BIG DAVE'S CHEESE SECRETS

By Dave Ostrander

I know how you market in your shop. You spread out all of your competitor's flyers on your desk. You separate them into two piles. You study them and determine that your competition must be desperate to sell pizza at ridiculously low prices. But, you admit to yourself they are very busy. You wish you could afford to advertise as aggressively as they did. If their customers could only try your pizza once, they would forever be loyal to you. After all, you only use the freshest, premium, best-money-can-buy ingredients in your pizza. How come I'm not rich? Will someone please "Show me the Money?"

The fact of the matter is, in order to increase sales more people must try your pizza and compare it to the last pizza they ate and then choose yours. The really big question is "Where will the extra thousand dollars come from so I can run a successful marketing campaign? The really big answer is "Cheese."

Right about now I suspect that about every other reader will start skimming the rest of this article. Some of you will have had your fill and jump to another story. Most everyone will be a little confused, and a few of you will come to the realization that I may have finally lost my marbles. Read on and I'll "Show You the Money!"

Who Cup the Cheese?

Before I tell you the secret, we have to go back and visit cheese. A good friend and fellow board member of the Michigan Restaurant Association asked me a very pointed question fifteen years ago. He asked "How are you portion controlling cheese on every pizza you make?". My reply was very defensive and in retrospect quite lame. "Alex," I answered, "We always hit food cost within two percent. We are so good that we can free throw cheese on pizzas and hit it perfect every time. After all you know we've made about a million of them. He compassionately smirked and rolled his eyes in smugness. "Who do you think you're kidding?" he said. "I know you may closely watch how much cheese you put on, but what about all of the young people working for you? Do you think that they give their friends and relatives a little extra? What about the hunks and the hotties? Then he marched me back into his kitchen and forced me to sauce and cheese five pizzas.

He then weighed the cheese that was on every pizza and the difference was dramatic. I missed the mark by at least one ounce, and several times two ounces, from my ideal benchmark amount. He said, "At this rate you're flushing between 20 and 30 cents a pie down the drain. Just think how much your employees are losing you because you don't have a system in place." I didn't know what to say.

He then produced a dozen ordinary rubber cups, and gestured towards his prep table. In place of the pan full of loose cheese were dozens of rubber cups with cheese in them. "Take these cups back to your place. Determine exactly how much cheese you want to put on every size pizza. Then scale out that amount in the cups and remove all the loose throw cheese from your make line. You'll need to buy at least a hundred more, two hundred would be better. They are very inexpensive. I got these at The Dollar Store. They come in a plastic bag and you get six or eight for a dollar. They are called "Rubber 22 ounce stadium cups. They are re-usable and un-breakable. I guarantee you that your weekly cheese purchases will go down significantly as soon as you start using them."

I drove back to my town and upon arriving at my store, I started doing what every owner does. Fixing problems, solving other people's problems, psychotherapy, (practicing medicine without a license) and soon forgot about the magic cups in my backseat. Alex called a couple of weeks later and asked how the cups were working out. I said, "Uh...fine...fine...fine." I felt so guilty I dropped everything and went shopping. An hour later, I was back at my store with a huge box of cups.

When I plopped that box on the prep table all of the staff gathered around told them the story of my visit with Alex. I told them how he said we could save lots of money and reduce expenses a lot. I told them that even I couldn't make five pizzas in a row the same way. I challenged them to do the same and see how hard it is to really portion cheese. No two hands are the same. I was all excited. They were not very impressed. They would rather I brought them a box of frozen confections from the Dairy Queen.

Are they Tuned In or Turned Off? My employees have a favorite radio station -- so do yours. The call letters are WII-FM. They all have invisible radio receiver antennas on top of their heads. You can only see them if you look really hard into their eyes. We managers and owners listen to another station. Our favorite call letters are WYGD-FM. All day we go about our business broadcasting WYGD-FM (What You're Gonna Do For Me). Our message does not reach our employees no matter how hard or how loud we send it because they are tuned into another frequency, they can't help it, they just don't hear it. The moment you start sending out your message on their frequency, WII-FM (What's In It For Me) they start hearing your message loud and clear.

I knew that I was about to radically change the way we made pizza. Any change is hard. We had been free throwing cheese for over ten years. I knew that if I didn't get an emotional, internal buy in from my senior pizza makers, my plan would be sabotaged and fail. I held a quiet meeting with my top four cooks and went over my plan again. I admitted to them that I wasn't sure the plan to pre weigh every cup of cheese would work. I told them they were the most awesome pizza makers on the planet, but just maybe it would be worth a try. I told them that if we saved a couple of ounces here and there it would all add up. If a savings was realized in our total cheese purchases over the next thirty days, I would split it with them 50 / 50. They were getting the message loud and clear on WII-FM. Always remember: behaviors that are rewarded are repeated.

