Taste for a bigger slice of the pie
Considered a high-end manufacturer with excellent food safety, security and financial strength, the company helps customers coordinate everything from recipes to packaging. The company can create items and fine-tune existing products. The privately held family business manufactures frozen pizzas and other food products for several big companies, including large grocery store retailers, large and small foodservice operators, delis and supermarkets across the country.
Nation Pizza and Foods has roots in the pizzeria business and is still likely the only pizza manufacturer that continues to operate restaurants: Marcello’s in Northbrook, Ill., Father & Son Italian Kitchen in Skokie, Ill., and Marcello’s Father & Son in Chicago. And that’s the way it started out, in 1947. Marshall Bauer and son, Jay, now the co-CEOs, established Father & Son Pizza, one of the most successful home-delivery pizzerias in the country.
By 1970, the pizzeria evolved into Nation Enterprises, in Chicago, which rolled out dough for pizza crusts that the restaurant next door used. Father & Son’s popularity grew so quickly that, within the next four to five years, that requests came in from people who wanted to buy the crusts and later wanted to buy pizza components to make pizzas at home.
The Bauers continued to develop the company and about 20 years ago, purchased the larger Schaumburg plant where today, some 1,000 employees work. “We hire people with passion, people who want to get the job done and protect our customers, yet have fun,” states president Richard Auskalnis.
The Schaumburg plant was converted from a former English muffin production facility, Auskalnis recalls. “We kept growing and had to expand the production space,” he says.
In 2002, the Bauers added a second 100,000-sq.-ft. production facility in McPherson, Kan., that now houses about 400 employees. The McPherson facility produces various hand-held sandwiches and appetizers, desserts, bite-sized pastries, cookies and other sweet treats. They also installed state-of-the-art bakeries and U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified topping facilities.
Running 24 hours a day, the Schaumburg plant has been expanded twice and occupies a total of 190,000 sq. ft. All of the ingredients, sauces and toppings are customized according to each costumer’s needs and wants. And everything is sold frozen.
Combined, the two plants include two bakeries, five topping lines (which are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agruiculture), one coextrusion line and multiple packaging lines that offer a wide range of packaging options. Upgraded technology allows the facilities to turn out a total of 450 stock-keeping units and counting—products for some of the biggest food companies in the country at high speeds. Both plants can produce more than 2 million pieces a day. Alone, the Schaumburg facility outputs about 30,000 lb. of dough an hour.
“Over the years, we got into creating sandwiches, appetizers and snacks, little desserts and cookies, so we decided to change our name from Nation Pizza to Nation Pizza and Foods,” Auskalnis says. “Eventually, our name might be just Nation. We’re definitely thinking about it because the pizza side of the business is very strong, but the other foods are taking off rapidly.”
Diversifying its products
“Although our roots are in pizza, we have built a company that can offer a wide range of baking and food solutions at the highest quality,” says chief operations officer Mike Alagna. “We have a dedicated team of innovators who are well-versed in a variety of areas within the food business.”
Nation Pizza and Foods has a research and development department comprising 20 people and an innovation department that develops recipes, formulas and unique attributes.
“We present ideas to our customers and work with their teams to fine-tune their own recipes,” adds Auskalnis. “Since we work for other folks, we protect their brands like they’re our own. We take that very seriously. We want customers to feel comfortable that they came to us and put their trust in us. So we’re going to protect their label at any cost. We consider ourselves as more of a codeveloper than a copacker or contract packager.”
The hand-held side of the business has exploded because in the last four years, people have dealt with the difficult economy and wanted more small hand-held items, says Auskalnis. “The economy has changed and more people are on the go, so they don’t have time for a big meal,” he says. “They’re eating more smaller meals, so we started producing snacks and appetizer items. There’s also the trend of quasi healthy eating, and either due to the economy or for health reasons, people are having an appetizer and a salad instead of a big entree. So our snacks are really selling well. And we cover it all. We’re there for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, desserts and other occasions.”
But the company’s mainstay is pizza, and it’s known for its ability to produce a wide variety of high-quality pizzas. Nation Pizza and Foods can top any size pizza crust ranging from 4-16 in. and custom sizes. Its five topping lines provide plenty of versatility for customers. “We can create a variety of [pizza] shapes including circles, squares, rectangles and irregular shapes in either par-baked or self-rising dough,” Alagna explains. “We can add all kinds of inclusions, toppings and flavored sprays to give products that special touch.”
Only getting better
Quality and food safety are also the cornerstones of its business, Alagna adds. “Ensuring the products that we make meet or exceed our customers’ expectations is everyone’s job, and that’s a primary focus of our quality department.”
All new equipment is manufactured to according to the new Food Safety Modernization Act requirements, he adds. “Anything we can do to make our existing equipment compliant—either by updating or changing it—is key.”
At the top of its game, Nation Pizza and Foods is audited regularly by several customers as well as Silliker, Inc., outside agencies and the American Institute of Baking International. When it comes to superior grades, this pizza maker seems ready for anything. “We’re probably audited 14 to 15 times a year and we welcome it,” says Auskalnis. “We’re ready. But we know we can only get better. We’re always rated at the top or close to it—superior or excellent. We’ve been involved in the Safe Quality Foods (SQF) program for 2½ years, and we’ve reached Level 3 certification.”
