By Charlie Pogacar
Marcus Medina, owner and operator of Hella Pie Pizza Co. in Tracy, California, was recently facing a two-pronged challenge plaguing so many pizzerias across the country: His labor costs were going up, and so were his food costs.
While many operators have raised prices multiple times over the past couple of years—and understandably so—Medina is built a bit differently than that. He saw it as an opportunity to be introspective and begin examining things he’d so long taken for granted about his pizza operation. “At the time, I was married to using pre-shredded cheese,” Medina says. “But as everything started going up in price, instead of just raising prices, I was looking at ways to save.”
During his usual slate of trade shows last year, Medina came upon a booth promoting a cheese shredder. He listened to the sales pitch, watched the machine do its thing, and, a few short weeks later, decided to add a cheese shredder to the kitchen of Hella Pie Pizza Co.
He worried that the transition would be complicated. He knew it would require a new food-prep pattern for the members of his kitchen, and that he would need to find new ways of storing tubs of cheese in walk-in coolers. He reached out to some fellow operators to ask how they’d gone about integrating a cheese shredding machine and took some notes. When the machine arrived, he was amazed by how simple the pivot proved to be.
“It so quickly became a part of our daily routine,” Medina says. “In the past, I had tried to shred cheese with an attachment on our dough mixer, but that was super-messy and led to a lot of waste. In this case, we were going from not shredding cheese to using a top-notch shredder, which meant it only takes us a couple of minutes per day, and that includes cleaning the machine, too.”
Cutting Cheese Costs
Scott Fahey, owner of Palazzolo Cheese Hog, a cheese shredder vendor that’s been in business since 1989, said Medina is the exact type of operator he meets at trade shows. “When we’re on the floor, we let people take a block of cheese and run it through,” Fahey says. “And they see it disappear in seconds and you see it on their faces—they say, ‘This is what I need.’”
Fahey says there are multiple advantages to using a cheese shredding machine—with very little downside. First and foremost, it’s an up-front investment that will help save a lot of money in the long run. Fahey estimates that a pizzaiolo who shreds 1,000 pounds of cheese per week will end up saving about $10,000 over the course of a given year, when compared to using a pre-shredded mix.
“I always tell operators that you’re already spending money to have that cheese pre-shredded—you just don’t know it yet,” Fahey says. He notes that Palazzolo’s website has a calculator that lets an operator input numbers to see how much a cheese shredder would save them in the long run. “A cheese shredder gives you the opportunity to get some money back by shifting the model.”
Shredding cheese in-house can also bring your pies up a level when it comes to quality. Pre-shredded cheeses taste less fresh, Medina says, and they are often packaged with an anti-caking agent to ensure the pieces of cheese don’t stick together.
“An anti-caking agent is basically like a fine sawdust they coat the cheese with,” Medina says. “When you cook it on pizza, that’s the part that browns first. I think that was one of the ultimate deciding factors for me: Usually, when you make a decision that will lead to saving on costs, you have to compromise on quality. This is one where you’re not only saving money but you’re also actually improving your quality, in my opinion.”
Paying for Itself
Medina recently found a new way to use his cheese shredder: as a marketing tool. In October, he dedicated a post on social media to his pizzeria’s relatively new process of shredding cheese. The post was a way to communicate to Hella Pie’s loyal following: “We know other pizzerias are jacking up their prices, but we’re more creative than that.”
“All cheese is not created equal,” Hella Pie Pizza Co. posted on Instagram. “All cheese shredders are not created equal. We do our best to buy the best because YOU deserve the best. Instead of [crying] about food costs rising…or swapping out for a [sub-standard] product…we had to look within and make long-term decisions to keep a quality and competitively priced product [for] our customers. Investing in expensive equipment is hard to do, because it can eat all your profits, but the results of keeping pricing down for you all and making a superior product is [definitely] worth it.”
