Chef Eric Von Hansen on Getting Creative with New Ingredients

Ingredients are the building blocks of what you put out into the pizza world. And every chef knows that higher quality ingredients give you a higher quality product in the end. But you can’t just pick a unique ingredient without a plan. You want to make sure:

  1. There are more uses beyond one idea to make your investment count.
  2. It has uniqueness and the ability to attract customers.
  3. You have a game plan for promoting the new ingredient for customers.

We touched base with Chef Eric Von Hansen of Caliente Pizza on his approach for discovering and introducing new ingredients into his food.

How I evaluate a new ingredient

Recently, I’ve started using Grande’s new Fumella® Smoked Mozzarella, after Mark, my Grande Sales Associate, brought in a bag for me to taste and bake with. I thought it would be a great example to use to share my process. It’s a cheese that follows the criteria I’ve laid out above. And…I was excited to use it.

Step 1: Identify the ingredient

The first thing I did was smell it. I wanted to smell the smoke and it was there, but not overpowering. With cheese, I always want to taste it cold, because melted and cold are two different flavors. Then I sprinkled some on a salad, and Fumella accented it very well.

Next I wanted to try baking with it, so I could taste it and get a good profile. I had Mark, my Grande Sales Associate with me for this and we tried different variations. First, I put it with our traditional Caliente dough and used our standard cacciatore red sauce and put it in the oven at 475 degrees. And then when it came out, that’s when I saw the great melt, I saw the great color that it presented on my pizza, and the flavor profile wasn’t lost with the sauce or the dough. That’s what you’re looking for in a great quality cheese.

Step 2: Pairings and experimentation

Now that I know how the product looks, smells, tastes and performs, it’s time for experimentation. What goes well with smoked cheese? Smoked or fatty meats, right? I’m also thinking of some sort of a glaze, some sort of a relish, some sort of a sandwich. What kind of roll would go well with smoked cheese? And then you start thinking about how you can utilize various vegetables.

I finally landed on the first thing to try. I have a great pulled pork. So I made a cannonball sauce, which is a beefed up barbecue with a little bit of heat. I also have amazing pickles from the Pittsburgh Pickle Company. We sell four to five buckets a month per store. Then I have a great pickled jalapeño. And I thought, “Well, what rounds it all off? Bacon. The
original cured meat. So I put that all together. I called it the Roadhouse Pizza. First one out of the gate.

That’s a great, best-selling pizza. But what else can we do? Since then, I’ve melted Fumella on fries, tried it on various sandwiches and inside mozzarella sticks. Really, with a versatile ingredient like smoked cheese, the sky’s the limit. I can tell already, this has the ability to be the next big thing in cheese.

Step 3: Promote my new dishes

I like to do a special, or as some call it a limited time offer, just to see what people think. This is a fantastic way to get feedback on an item before making it a permanent addition to my menu.

On social media, we’ll do a video promo of the new menu addition, put it at a price where we can make money — and a price customers can afford.

We have a flexible messaging area on our website that’s made just for specials and new items. From there, I’ll see what kind of volume I’m moving and where it can go from there.

That’s the biggest thing — deciding if it’s worth a permanent addition to your menu and adjusting the price for demand. But no matter what, it’s imperative that you tell your customers what you have that is new so you can create some excitement!

Step 4: Gather customer reactions

So far, Fumella has gone gangbusters for my customers. But then again, I’ve always been lucky enough to have such a loyal fanbase. They are always asking when the new stuff is coming out. Some even have some suggestions that aren’t half bad.

I’ll leave you with this. If you don’t experiment, you’ll eventually get bored and your menu will feel stale. But worse than that, your customers get bored, too. And that can be a fatal mistake in this business. So be bold and take risks. They might just pay off

Date: November 15, 2022