DETROIT — Here in Detroit, we all know what it takes to make a great Detroit-style pizza: dough for the thick but airy crust, absurd amounts of cheese and ladles of rich, long-simmered sauce.
But the special ingredient most people don't know about is the pan — a certain blue-steel industrial utility pan made for decades by a small company in West Virginia.
Or at least they used to be made there, until the company closed its line about a year ago and moved the work to Mexico — where it still hasn't been able to get production going.
Restaurant supply companies here — and apparently everywhere else — have been out of them for many months.
Pizza makers' orders for pans are stacking up by the thousands and causing problems for big chains and small independents alike.
"You wouldn't even believe how many pans we have on back order" — at least 4,000 small and medium sizes and 700 extra larges — says Patti Domasicwicz at People's Restaurant Equipment in Detroit. She hasn't received a shipment since April.
Other restaurant suppliers she knows are in the same boat. "All of us would have ordered a whole lot in before they moved, but they didn't give us a chance," she says.
The pans get their name from the tint of the metal when it's new. The manufacturer, who didn't want any publicity, says they were never meant for baking; they were designed to hold small parts in factories.
But somehow they became the pan of choice for nearly every big name in Detroit-style pizza. Domasicwicz, who has worked at People's for 38 years, says Buddy's started using them "many, many years ago."
Today, she says, "you figure you've got Buddy's Pizza, Shield's Pizza, all the Jet's Pizzas" using them. Others include Loui's, Cloverleaf and Primo's. And then there's the growing number of Detroit-style pizzerias around the country, where transplanted Michiganders are introducing happy customers to thick pies with square, cheesy corners.
Former Birmingham, Mich., resident Jeff Smokevitch, owner of Brown Dog Pizza in Telluride, Colo., added Detroit-style slices to his line of thin pizzas in October to see how they'd do. "It's unbelievable the response I've had," he says. He wants to sell whole pies, but he doesn't want to buy additional pans until he can get the blue steels.
Other pans simply don't yield the same kind of crust, pizza makers insist.
The blue steels are "just like a great black skillet pan," says Wes Pikula, Buddy's vice president of operations. After they're seasoned, "they have a way of capturing the flavors in the metal" in a way that other pans he has tried do not.
Buddy's isn't in dire need of more pans, but it has some on back order. Pikula was told to expect them in February.
But a very frustrated Eugene Jett — cofounder of the fast-growing Jet's Pizza chain — is through waiting.
After promised deliveries didn't come in September or December, he went into action.
"We've tried other pans, and (the pizza) doesn't come out as good," he says. So he had the original pans analyzed by a lab in Lansing, Mich., found a manufacturer and is having them made — right here in Michigan. He says the key, by the way, is the thickness of the steel.
"They're cutting them as we speak," he said last month. And not a moment too soon: Two new Jet's were opening at the end of January, and he's totally out of pans, after giving each of his last three stores only 75 percent of what they needed.
"The first thing is for me to get my pans," he says; the first run is enough for nine stores. If the manufacturer thinks they'd be profitable, it could put them into full production, he says.
"It took me a long time to figure out how to get them done," Jett said. "But I decided then, I will build my own pans."
Way to go, Mr. Jett.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.