Tops in Their Class
by dan Malovany
Nardone Bros. has established itself nationally, serving school districts and other institutional foodservice operators. Now it plans to diversify into new channels, broaden its line and expand operations.
Even the most finicky kid cannot resist the aroma and taste of a hot slice of pizza coming fresh out of the oven. Perhaps that’s why student participation on Pizza Day is typically 25% higher than those days when the nation’s school lunchrooms offer chicken, meatloaf or Salisbury steak.
When it comes to selling pizza to school systems across the nation, the five owners of Nardone Bros. Baking Co. are long-time students of the game.
Since the late 1960s, the Wilkes-Barre, Pa.-based, family-owned company has been producing slices and squares of pizza for grade and high schoolers. Initially, the pizza producer served the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but since 1991, when the third generation of Nardones bought the business from the second generation, the company has gone national, serving major school districts from Florida to Texas to the West Coast.
Today, schools and other institutional customers account for 90% of its business, with the remainder coming from retailers throughout the region, where the Nardone name has been around since the company was founded in 1942.
Schools still offer 8- and 11-in. wedges and the 4-by-6-in. rectangular pizza that was the standard fare years ago. However, kids now have many more options than ever before as a greater percentage of lunch programs offer healthier options that not only meet federal Child Nutrition guidelines but also compete with what’s offered by the nation’s quick-serve restaurants.
“They like to mix it up,” says Tom Nardone, company secretary. “Sure, 4-by-6-in. squares are still popular, but kids get tired of them. You don’t want to offer the same thing to kids day in and day out. It’s best to mix it up. As they say, variety is the spice of life.”
Let’s Get Personal
At its facilities in Wilkes-Barre and nearby Hanover Township, Pa., Nardone Bros. produces everything from breakfast pizza and bagels to a 5-in. round, deep-dish variety to 15-in. round pies with either conventional or self-rising crust.
Personal pizzas are also popular with both students and lunchroom workers. Nardone Bros. offers 6-in. round premium items that can be baked ahead of time, then boxed and placed in warmers where the rush of students can take and go to the register with little or no waiting, Tom says.
The most popular personal pizzas are the 7-in. self-rising variety, packaged in a branded box that highlights the Nardone Bros. name or is sold under the Vincenzo’s brand.
“I named it after [Nardone’s president] Vinnie, figuring that he would probably go for it,” Tom Nardone says.
As a labor-saving option, several single-serve varieties also come in ovenable boxes. Lunchroom workers just need to bake and put them out. The ovenable products also can be used in convenience stores and other outlets. In schools, Nardone Bros. uses the “let’s get personal” theme to connect with students.
“You need to be really convenient with consumers,” says Mario Nardone, company treasurer. “No one wants to cook anymore. People just want to grab and run.”
Copycatting may be a no-no in the classroom, but stealing a page from the pizza chains and from the supermarket freezer case works in school lunchrooms. To diversify its product line, Nardone Bros. monitors what the Krafts, Schwans and Pizza Huts of the world are creating — such as stuffed-crust pizzas — and brings the most popular concepts into the school lunch program. Besides, you don’t need a Mensa IQ to see what kids are eating today.
“We let them do the marketing and the consumer research, and then we want to move right in and duplicate it as soon as possible,” Mario explains.
Specifically, Nardone Bros. looks for higher-end products, such as a 6- or 8-in.-long French bread pizzas, which are individually wrapped. It also creates other upscale products by adding extra pepperoni, multiple layers of cheese or several varieties of cheeses.
“Even some of the products that we’re making, such as the French bread we’re running today, are higher end,” Mario says. “Our 5-in. deep-dish pizza with four slices of pepperoni on it is higher end. We do a self-rising 7-in. pizza with six slices of pepperoni that’s a high-end product.”
The company also offers alternative menu suggestions, such as slicing its 3-by-8-in. Texas Toast lengthwise and serving it as a cheesy garlic breadstick with salad, pasta or soup. Additionally, school districts and other institutional foodservice customers have asked the Nardone Bros. to produce other products as well. Some even request custom-formulated signature items,
“Our core business is pizza, but we’ve had request for calzones, breadsticks and several other items,” Tom Nardone says. “Can we do a pepperoni-and-cheese stuffed pizza? We look at a lot of different opportunities in addition to the most popular and trendy products.”
To get into most schools, pizza producers must sell items that are Child Nutrition (CN) approved. Under the National School Lunch Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 26 million children each school day. It also provides subsidized commodities that can be bought at reduced prices by schools or bidded on by food manufacturers who supply products like pizza for the lunch program.
Administered by state education agencies, the program requires school lunches to meet the recommendations of the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Local school authorities determine what meals are served and how they are prepared.
