Sizzling spices

Without the spices of life, food would be a pretty bland proposition. The striking aromas, colors and flavors of the hundreds of spices available make up a cornucopia of tastes to suit anyone—and they’ve even been making news lately for their positive health effects. These subtle yet concentrated flavorings have made their way into products from beer and bread to nuts and condiments, and with the modern consumer demand for higher levels of heat, spices have become a must-have for every restaurant and kitchen cupboard. Add to that the trend of flavor-infused spices (smoked salt or pepper, for example)
and harmonized multispice blends, and you can achieve impressive depth of flavor with a mere shake of the wrist. 

Spices may be miniscule in size, but they have certainly hit the big-time in popularity. According to spice purveyors McCormick & Company, based in Hunt Valley, Maryland, spice consumption in the United States is at an all-time high, growing more than three times as fast as the population, and currently exceeds 1 billion pounds per year. We explore how you can use the power of spices to inject flavor into your foods and provide a higher value proposition for your customers.

In the Kitchen

Spices can play a big role behind the scenes at your pizzeria, adding flavor to ethnic pizzas, jazzing up your sauce and toppings, or instilling additional flavor in the crust (for advice on how to add spices to your dough formula, see the Zeak’s Tweaks column in PMQ’s December 2009 issue, or find it online at PMQ.com/digital/200912/19.html). You can also use spices on the crust post-bake to add additional flavor; major chains and independents alike have caught on to this technique to transform “plain” crust into one that bursts with flavor. For example, the new Domino’s (dominos.com) crust is sprinkled with granulated garlic, and Hungry Howie’s (hungryhowies.com) is known for its eight varieties of flavored crust, including Garlic Herb and Cajun. 

Spices are also a major player in America’s most popular topping, pepperoni, but the way you use and blend those spices can turn even this everyday item into a point of differentiation for your pizzeria while enforcing your business’ image. “We make sure to use natural spices, even in our pepperoni,” says Sid Fanarof, founder of zpizza, an organic/healthy concept based in Irvine, California, with dozens of locations nationwide. “We actually spent years developing our pepperoni profile to get the right amount of heat, garlic and paprika; we believe it’s important to balance the flavors, and add spices that give definition.” With the correct spice balance, zpizza’s MSG-free pepperoni adds flavor and a unique menu touch that proves popular with the chain’s health-conscious customers. 

In fact, many spices commonly used in the pizzeria offer the added bonus of health benefits, according to McCormick & Company: Red pepper, or cayenne, provides vitamin C and beta-carotene; stimulates circulation; strengthens the heart, arteries and nerves; aids in digestion; and offers antioxidants. Garlic powder also contains antioxidants, decreases LDL (“bad cholesterol”) levels, is a natural antibiotic and stimulates immune response. Who knew that these pizzeria staples were actually working to make your food healthier?

Customer Customization

Go into many pizzerias and you’ll see a few familiar shakers on the tables: usually, red pepper flakes and garlic powder. But other options are also making their way into pizzerias, catering to modern customers’ penchant for customization. Some pizzeria operators hesitate to provide spices for customers, for fear that their carefully crafted pies will be unfavorably altered, but other pizzerias owners advocate providing spice options. “No matter how good a chef makes the pizza, people are going to use toppings so that their food is more personalized,” explains Matt McClellan, owner of Tour de Pizza (tourdepizza.com) in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

“With the advent of cooking shows on TV, everybody likes to personalize their own food, and spices allow an easy way to do that,” agrees Richard Gross, owner of Pizza Packet in Brooklyn, New York. “Some owners are reluctant to give out spices, because they’re proud of how their pizzas taste and don’t want the flavor fooled around with; but in providing spices, you’re also providing quality and value to the customer.” Gross notes that pizza, despite gargantuan takeout business, has never been associated with any condiment packet, as one would find with burgers or hot dogs, so he sees plenty of room for growth in this area. 

McClellan finds that the spices he provides for customers from VitaminSpice have additional benefits besides simple customization: They help to set his pizzeria apart and reinforce his image as a healthy choice, because they are infused with additional vitamins and nutrients. “People want to feel good about eating pizza, and these spices make it healthier, while replacing the nutrients that are lost in the cooking process,” he says. “Actually, when I started to carry these spices, half of the bottles disappeared from the tables! Now people ask for them by name; it’s a no-brainer for us to offer them and add flavor and value for our customers.” McClellan offers the company’s vitamin infused red pepper and garlic for flavoring in the restaurant or with to-go orders. 

Spices not only provide health benefits, added value and improved taste to your pizzeria; they also open up a whole world of inspiration, allowing you to create innovative new menu items and truly unforgettable flavor combinations. Whether you’re using seasonings in the kitchen or providing them for customers, think outside the box and keep an open dialogue with your customers. Whether they crave sweet, smoky, salty or spicy, you can accommodate most any request through the power of spices.

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s managing editor.