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Taking Cold Pizza to the Next Level
by Maryjane Mudd
For pizza consumers, two things are a given: Your pizza should taste great, and it should be safe to eat. Great taste and good value will win the consumer; food safety will protect the customer and serve the business.
Anyone perusing the FDA or USDA websites will find a slew of food recalls listed. One Midwestern pizza manufacturer has never experienced such an incident and doesn’t intend to.
“There is nothing more important than food safety,” said Rick Roedl, president of Emil’s Pizza of Watertown, Wis. “After that, it’s quality. The customer has to love our pizza and keep coming back for more, or we fail.”
Quality was surely on the mind of the young man who opened a pizza shop in Watertown more than 50 years ago. Emil Kopplin’s desire to make the best-tasting pizzas in the region resulted the evolution of his business from a small, walk-in pizzeria to a sought-after supplier for local bars, bowling alleys, and other entertainment venues. In time, the pizzas were frozen for distribution, and the company started to grow in retail markets. Emil’s Frozen Pizza is quickly becoming a Midwest staple.
Today, Emil’s Pizza produces pizza for retail, wholesale, co-packing, and fundraising customers throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and North and South Dakota. Maintaining great taste and ensuring safe processes were easier when the business was small. But when Roedl joined the company in 2007 with a vision for expanded production, sales, and distribution, he knew he had a lot of work to do.
“There were challenges when I first came to the company,” he said. “People took pride in their work, but a good system allowing Emil’s to freeze and distribute the best-tasting pizzas in the least amount of time was in need of improvement. The company had been doing things one way for a long time, making it nearly impossible to maintain our quality standards while increasing production. The business was stuck in a production rut without room to support the growth.”
Roedl’s experience in Individual Quick Frozen (IQF) processes allowed him to quickly define one of the key problems: The company’s former nitrogen tunnel was not only causing production “log jams,” but its tight welded corners and structural obstructions also made for tough cleaning and left a potential for bacterial harborage points, along with inconsistent freezing that could impact taste, quality, and shelf life.
Roedl said Emil’s considers two absolutes above all others when selecting food processing equipment: Equipment must allow increased production capacity at an affordable operating cost, and it must be easy to clean and maintain.
“Our old conventional freezing tunnel had numerous stainless steel doors that had poor insulation and were prone to hairline cracking and failure,” Roedl said. “Not only did the old freezer tunnel use nitrogen inefficiently, it failed to meet our needs for increased production.”
Numerous door seals and hard-to-access areas in the old freeze tunnel trapped water and food particles, creating an opportunity for bacteria growth. “These areas needed constant cleaning and maintenance attention to meet our rigorous food quality and safety standards,” Roedl said. “This hurt production costs, and although we kept our freezer clean, the risk of contamination was always there.”
Roedl and Kathy Piliouras, Emil’s manager of quality assurance and R&D, immediately started researching new freezing tunnels. Mechanical refrigeration was not an option, because the slower freezing process would dehydrate the premium quality ingredients for which Emil’s is known.
“Our customers value and expect the best-tasting and highest quality pizza toppings,” Roedl said. “When you cut toppings, you create many new surfaces that can lead to moisture loss. We grind cheese and slice meats directly onto our product and know from experience that only nitrogen freezing can instantly seal the fresh toppings, cryogenically locking in moisture and flavor. Our pizzas are fully frozen within 200 seconds of breaking the toppings’ moisture barrier. This guarantees that the pizza will maintain its fresh taste from our production facility to the customer’s oven.”
Initial research turned up few new freezing options. Piliouras knew that more of the same type of industry standard freezer was not the long-term answer for Emil’s Pizza. When the team learned about Air Liquide’s ALIGAL FZ cryogenic freezer, however, they knew they had found the solution Emil’s needed. Unlike conventional nitrogen freezers, ALIGAL FZ addresses food plant sanitation concerns by opening so fully that all internal mechanisms are completely visible and accessible, and all surfaces are self-draining and easy to clean. Its innovative, integrated stainless steel and molded gel-coat fiberglass body construction maximizes convection, widens the freezing zone, and increases capacity.
“We spoke with USDA representatives before going with this system,” Piliouras said. “They agreed that the ALIGAL FZ’s top-lift system, which opens with the touch of a button, allows us complete access to see and clean anything and everything, ensuring cleanliness of the freezer.”
Numerous door seals and hard-to-access areas in the old freeze tunnel trapped water and food particles, creating an opportunity for bacteria growth.
Roedl also pointed out that because the unit doesn’t require additional plant floor space for swing-out doors, Emil’s could increase production without increasing plant real estate. Nitrogen usage is minimized through isothermal cryogen injection and enhanced fan performance, offering more flexibility for differing product types. Air Liquide installs the cryogen storage vessel, including piping from the vessel to the ALIGAL FZ freezer. The company also supplies training to on-site personnel so they can operate the unit safely and efficiently.
The results have been significant. In the past year, throughput at Emil’s has increased by 23%, while nitrogen usage has decreased by 30%. Sanitation time and costs have been reduced by 75%. “We save enough in sanitation and maintenance costs alone to cover the cost of the freezer lease,” Roedl said. The ALIGAL FZ tunnel has also helped Emil’s pizza exceed the USDA’s food safety standards. “It’s great to know we are exceeding quality and safety expectations while maintaining the high quality product we are known for,” Piliouras said.
Piliouras also pointed to the trend of increased customer and third party food safety audits. “Our ALIGAL FZ freeze tunnel has been a strong contributing factor in high plant audit scores. We typically receive kudos from our customers and the USDA/FSIS for the selection of new equipment meeting the demand for high food safety standards.”
Roedl agreed. “Selecting the ALIGAL FZ has been an excellent decision for our company. We have been able to increase production and be a leader in food safety, all while lowering costs.”
And although a lot has changed in the 50 years since Emil Kopplin opened his pizzeria, one thing remains the same. “All of us at Emil’s Pizza believe in satisfying our customers with the highest quality, best value, best-tasting frozen pizza available,” Roedl said. “Our new freezing system ensures we can continue to do so with the highest degree of food safety in the industry.”
MaryJane Mudd is a Houston-based writer and director of global communications for a major oil and gas transportation services company.