Posts like this probably bring a smile to Fahey’s face. In fact, Fahey said the only thing better than seeing a pizzaiolo’s reaction when they watch one of his machines do its thing for the first time is when he overhears operators advocating for the machines with their peers. “I was recently in New Jersey doing a demonstration,” he says, “and some of my current customers would interrupt that demonstration by saying, ‘You have to get this. I’ve had it for so many years, and it’s still running.’”
Medina is certainly a believer. He says he’s not one for sales pitches, but he would tell any of his peers to make the switch to a shredder—the sooner, the better. He wishes he had done it years ago. “Any pizza operator I talk to that is not shredding their cheese, I’m always pushing them to go ahead and make the change,” he says. “The savings are totally worth it. I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid to take a chance that’s going to be better for your business.’ It’s saving me so much—the machine pays for itself in the first six months.”
Additional Tips from the Experts
Here are a few more expert tips for saving money on cheese costs and increasing profits:
Grams vs. ounces: “When portioning cheeses, we like to use grams vs. ounces,” says Lisabet Summa of Big Time Restaurant Group. “This helps with accuracy and accounting for variances. For instance, if you are aiming for 4 ounces and you use 3.5 ounces, that’s 25% under—or, conversely, at 4.5, you’re 25% over. If you calculate in grams, those same 4 ounces equal 112 grams. If you allow a ¼-ounce variance, that could be 105 to 112 grams as a target, which visually and numerically gives you a broader range to consider.
Use what you’ve got: “Cross-utilize your cheeses across the menu to reduce waste,” consultant Mark “The Cheese Dude” Todd tells PMQ. “If you carry blue cheese for salad, great—use it for your wings and pizza. If you use ricotta for a dessert, highlight it on your pizza and appetizers. I’ve seen pizzerias that sell nachos make pizzas with queso on top. Having more cheeses at all points of the menu—salads, appetizers, desserts—makes you stand out. Also keep in mind ways to prolong cheese. Grated Parm starts going bad the minute you open it, while a chunk of fresh Parmesan will last longer, as it’s freshly grated upon each serving…Use what’s already on hand and think of how you can use them to create great signature pies, like feta on a Greek-style pie. Building pies around the cheeses that are already in your store also helps to create faster turnover, keeping ingredients fresher.”
Upsell your high-quality cheeses: “I can’t tell you how many times I see a pizza menu with plain cheese pizza as the first on the list,” Todd notes. “Instead, learn how to design your menu and layout to get the most return on the products. You want to use the cheeses in your pizzeria to make more money and upsell!” Todd notes that 50 cents worth of blue cheese can lead to $2.50 in net profit. Smoked cheeses, with their intense aromas, can be used in small amounts to make major impacts. If you use specialty, artisan and/or local products, call them out on the menu, Todd says, and people will pay more.
Marcus Medina of Hella Pie Pizza Co., located in Tracy, California, got a little extra value out of his cheese when he competed in the 2023 Real California Pizza Contest (RCPC), sponsored by the California Milk Advisory Board and spotlighting cow’s milk cheeses from the Golden State. Medina made it all the way to the contest finals, held in Napa, California, on August 2, in the Cal-Mex category with his Cali Camino pizza. He topped a cracker-thin crust with Oaxaca and Monterey Jack cheeses, ground beef-based picadillo, chorizo, potatoes, carrots and raisins, then finished it with pickled radish, jalapeños, micro cilantro and cotija cheese.
Although that pizza didn’t turn out to be a grand-prize winner, Marcus wasn’t too disappointed—after all, he’d already won the same category in the 2022 RCPC event with his Cali Craft Chicken Enchilazza. It showcased Mexican crema, Oaxaca and cotija, plus braised chicken, spicy enchilada sauce and red cabbage. Medina was invited back for the RCPC Tournament of Champions held this past October, but, in the end, Leah Scurto, owner of PizzaLeah in Windsor, California, took top honors in that competition.
Charlie Pogacar is PMQ’s senior editor.