That afternoon we decided how much cheese we were going to put on every size pizza. This amount would now be our new standard. We decided on 10 oz. for a 14" pie, five ounces for a 10" pie and 7.5 ounces for a 12" pizza. We started a weighing line. Loose cheese in one big Lexan tub, a dial ounce scale in the middle and another Lexan tub to receive the scaled cups. We stacked the cups two layers high and separated them with pizza squares so they wouldn't compact the cheese in the bottom layer. Within a few minutes, we weighed out enough cups for the entire night. The cups were originally color-coded. Red for small, blue for medium and white for large. For extra cheese we put a small sixth size pan on the far end of the make line. We would free throw a couple of ounces on top of pizzas when guests ordered extra cheese. Since our portions were on the heavy side, we rarely had requests for extra cheese. I could live with this arrangement. We went live that night and it went as smooth as silk. They were liking it and selling the idea to the part timers.

The cooks were convinced that dumping cheese from a cup on to the pizza would take a lot more time than what they were used to. In reality, it was faster. They thought that weighing out the cups would take a long time. Wrong again, less than three seconds a cup. If we realize an average savings of 25 cents a pizza, this exercise is contributing $300 an hour to bottom line. The very first time you use the cup, it's paid for.

At the time this study was done, I was using a little over a 1000 pounds of cheese a week. After we started portion controlling, my usage went to 800 pounds an week. Same pizza count and gross sales. The savings amounted to well over $300 a week ($1,200 a month and $16,000 a year). This system is the most idiot-proof system for portioning cheese I've ever seen. Some other less accurate systems are: dipping loose cheese from a tub into a cup and then on to the pizza. Another I've seen is an ounce scale right on the make line. These systems are flawed because not every scoop / cup is the same. Some are level and some are heaping. As far as the scale and a bowl on the make line I can't be sure they are using it every single time, especially if I'm not there. It's too easy to revert back to free throw or a "good enough" mentality, especially in a rush. My system leaves nowhere to cheat. One cup, one pizza, period. I eventually abandoned three different color cups and weighed out every cup at ten ounces. I used one cup for two small pizzas and one full cup for one large 14". Since these two sizes accounted for 85 percent of every pizza we made, we physically dug out 2.5 ounces from a cup if we had an order for a medium.

Sorry, You're Ten Cents Too High.

Prior to taming the Cheese Monster, I bought my cheese from my supplier probably much like you do. My sales-rep came in every week and the first thing out of my mouth was "How much is your cheese this week?" His answer was "How much you paying for it right now?" The adversarial dance had begun. We dickered, he whined, I threatened and we laid huge guilt trips on one another. He ended up selling me the cheapest cheese he had in the warehouse. I was labeled a price whore. Every message I sent him was, cheaper, you're too high and my favorite, I can get it for three cents cheaper from your competition. Worked every time. He caved in and gave me the price I beat him down to. What I didn't know is that he got me back in the disposables and cleaning supplies area of the invoice. The sorry thing about this game is for that years I never knew what really high quality cheese was. I was only focused on how much a pound he was charging me. The most provocative statement I heard from a rep was: "Why do you care how much my company charges you when you don't care how much cheese your pizza makers put on your pizzas?" Touché. Definitely time for the cups.

All cheese is not created equal.

It took me about another year to get around to conducting a side-by-side cheese study. I asked my sales-rep to sample me all of his higher quality cheeses. I was getting frustrated with the inconsistency of performance of the cheap cheeses I was using. One week it came in too soft to use, next week it didn't want to melt and then there was what I call Bubble Gum Cheese. After the cheese is baked, the mouth feel was not good. The more you chewed it, the more you had to chew it. It wouldn't break down and gave you a sore jaw. But it was cheap. We bought two packages of 12" flour tortillas, spread three ounces of every cheese on them, and baked them as we would in my ovens. It was a blind test. I had no clue which cheese was on the test tortillas. We baked them all and analyzed them on flow and melt, browning off, stretch, flavor, mouth feel and excessive oiling off. Out of the dozen we tested, we narrowed it down to two and then one. This cheese was remarkable. It cost a few cents extra per pizza to use it, rather than the stuff I wasn't happy with or proud of.

I Made the Decision to go with Quality.

I switched to the premium cheese and started getting positive feedback from my customers. Isn't this why we are in business? The new cheese I decided on was a blend of mozzarella and provolone also added a little Parmesan and Romano to my pizza sauce. This allowed me to position my pizza as the only one in the area that used four blended cheeses, (Quattro Fromagge). This became a strong selling point and differentiated me from my competition, and this is the stuff that marketing is made of. If you want a plain cheese pizza, go to the 7-11 Store. If you want the best pizza in town, you've come to the right place. Fast Forward fifteen years...

My cooks wouldn't know how to make pizza the old fashioned way. My cheese usage and sales almost doubled. During peak sales periods, we bought over a ton of cheese a week. The speed of application of the cheese is less than 3 seconds per pizza. We hit ideal food cost percentage every month. I never ask my rep the cost of cheese. I buy it on a cost plus program from my distributor. I funded all of my marketing with the savings generated from this simple system. I owned 65 percent of the market share in my town. My marketing was so effective that we held our competition to zero growth and watched as they went out of business one by one. My only regret is not having that visit with my friend ten years earlier. Thanks Alex! I'll always be in your debt.

Next Steps.

If this article has not answered all of you questions and you want to discuss it further please post a question. No one ever makes a bad decision in his or her life. Folks simply make brand new decisions, based on brand new information.


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