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DESIGN: 1,000 Degrees of Pizza

In the summer of 2008, with gas prices soaring and the economy crashing, a pair of optimistic entrepreneurs in Estero, Fla., opened an artisanal pizza restaurant called Tony Sacco’s Coal Oven Pizza. The centerpiece of the restaurant, and of the kitchen, was a coal-fired stone-hearth oven. In fact, the oven served as the only piece of cooking equipment at the full-service eatery. Despite the economy, the 2,700-sq.-ft., 72-seat pizzeria generated a respectable $1.3 million during its first 12 months.

Fast-forward five years. Sacco’s coal-fired pizza oven concept has more than proven its staying power. Sacco’s has expanded to 13 locations in six states (12 of them franchised), each of them pulling in more than $1 million annually in revenues. Five new restaurant openings are planned for '14.

“We wanted to produce high-quality pizza using an old-school method (coal), but with the new-fashioned twist of making the kitchen part of the dining area,” says owner Chuck Senatore.

Senatore, who entered the foodservice world following a career in which he founded a Lansing, Mich., race-car engine company, partnered with fellow Michiganders George Kurajian, a former foodservice equipment supply exec, and restaurateur Tony Sacco to create the perfect pizzeria. Sacco, who left the partnership before the first location opened, supplied the name of the concept.

“Sacco’s kitchen is stripped down to the bare essentials, with all cooking done in the coal oven,” Senatore notes with an engineer’s precision. “We have no microwaves, no fryers, no freezers. All hot menu items, including pizzas, garlic knots, sandwich rolls and even our shortcake dessert, go through the oven.”

Layout & Design 

Sacco’s current display kitchen/bar layout is essentially the same as the original Estero location. The two main areas form an L-shape, with the coal-fired oven and prep area making up the short leg of the L, and the bar, the long leg. 

The oven and prep area together comprise Sacco’s kitchen, on full display for fascinated customers. Support equipment here includes two pizza prep tables with chilled drawers instead of doors for speed and efficiency during pizza production. A three-door refrigerator next to the oven holds spare dough.

“Popular toppings go in the speed rails on top, less-popular toppings go into the top drawers and backup supplies are stored in the bottom drawers,” Senatore says. “We tested and rejected units with conventional doors. Refrigerated drawers cost a little more initially but they make up for it in time savings.” 

In Sacco’s back-of-house, a worktable holds the slicer; a floor mixer is used to make pizza and sandwich dough. In addition, prep sinks, plus the warewasher, walk-in cooler, dry storage and ice machine round out this area.

A typical Sacco’s unit, such as the company’s Lansing, Mich., restaurant, covers 4,300 sq. ft. with seating for 118 plus 44 more seats on the patio. “All our stores have outside seating—we believe that people enjoy sitting outdoors, plus, patios aren’t included in the rent, so it’s free space,” Senatore notes. To extend seasonal usage, infrared natural gas heaters are spec’ed for installation into patio ceilings. Senatore says he’s found the infrareds provide great coverage and cost him less to run than the more common heat lamps found on a lot of patios. 

Burn, Baby, Burn 

Operating a coal-fired stone-hearth oven such as Sacco’s is both an art and a science. On the science side, there’s the intense heat. Coal provides about 13,000 BTU of heat per pound, double that of wood, which provides about 6,500 BTU per pound. At full burn, the air in the oven dome hits temps of 900°F or more. But despite the interior temps, the oven is so well-insulated that it can be installed as close as 2 in. from a wall. 

In addition to the coal’s heat, the oven floor stays a consistent 600°F thanks to thermostatically controlled infrared elements set beneath. A small gas burner in the dome, positioned on the opposite side from the coal, helps equalize temperatures throughout the cavity.

“The gas burner also provides enough light so you can see all the way to the back,” Senatore notes. 

Sacco’s ovens are rectangular and massive. Newer locations have 9,800-lb. ovens measuring 112-in. wide by up to 75-in. deep, up from 112-in. wide by 60-in. deep units at older Sacco’s stores.

“We realized early on that oven size would be a limiting factor in production capacity,” says Senatore, who worked with the oven supplier to develop the larger size. On busy nights, a skilled three-person crew can turn out six to eight large pizzas every 5 minutes from the coal-fired oven, or about 100 pizzas per hour. 

Sacco’s morning routine starts with re-building the fire using any remaining live coals and cleaning out ash from the previous day. Pizza cooks load coal into the oven through the same opening they use to load the pizzas, and they arrange it in a pile off to one side.

The oven goes through about 100 lb. of anthracite coal per day. The anthracite, mined in Eastern Pennsylvania, burns with a blue, smokeless flame thanks to its relatively few impurities compared with other coal varieties. “Even the coal is an artisanal product,” Senatore says. 

The coal-fired oven offers plenty of flexibility, too. In addition to pizzas, rolls and the shortcake dessert, Sacco’s this fall will be using the oven to make hot pasta dishes, the newest menu addition. “We par-cook our pasta in stainless pans at night when the oven is the hottest,” says Senatore. It takes 12 to 15 minutes to boil the water then cooks add the pasta and simmer it for 5 to 8 minutes until it’s al dente. The pasta cools for bit then transfers to the refrigerator. The pasta, currently used in the chain’s cold Italian Pasta salad (which includes fresh veggies and is tossed in Italian dressing) will now be heated and used in newly introduced hot pasta dishes, as well.

Built-In Flexibility 

If Tony Sacco’s had a middle name, it would be “Flexible.” From labor to menu to even the seating, the multiunit concept offers an unusual amount of give and take. 

Start with labor. Sacco’s L-shaped open kitchen/bar layout allows store owners to increase workers to nearly 20 to handle busy seasons, or to cut back to as few as three workers during off-seasons—a necessity in “snowbird” states such as Florida.

“Sacco’s product mix and layout allow us to operate with one person on the pizza line during slow times, to up to six people during peak times,” Senatore says. “Our cooks are all cross-trained in prep and cooking. We’ll never have, say, a sous-chef or salad chef waiting around for orders. Not many full-service restaurants can adjust their labor that way.” 

“During peak times, we’ll have as many as six people working the pizza cookline, two hostesses, seven servers, two bartenders and two dishwashers,” Senatore continues. “In slow times, we can get by with a single person on the pizza line, one bartender/server and one prep cook/dishwasher.”

Finally, the Sacco’s seating area, its interior decor a contemporary mix of wood, ceramic and glass tile for an upscale look and feel. Of particular note are its small, marble-topped tables. 

“We spec’ed all two-tops,” Senatore says. “We can arrange them into 16- or 20-tops for large parties, or whatever’s needed.” During the lunch buffet, three tables are pushed together to hold the hot pizza display unit.

Full Throttle 

Looking ahead, Senatore and his team plan to continue Sacco’s coal-fired expansion. “We’re targeting corporate stores in Atlanta and Texas,” Senatore says, noting that some 16 units are currently under contract with franchisees. “We’re also working on filling in the Interstate 75 corridor that stretches from Miami to Michigan.” 


MENU/SEGMENT: Full-service artisanal pizza
HEADQUARTERS: Bonita Springs, Fla.
FOUNDED: First unit opened in 2008 in Estero, Fla.
NUMBER OF UNITS: 13 in six states
SIZE: 4,300 sq. ft.
SEATING: 118 seats + 44 patio seats
FF&E PACKAGE: $195,000
PLANS: 5 openings in 2014
ARCHITECT: Architectural Solutions, Lansing, Mich.

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