Federal guidelines recommend that no more than 30% of a child’s calories come from fat and less than 10% from saturated fat. Meals must provide one-third of the Recommended Dietary Allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium and calories.
Recently, some states began following the American Heart Association recommendations for salt and fat. The AHA suggests that Americans restrict their salt intake to 2,400 mg. a day. Nardone’s stuffed-crust pizza fits in nicely with such programs, Tom Nardone says. That item has approximately 823 mg., or one-third of the daily recommendation for sodium.
Meeting AHA’s low-cholesterol and reduced-fat recommendations, however, poses a different challenge that Nardone Bros. has met with cheese topping that’s made up of 50% Mozzarella and half artificial cheese.
“It’s not easy to do because when you remove the fat,” Tom says, “you remove some of the flavor. That’s where our expertise in special [formulation] comes into play.”
Long-term Growth Plan
Since taking over the business 14 years ago, the current management has been on a three-phase plan to transform the company from being a regional pizza manufacturer to being a player in the national school lunch program.
The first phase involved modernizing and expanding the capacity at its original Hazle Street bakery in downtown Wilkes-Barre and building a storage freezer on a 10-acre lot in an industrial park just outside of town in Hanover Twp.
The company more than tripled output at the Hazle Street bakery to 10,000 sheets a day by adding an automatic sheeting line, a nitrogen tunnel freezer, automatic depanning equipment and a new spiral cooler. Flour is stored in a 150,000-lb. silo.
At that bakery, Nardone Bros. primarily produces 4-by-6-in. rectangles, topped with cheese and/or sausage. After mixing, the dough is extruded onto the sheeter system where it passes through four reduction stations, a perforator and die cutter and is placed in a 18-by-26-in. pan.
After proofing, the crusts bake in a 125-ft. tunnel oven, then are cooled, topped and frozen before packaging.
“We knew we wanted to grow,” Mario Nardone says. “We knew we wanted to take pizza across the country and compete somewhat against the larger companies. We didn’t want to be just a local company or statewide producer. We wanted to take it to the next level.”
As it was expanding capacity on Hazle Street, the company built a 3,000-pallet freezer and cooler in the industrial park outside of town. In addition to storing finished product in-house, which allowed Nardone Bros. to create a central distribution center and better control order-taking, the 30,000-sq.-ft. freezer allowed the pizza producer to store larger quantities of surplus commodity cheese and fully-cooked meat that the USDA sells to businesses that participate in school lunch program. Additional warehouse space was used to store government-surplus tomato paste and other ingredients.
“When you do commodity processing, you have to accept it when it’s available or you don’t get it,” Tom Nardone explains. “First you bid on it, and if you get the contract you have to accept the order. We needed the freezer regardless because we could buy larger quantities of commodities and we didn’t have to pay to have them stored offsite.”
Topping it Off
In 1998, Nardone Bros. began Phase Two of its long-term strategy — expanding its plant outside of town to 100,000 sq. ft. In addition to a state-of-the-art topping line, which began operating in November 1999, the plant houses the company’s headquarters. The Nardones installed footers to the side of the plant so it could be expanded easily to add a second topping line as demand warrants.
The current topping line handles everything from French bread and full sheets of dough to 5-in. rounds up to 18-in. stuffed crusts.
“Our line is so flexible, when we went to equipment manufacturers, they thought we were nuts,” Mario Nardone says. “It eliminated a lot of equipment suppliers right out of the box because of the flexibility we wanted.”
Flexibility also was built into the packaging area.
“Our flow-wrappers will not only do retail-style packaging, but [they] can also do ovenable hearth film and polyethylene,” he adds. “There are three or four types of film [including polypropylene and metalized ones] that our flow-wrappers can handle.”
Because the facility is USDA-inspected and has a Hazardous Analysis of Critical Control Program (HACCP) , the operation has strict quality-control features, including ingredient monitoring, lot-tracing programs, bacterial testing procedures and other sanitation programs. The plant also has received the highest markets for inspection by Silliker and the American Sanitation Institute, says Leonardia (Lenni) Karpowicz, quality control director.
For tomato sauce, for instance, the QC department tracks the supplier’s name, when the sauce was made and delivered, its lot number, how much was used in each batch, when it was used, how much water was added and the times and temperatures of the process. The company tests and monitors the amount of oil, seasonings and gums added to the sauce. The process goes on for the crusts, cheeses, cooked meats and vegetables.
Because the School Lunch Program regulations are so strict, the 10-member QC weighs ingredients every 15 minutes. First, they weigh the crust. Then, they walk down the line taking samples and weighing each at determined spots — where sauce is added, after cheese is applied, after meat is added, after a second layer of cheese is applied and down the line to the final packaged products.
“You weigh by difference,” Karpowicz explains. “For the sauce, you subtract the weight of the bread. For cheese, you subtract the previous measured weights for the sauce and bread, and you keep on doing it down the line.