Auskalnis says none of the new food-safety changes came as a surprise to Nation Pizza and Foods. “We were very prepared, and we all belong to a lot of associations that prepared us for this.”
Auskalnis says the company’s top strategic advantage over its competition is its quality. “Quality is job number-one,” he says. “We have a very large quality team, but it really starts on the operations floor. Two other key attributes are our innovation and our speed to market. We can develop and innovate quicker than most large companies can. We’re nimble, and we can cut through red tape.”
Retail items can be developed in three to six months, including all consumer testing and labeling requirements, Auskalnis points out. Recipes, ingredients and customers are kept top secret. “Confidentiality is one key to our success,” he cautions.
Ingredients are sourced from vendors the company partners with. “We tell our suppliers what we’re thinking about and together we develop an item jointly with our customers. We take the true partnership approach and hopefully fine-tune a product to be what we all want. We’re constantly showing customers something new. There are probably 10 different flavor trends that we come up with every day. We monitor all of the hot trends, be they Hispanic, Asian, fusion or something else, we’re on top of it.”
The same is true with production equipment and raw materials, Alagna says “If we can’t find a piece of equipment on the market that we need, we’ll work with our vendors to develop what we really want.”
What products are hot right now? “We think there’s a big push on snack sizes and appetizers,” Auskalnis tells SF&WB. “Customers want miniature sizes of everything. Fortunately, we have experienced people who know how to downsize some of our existing items and make new ones. And portion control is very important.
Green team approach
Environmentally speaking, Nation Pizza and Foods is committed to environmental practices and to reducing its environmental impact across all areas of its operations, both in manufacturing and office settings.
Constantly searching for opportunities to implement programs to meet or exceed key government environmental guidelines, policies, and standards, the company has developed an integrated “Green Team” approach to identifying initiatives and acting on them. Providing effective, sustainable and responsible manufacturing is the goal.
The company has been able to cut most of its waste by 87% simply by transforming it into recycled products. “We are working toward becoming a zero-percent landfill company within the next three years,” says Alagna.
Contributors to its recycling efforts come from aluminum, batteries, paperboard, dough, ink cartridges, metal, paper, plastics and wood. In 2011, its paperboard recycling initiative was able to prevent more than 4 million lb. of paperboard from going into landfills. “For the 12% that we don’t yet recycle, we’re actively looking for ways to deal with it,” explains Alagna. Years ago, we had probably three dumpsters of landfill waste a day. Now that’s down to three dumpsters a week. We recycle wood, plastic, metal, dough, just about everything.”
Alagna goes on to say that part of the company’s energy-savings program involved lowering kilowatt usage and completely relamping the plant, inside and out, nearly two years ago. “That saved us well over three-quarters of a million kilowatts,” he says. “We also installed motion sensors on a lot of the lights, and we put air doors in the plant, which saved 1,200,000 million kilowatts. So now, there’s no longer any infiltration of moisture and heat in the freezer areas. We also got a big push from the local electric and gas companies, so are working with them to study compressed air, another big user of energy.”
More expansion is planned
What lies ahead for this burgeoning pizza/food company? Auskalnis says its actively looking at acquisitions to continue growing its business. “An expansion will take place some time in the future,” he notes. “Near Chicago, we’re geographically centered so it helps in terms of freight costs and incoming raw materials. With the other plant in Kansas, the third location remains undecided because it will depend on what items the company is going to work on, Auskalnis says. “I can’t be specific on that just yet. But it could happen within the next year or two.”
All of this would mean nothing if it weren’t for the talented staff in which Nation Pizza and Foods takes pride. I’m most proud of our people, from their experience levels to their attitudes and knowledge base,” Ausklanis says. “It’s difficult to find the right people who want to get the job done, but we have a great group here.”
Alagna agrees, adding that he works with local junior colleges to nurture food industry training programs, so students can acquire the skills his company and others need. “So far, we have 70 companies signed up for this program,” he says. “The skilled labor market out there is slim to none lately, which is a major problem. So we have committed to offering two internships so far, and students can get paid as they learn.”
At Nation Pizza and Foods change is the only constant. “Change is good,” Alagna says with a smile. “Nothing is static here. If you don’t like change, you don’t really want to work with us. Things never get boring.”
“Our people have to be flexible and think outside the box, and that’s something they do very well,” Auskalnis sums up.”
At a Glance
Company: Nation Pizza and Foods
Headquarters: Schaumburg, IL
Website address: www.nationpizza.com
Plant Size: 190,000 sq. ft.
Annual Revenue: Privately held
Production Lines: Two bakeries and four USDA topping lines (Schaumburg), one USDA topping line and one coextrusion line (McPherson, Kan.)
Number of Employees: 1,000
Years in Business: 42 years of business
Product List: Crusts, pre-topped pizzas, sandwiches, appetizers, desserts
President: Richard Auskalnis
V.P. of Sales: Keith Ohlsen
Chief Operating Officer: Mike Alagna
Plant Manager: Vince Nasti
Chief Financial Officer: Joe Giglio
V.P. Quality Assurance: Teresa Martinez
V.P. Strategic Planning: Jack Campolo