IN 2007, German-born Philip Dennhardt spied an oft forgotten pizza oven at Ballymaloe Cookery School and thought it would be fun to make pizzas for sale on Saturdays at the school. So, he did, and set in motion the story of Saturday Pizzas.
Thirteen years later, Saturday Pizzas has completed a major expansion, supported by Cork South Local Enterprise Office, and is set to take a bigger slice of the frozen pizza retail market.
Philip, originally from Stuttgart, is a fifth generation Master Butcher. It was this skill, on arrival in Ireland in 2005, that brought him to the attention of Darina Allen and Philip began teaching butchery at Ballymaloe Cookery School.
“It’s a very nice skill to have,” says Philip, “but butchery is a dying trade in Germany, and I am one of the only ones left. Small butchers are disappearing now, but I am glad I have the skill.
“My butcher education gave me a great advantage in teaching at Ballymaloe Cookery School. There was a pizza oven that was only used about twice a year, and I saw an opportunity to open a pizzeria on a Saturday, so that’s how the name was born.”
In the early days, Saturday Pizzas was a summertime event, the wintert naturally being a slower time of year at the School. During those months, Philip travelled, working internships (known as a Stage), at such iconic restaurants as the American Food Academy in Rome, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California and River Café in London.
Philip said: “It was a fun way to get my cooking skills up to standard. I didn’t want to get paid for the internship, if I did then I would feel under pressure! When I work for free, I’m just there for the laugh!”
All laughs aside, however, Philip knew that if Saturday Pizzas remained just that, it would never grow into anything more.
“Almost by accident, we started freezing pizzas, supplying them to shops, starting with one, then two shops, then another. By the time we were supplying about eight shops with frozen pizzas, we had run out of capacity to produce them, so in 2015, I decided to build a manufacturing facility,” said Philip.
“I had €10,000 of start-up capital, bought a shipping container, a pizza oven and a freezer and started manufacturing frozen pizzas five days a week.”
The container was situated at the rear of the Ballymaloe farm in Shanagarry. With the extra capacity, Philip and his team were able to service more shops, and business continued to grow.
“We grew from eight shops in 2015 to 26 by 2016; 48 in 2017 and by 2018 we were in almost ninety shops nationwide. We were supplying independent shops, some restaurants and bars and got listed with BWG, the umbrella company for MACE, Spar and Eurospar as well as SuperValu.”
By 2019, Philip knew that they would soon outgrow the Shanagarry factory and decided to apply for funding to create a new, larger manufacturing facility for the company’s foreseeable growth.
He said: “I started Saturday Pizzas from nothing, but I had this dream of a big factory with manufacturing lines, and in 2019 I said: OK, let’s do it!
“With the help of the South Cork Local Enterprise Office, a plan was put together for a Business Expansion Grant. It got approved at the end of 2019, and then Aldi Ireland asked us to join their Grow with Aldi programme.
“We went through to the trial where our products went into 142 stores, and thenlockdown happened…”
The business erupted, with growth jumping 150% in the first half of 2020 as restaurants closed and consumers began panic buying and stockpiling.
“The business tripled, almost overnight,” recalls Philip.
“We weren’t prepared for that, but at the beginning of the year, when we were hearing that there was this thing happening in China, and they were building hospitals really quickly, our first reaction was that we should order ingredients.
“We managed to order pallets of flour, tomatoes and cheese before the lockdown happened, and that meant we were able to produce all day, every day.
“We split our shifts to ensure only two people at a time were in the factory, and from 7am to 4pm a team made and baked pizzas, and then from 4pm to 11pm a team worked packaging pizzas and preparation for the following day. The factory was going six days a week from 7am to 11pm.”
The trial at Aldi was an outstanding success, and from August Saturday Pizzas will be stocked in up to 250 Aldi stores, nationwide.
Saturday Pizzas position themselves as a unique offering for the frozen food market. While the frozen pizza market is “dominated by low quality products,” says Philip, that doesn’t mean there isn’t appetite for a premium quality frozen option.
“For every product or service in the world there is low quality and high quality, and we recognised there wasn’t a high-quality product for frozen pizzas. There was a clear gap in the market.
“Some did think no-one would pay €6.50 for a frozen pizza because the market was so dominated by these low-quality products, but Saturday Pizzas is a very established brand in the market now. It has been an interesting journey to have a section of the frozen food retail market almost to ourselves!” he added.
Saturday Pizzas’ new Little Island facility doubles up as both a production unit and a takeaway, providing a lunchtime service between noon and 2pm, Monday to Friday.
But isn’t an industrial estate an odd location for a takeaway?
“Little Island is one of the industrial powerhouses of Ireland. There are almost 1,000 businesses here employing up to 15,000 people: where do they all go for lunch? We’re making pizzas and cooking them here anyway, so why not have customers come to the factory for a takeaway pizza?
“When they come here, they can see that we’re not just a brand: this is real. There are real people making our product, everything is handmade.
“We use machinery to mix pizza dough and for packaging, but the actual product is made by hand, by people and that is absolutely vital,” he said.
“Every single one of our pizzas is different because it is made by people, like a fingerprint, and that makes it so unique: they are all the same, but different, like we all are, and I think people really resonate with that.”
The Little Island facility will eventually boost production capacity by 120%. The Business Expansion Grant, among other things, enabled Philip to invest in the biggest gas wood-fired oven in Ireland.
The machine isn’t up to its full potential for capacity yet, but already Philip and his team are able to turn out 300 hand-made wood-fired pizzas in a single four-hour shift. The potential output is, therefore, huge.
Currently, Saturday Pizzas employ eight people; plans are afoot to grow employment to 20 by 2023. This is important, Philip says, “because the product is made by people; people pay a premium price for the product and this equals in employment for more people.
“I cannot tell it enough the importance of employment — we need people to work, especially with food. You can taste the difference if something is made by a person or a machine,” said Philip.
In 2017, he was approached by food writer and editor, Kristen Jensen, about the potential for a cookery book based on Saturday Pizzas recipe back-catalogue.
“When we ran the pizzeria at
Cookery School, we were fortunate to have some wonderful ingredients to hand at all times.
“We were able to change the menu every week because we had so much possibility and such creative people and thinking.
“Kristen asked me how many pizza recipes I had, and I said maybe 200 — over the years we just gathered all these different recipes!
“Kristen got in contact with an agent, the agent found a publisher, and about 18 months later, in October 2017, Saturday Pizzas cookery book was published!
“I never thought I would be able to add ‘cookbook author’ to my list of credentials! The first copy I sent to my mother and said: ‘Who would have thought, your son — an author!’ She cried.”
Philip actively welcomes people to visit the factory in Little Island for a takeaway pizza:
“We’d love to see you!” he says, and has genuine heartfelt gratitude to the people of Cork for their support over the years.
“If people didn’t pick up the product, nothing would have happened; I’m so grateful for every single customer.”
Visit www.saturdaypizzas.com for details of takeaway and nationwide stockists.