downward when a large number of toppings are requested. This will actually aid in delivering a hotter, crispier pie.

Finally, there is one approach that is becoming more popular, and takes the fight for rationality and fairness right to the dairy despots – buy less of their cheese. The technology for manufacturing cheese analogues has advanced dramatically over the last decade. It can be hard to determine the difference between a 100 per cent mozz pizza and one containing a blend with 10 or even 20 per cent of a well-made analogue. If you are not looking at this – you should be.

There are essentially two ways to take this approach. One is to offer a healthy or a vegan/vegetarian alternative version of pizza using analogue only. Remember to carefully assess your claims – many analogues contain casein, which comes from milk. Only fully soy-based analogues may be considered vegan. Use tasty and high-quality toppings for a great pie.

The second approach is to determine a blend proportion at which your pizzas will perform. Try steps of five per cent from 10 to perhaps 25 per cent or more. Depending upon your particular oven conditions, pizzas and toppings, you’ll find a best point. For every five per cent of analogue, you should expect at least a one per cent drop in the overall cheese price (based upon rough numbers of $8/kg mozz and $6/kg analogue).

If you do decide to try this route – make your vote count. Let your MP know that you are taking an active step against the current nonsensical and unfair application of dairy supply management. Tell him you’re tired of being milked for cheese.

Remember, the responsibility is ours to run efficient and profitable pizzerias, supplying tasty and wholesome pies to our customers. Use any and all tools you can to do this.

Let the science of food help you to astonish your customers with the art of pizza.•

Bob McDougall is a microbiologist, with postgraduate training in biochemistry and food science. He has held senior operations, quality and product innovation roles in meat, dairy and other sectors, and is a veteran of the pizza wars of the last decade of the second millennium. For seven years, Bob managed all quality, R&D and technical services for the Canada division of the world’s largest pizza chain. He is principal consultant with RJMA – The Food Technical Consultancy, and freely admits to having pizza sauce in his veins. Contact Bob at techslices@annexweb.com.