“We produce a great deal of Child Nutrition products for school lunches,” she adds, “and they’re very picky about what your ratio of meat to sauce to cheese might be because you are selling them a nutritionally complete meal or something that fits into a nutritionally complete meal.
The impact on ingredients is ever so slight, says Chris Olex, plant manager. “Quality has to be first when you are working with the Child Nutrition program,” he says.
For each product, final product samples are taken from each line, baked and tasted. Products are held until offsite bacterial and pathogen testing comes back from an outside lab.
“Because all of the ingredients are ready to eat and because the pizza sauce is acidic, as long as you keep your temperatures in line, you’re bacteria is under control,” Karpowicz says.
Upon entering the production area, employees must walk through a disinfectant to clean their shoes and wash their hands with an automatic, valveless system. Valves, Karpowicz, harbor hoards of bacteria so they eliminated them in the wash-up area. The QC department routinely swabs various parts of the plant, especially near production areas, to check for bacteria, she adds.
Typically, production begins at 5:30 a.m. with the making of tomato sauce and prepping of other ingredients. The sauce is made from tomato paste, which typically come in 55-gal. drums from the USDA or in 2,000-lb. totes that the company buys from suppliers. The sauce is made and stored in two 2,500-gal. tanks adjacent to the topping line.
The bulk of production crew then comes in at 8 a.m. The plant generally runs two shifts five to six days, depending on the time of year. Because there is no school, summers are typically slower periods, although Nardone Bros. has minimized seasonal fluctuations by getting private-label business and contract manufacturing for the nation’s largest frozen pizza producers, Olex notes.
During SF&WB’s visit last fall, the PLC-controlled topping line was running well in excess of 500 French bread pizzas a minute. After the 8-in. half loaves are aligned, they travel under a tomato sauce applicator, which can be adjusted to spot-deposit sauce on a wide variety of crust shapes.
There are three other applicators on the line. The first one can deposit cheese or diced ground meats, vegetables or even breakfast pizza ingredients. The line also has a large meat slicer and a second cheese depositor.
Cheese is freshly grated from blocks and sent to a buffer that fluffs it up. It’s measured volumetrically and applied by a waterfall depositor. A shuttle conveyor fills the hopper so that the cheese flows evenly. It’s critical to have the cheese at the correct temperature, Olex says, so that the block is firm and dry enough to grate it without sticking.
For food safety reasons, the production area is kept at 50°F, he says.
Moreover, the plant has two smaller slicers, which can be rolled into any part of the line to add pepperoni slices. Again, Olex says, flexibility is the key. The topping line can produce anywhere from a 5-in. round pizza with cheese only or an 18-in. round pizza with diced sausage and up to 29 slices of pepperoni on it.
After topping, the products pass under a 10-ft. infrared oven that’s set at more than 500°F and gently melts the cheese so that the ingredients don’t blow off on the blast freezer. In the ammonia-chilled freezer, products enter the bottom of one spiral and travel down another at a rate of more than 75 ft. per minute, Olex says. The plant takes the heat from the ammonia compressor to warm the glycol and pump it under the freezer floor to prevent it from heaving. Chilled glycol is used to cool the offices, Tom Nardone explains.
The pizzas pass though metal detection. The QC department checks the detector every 15 minutes, using 3.5-mm ferrous, 4-mm non-ferrous and 3.5-mm stainless-steel items, Karpowicz notes. After overwrapping or automatic cartoning, the products are checkweighed, case-packed and palletized.
During the next two years, Nardone Bros. plans to expand the plant and add a state-of-the-art production line that can produce everything from foccacia and stuffed crusts to traditional round and self-rising crusts, Mario Nardone says.
“We want to have as much quality and flexibility built into that line that we have on the topping line, whether it be thin-and-crispy or a thick, deep-dish one,” he explains. “We just want the flexibility to produce them all.”
Overall, Nardone Bros. looks to produce premium distinctive crusts that will distinguish it from the competition. As it expands its baking operations and diversifies its production capabilities, the company aims to target new channels, such as in-store bakeries and private label.
Again, the goal will be to supply new accounts that keep the bakery business all year around.
“We like to let them do the marketing, and let us produce the product,” Tom Nardone says. “We’re always looking for a long-term relationship with other companies.”
That shouldn’t be hard, especially when they’re tops in their class.
At a Glance
Company: Nardone Brothers Baking Co.
Location: Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Brands: Nardone Bros., Vincenzo’s
Plants: 100,000-sq.-ft. plant on New Commerce Blvd. and 15,000-sq.-ft. bakery on Hazle St.
No. of Employees: 200
President: Vince Nardone
CFO: Louis Nardone
V.P.: Frank Nardone
Treas.: Mario Nardone
Sec’y: Thomas Nardone