Lots of Louisvillians are asking (mostly in social media) lately, “Do we really need another pizza place?” It’s a fair question, but the answer clearly is yes.
Fact is no one needs pizza, but we want it badly, and it seems we’re always willing to try just one more variation on that well-worn theme of dough, sauce and cheese baked to crispy-gooey perfection.
Last weekend I helped out at the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus Ohio, where the annual Pizza Pizzazz contest is held. After seeing this year’s 100 entries, I’m more convinced than ever that we’ll see even more pizzeria openings and even better pizza.
About a decade ago, when I first started got involved with the show, I was typically wrangled in to judge the affair with about 30 others. Though tasting at least 25 pizzas in a single day seems like a dream to most, it’s not all its baked up to be—especially if some of those pizzas aren’t good.
And back then, lots weren’t. Many lacked balance between toppings and crust, and too often little consideration was given to overall flavor or visual appeal. I wasn’t the only judge sometimes left slapping his forehead and asking, “Seriously? They thought this would win?”
Sensing contestants were creating something whimsical just to dazzle the judges, a rule was instituted that any entry had to be on the menu at the entrant’s pizza shop. Immediately the quality improved.
When you witness one of these contests up close, you’ll see pizza makers working like fine dining chefs: focused intently on ingredient choices and technique. It’s not just dough, sauce and cheese baked one way, it’s real thought going into unique toppings and cheese combinations. The creativity showing up on entries this year were clearly garnered from other restaurant segments, and the overall execution of those pizzas showed serious cooking technique.
No, it doesn’t hurt that $15,000 in cash, divided between two contests, is on the line either. It’s a nice potential return on a $125 entry fee investment.
Sure, pepperoni, sausage and mushroom still lead the way as Americans’ favorite toppings, but at least 20 percent of all pizza customers crave dynamic innovation. And based on what I saw this past weekend, there’s an abundance of that in the pizza segment.
Not surprisingly, I’m recognizing an increasing number of the same competitors year after year. Just as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and their teams continue to show up in NFL championship games, many the same great pizza makers wind up in the Pizza Pizzazz finals. They’re innovators and perfectionists whose passion for the craft shines through, and not surprisingly, their businesses are thriving. Equally important is judges recognize what’s good and what isn’t.
Sure, chain pizzerias are doing well, too, but their growth is based on efficiency and low price. A proven business model to be sure, but the resulting products aren’t terribly exciting.
So when I hear of a new independently operated pizzeria opening in Louisville, I’m excited about it. I want to try it and see what’s new—other than my expanding waistline.