In a manufacturing facility off the interstate in northeast Wisconsin, more than 30 employees work in unison on a production line that churns out one of the state’s growing exports: pizza.
On this particular morning in Kaukauna, Bernatello’s Foods staff are making the pepperoni Brew Pub Lotzza Motzza Hardy Artisan, a thick crust pizza. In the chilly production room buzzing with noise from the machinery, frozen pizzas speed by at various stages of completion.
“We can go from anywhere from 60 units a minute, to 180, to 200. So it really kind of depends on what you’re making,” said Adrianna Frelich, Bernatello’s Marketing Manager. She’s been with the company for years, having spent her summer breaks from school working on the production line.
A digital tracker with big alarm clock-like numbers on the wall announces how many pizzas have been completed on this day. Today, it reads over 25,000 pizzas.
The pizza-making process starts in the bakery. Two massive ovens extend the length of the room. Dough for crusts are rolled flat and pizza-sized circles are cut out. Just like when you make Christmas cookies, the leftovers are collected and put back in the machine to roll out again.
After the crusts are baked, they’re placed on a rapidly moving production line. Sauce is dropped on top all at once as they pass underneath the machine. About a dozen pepperoni sticks are sliced as the pieces land on crusts whizzing by.
Wisconsin’s frozen pizza industry is big. And it’s growing. Bernatello’s has expanded their bakery and have acquired or launched new brands in the last decade.
Along with Bernatello’s, large national brands like Tombstone started in Medford, Wisconsin. There are countless small shops as well — Portesi in Stevens Point, Home Run Pizza in Appleton and more.
So what makes Wisconsin a leader in frozen pizza production?
“A lot of the brands started in taverns,” Frelich said.
Pizza goes great with another Wisconsin staple: beer.
“We’re known for our alcohol consumption and being out in a bar,” Frelich said. “So you kind of think that correlates with each other a little bit.”
Matt Selvig, the Advertising and Promotions Manager of Bernatello’s Foods, predicts it also has something to do with Wisconsin’s long winters. The sales numbers back up that claim.
“That November through March timeframe … everybody kind of wants to stay in and turn their oven on,” Selvig said.
Selvig and Frelich say Midwesterners don’t just produce the most frozen pizza. They also eat more than their neighbors.
“We call it the pizza cradle here. So anywhere in Wisconsin, Minnesota, a little bit into Iowa, Nebraska, is really the large consumers of frozen pizza,” Frelich said.
More cheese, please!
On the production line, 20 pound blocks of mozzarella cheese get cubed, shredded, and waterfall onto the pizzas speeding down the line underneath.
Exactly where Bernatello’s cheese comes from, how much they use, total number of pizzas they produce — those are industry secrets.
But Frelich said 90 percent of the cheese used for Bernatello’s products comes from Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is practically synonymous with cheese. We make it. We eat it. We study it.
“Let’s say a cheese manufacturer would send us shredded cheese. We bake it on a pizza and tell them how it performed,” said Mark Johnson, a scientist with the Center for Dairy Research. “Did it melt? Did it stretch? What was the color of the blisters? How many blisters formed? What was the chew characteristic? What was the flavor?”
Based in Madison, the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research has conducted studies that helped cheesemakers develop a cheese that fits the needs of frozen pizza manufacturers.
Frozen pizza makers need low moisture cheese that will freeze well and compliment the other toppings.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Wisconsin cheesemakers make 25% of the nation’s supply, totaling 3.47 billion pounds in 2021.
Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin reports that mozzarella is the most popular cheese in the United States, and Wisconsin makes more of it than anywhere else. A lot of that mozzarella goes on pizza.
Mark Johnson has seen the frozen pizza industry in Wisconsin expand.
“I started (at the Center for Dairy Research) 40 years ago. (Then) a frozen pizza was like your last resort,” Johnson said.
That’s no longer the case. According to the American Frozen Food Institute, U.S. consumers ate 1.4 billion pizzas last year. A $6.4 billion industry.
Johnson thinks one reason frozen pizza businesses begin in Wisconsin — and then succeed — is due to the access to and reputation of Wisconsin cheese.
“We just have this culture in Wisconsin — we make the best cheese,” Johnson said. “Got to make the best pizzas, right?”
Growing freezers, packed with options
Bernatello’s produces multiple pizza brands, including Orvs, Roma, Bellatoria and the “super-premium” Brew Pub Lotzza Motzza.
The name comes from the fact that each pizza is topped with over a half of a pound of Wisconsin mozzarella cheese.
The premium brand was launched ten years ago. Selvig has spent the last few years traveling the Midwest giving out samples of the pizza at fairs and festivals. He promotes the product, sort of like a pizza politician.
“So a lot of shaking hands and kissing babies,” said Selvig.
Looking at the production line, Frelich remarks on how much has changed since she first spent her summers making frozen pizza years ago.
“This is light years beyond where they were,” Frelich said.
Selvig says it’s an innovative industry. You can now find pizza with a crust made of cauliflower or sweet potato, as well as gluten-free options.
“You go into a grocery store today and you’re talking freezer door, after freezer door, after freezer door of just options,” Selvig said.
Bernatello’s has no intention of slowing down, helping secure Wisconsin’s place as a frozen pizza leader.
SONG: “Gimme Pizza” by spennydubz