By Charlie Pogacar

The International Pizza Expo is in full swing in Las Vegas, and today felt like my first day of school. Having never attended the conference, I really didn’t know what to expect. I’d made a solid dozen plans to see industry friends ahead of time—”Let’s be sure to connect in Vegas!”—but, stepping inside the West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center, the massive throngs of people at registration for the event made me instantly feel like an outsider. 

So I was delighted that the first person I saw after registration was Stephanie Swane, publisher and editorial director of Modernist Cuisine. Stephanie also plays a large role in the Women in Pizza organization, and she recently starred in a webinar we recorded last week (which is scheduled to debut next Tuesday—register here and check it out!). 

The encounter with Stephanie immediately put me at ease. If it was the first day of school, at least some old—and new—friends would be here. I was in the right place. 

If you’ve never been to the International Pizza Expo, the floor can be a bit overwhelming. There are so many people, new and time-tested products, as well as freshly-cooked pizzas to sample (although there may not be many left after what I did to them). Here’s a look at three cool things the PMQ team saw on the floor in Vegas today.

Trend of the Day: Gluten-Free
While gluten-free pizza crust isn’t exactly a new idea, it was pretty amazing to see how many different ways companies are helping pizzeria operators deliver on the promise of a gluten-free crust for customers with specific dietary needs. At Booth No. 1424, Conte’s Pasta Company showed off its time-honored 15-year old blend of rice flour, sorghum flour, cornstarch and more. The owner of Conte’s said the gluten-free market looks a bit different these days—he has many more competitors than he did when he started out 15 years ago, a clear sign that demand has risen for gluten-free pizza. For example, just a few aisles down, in Booth No. 1129, Bella Cena Foods was pumping out samples of gluten-free pizza using its proprietary gluten-free dough mix, also based on rice flour. 

One unique way of producing a crispy, gluten-free crust is with potatoes. That was on display at Booth No. 1944, hosted by the Idaho Potato Commission, a commodity board dedicated to promoting authentic Idahoan potatoes. In other words, it’s a think tank that’s constantly coming up with new ways of using potatoes in foodservice, and the crusts they were producing with that workhorse tuber were nothing short of impressive. Check their booth out if you’re in Vegas this week. 

Product of the Day: Hot Rocks Pizza Oven
When I asked an industry veteran about the best product they’d seen on the showroom floor, they didn’t even hesitate: They directed me toward the Hot Rocks Pizza Oven.

The oven has been around in some form or fashion for nearly three decades, but it was recently rebranded from the LB-2000 to the Hot Rocks Pizza Oven. Under new(er) leadership, the company is leaning into what has always separated it from other pizza oven manufacturers, which is the fact that it’s fully automated. 

While some other pizza ovens are also automated, the Hot Rocks Pizza Oven distinguishes itself in several different ways. To use it, you place a prepped pizza onto a rack and watch it slide onto a red-hot pizza rock, then slide across the oven to the other side, where it lands on a separate wire rack fully cooked. A camera shoots a photo of the pizza to ensure it is up to standard—the pizza restaurant will then have a digital running log of each pizza cooked in house so that management can get a feel for any tweaks that need to be made. 

The oven also offers a manual option. There’s a side door where pizzas can be slipped in and out by experienced pizza makers. But at a time when so many pizzerias are looking for creative ways to rely less on an inexperienced labor force, the automation of the machine—and the “smart” features that go along with it—help operators solve one of their biggest headaches. 

“Employees don’t stick around long enough to be trained properly,” said Jason Bireta, president of Hot Rocks Pizza Ovens. “They don’t want to work in your store. You need to create an environment where you can keep your employees and not where, by the time they learn how to stretch dough, they’re already gone. You can’t fight that—hourly labor is going up. You have to find another solution, so automation is the answer.” 

Booth of the Day: Stanislaus Tomatoes and Corto Olive (No. 2511)
Stanislaus Tomatoes and Corto Olive Co. were set up at Booth No. 2511, offering attendees a sit-down meal for nothing more than a scan of their badge. The meal included pasta, a pour of wine and a bottle of water (which was surprisingly hard to come by at the show, I might add). The entire experience was first-rate. 

It also seems appropriate to nominate the Stanislaus and Corto venture for Booth of the Day, as the two brands have played a pivotal role in promoting Women’s Pizza Month, which is still in full swing this March. Their “For the Love of Pizza” kit, designed specifically for aspiring pizzaiolas, has been making headline news industrywide, along with their new program awarding five pizza-making scholarships to Pizza University—for women only.

That’s it from today’s show. I’ll be back with another report on Wednesday, March 20!

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