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Voices & Visions June 2017

As a kid, woodworker Larry Melberg watched Julia Child on TV, and he filed away a piece of advice she gave the viewing audience: “Once you use a pizza peel, it’ll be the most useful thing you have in your kitchen.”

He put that wedge of wisdom to work years later, when he and a friend wracked their brains for a business idea. Today, Melberg and his Appleton company, Pizza Peel the Baker’s Board, have a national audience for their handmade wood products, which range from pizza peels to beer flight boards artfully crafted in basswood, maple, cherry and walnut.

A professional cabinetmaker, Melberg for years did business under the name Custom Accent Components. He’s since streamlined operations to focus exclusively on pizza peels.

How did you start?

I’ve been doing this in one shape or another since 1987. For years we did the pizza peel as a sideline to our cabinetry business, and when cabinets were slow we’d make pizza peels. But that didn’t work because customers who wanted pizza peels wanted them on a timely basis and customers who wanted cabinets wanted them on a timely basis. So it wasn’t something you could fill in and make when you feel like it.

The materials we used for custom cabinets were different from materials used in pizza peels, so it wasn’t like we could use the off-fall from cabinets to make them. We were diversified, but into extremes, which isn’t what you should do. If you can make a complementary product out of your leftovers, that’s more logical.

Aren’t cabinets more profitable than pizza peels?

The nature of the beast is there’s a lot more variables that go into custom cabinetry versus pizza peels. Granted, it takes a lot of pizza peels (to equal a large kitchen cabinet sale), but the true cost of goods sold was closer to 50 percent when I did cabinetry work. Another 25 to 35 percent went to overhead, and if things went smoothly you’d have the leftover for yourself. That would be good, but it never went smooth for me.

How did you discover pizza peels? 

When I was a child, I started watching food-related programs. I stumbled onto Julia Child and she said, “Once you use a pizza peel, it’ll be the most useful thing you have.” In 1990, another guy and me were making things, and he had the idea of putting a bag-in-the-box wine into an old wine cask. It seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere, so I said how about a pizza peel? At the time I made it out of quarter-inch birch plywood and screwed a handle on it. That didn’t work, so we made them out of solid wood. We couldn’t keep up at first. We were selling them to Mr. Z’s (frozen pizza fundraising for nonprofits), they added our boards to the line and they would sell 100 or 200 boards a week.

We had a New York company looking for peels and restaurants in California. A lot of pizza peels are imported – we’re one of the few made in the U.S. A few years ago we added the gourmet line of pizza peel. The material cost (hardwoods vs. softer wood) is higher, but the process is about the same. It’s been a nice addition. People really like them. We engrave and personalize them, and they’ve become a niche product. People use them as keepsakes, gifts, even awards. We will engrave dates, wedding invitations, names. People give them as groomsmen’s gifts. The possibilities are endless.

When did you start engraving?

We started laser engraving the pizza peels three years ago, but we’ve always done it off and on. It’s a value-added product. We would laser engrave people’s logos so they can continue with brand awareness and we expanded off of that.

So pizza peels are not just for restaurants? 

You can retrieve a frozen pizza out of your oven, or anything else: pans of brownies or cookie sheets full of french fries and transfer it to a more stable resting place instead of setting it on the counter. It becomes a trivet, so it can cool off on that instead of damaging the countertop.

What’s changed in the industry?

The pizza industry itself is going more toward the craft variety of pizza. Everyone likes pizza and many people want to make it at home. There’s a big movement with backyard ovens – making pizza on your grill.

I talked to one backyard kitchen supplier who said people would want four or five wood pizza peels to every one metal pizza peel because – you prepare on wood because dough doesn’t stick to the wood peel – and retrieve on metal. That’s just for backyard oven and grill combination.

There’s also the fast-casual pizza trend now. A top one is Blaze. They prepare pizza on a pizza peel for you while you’re calling out ingredients, almost like preparing a burrito for you at Chipotle. That’s taking off, but the nearest one is in the Milwaukee area. They’ll be as big as Subway. There’s also one called Firenza in Green Bay. There’s probably 30 or more of these fast-casual franchises. Some of them use a different product, some use a wood peel for the ‘construction process,’ as I call it.

How many pizza peels does a pizzeria need?

These fast-casuals need 50 for each store. As they break down, they’ll replace them. They will break down because the staff fools around and plays games with them. Or they’ll soak it in a pan of water, and you’re not supposed to soak a piece of wood in water. Sometimes pizzerias use them and they don’t want to replace them because they think they’ve broken them in.

What do you use to make them?

We have a CNC router that can cut out 40 to 50 an hour. We hand-sand every one of them, and that’s our bottleneck because we want to make sure they’re finessed, all the rough edges are gone and there aren’t any sharp edges where any potential splinters would be, and that’s our final touch. We make sure our product is as good as we’d want it to be for our own personal use.

What do you do with your scraps?

The scrap wood is given to friends and family for kindling, and the sawdust is sold to a cattle farm. Very little of our raw materials go into the landfill.

Who works with you?

Just family. My fiancée, LuAnne, does 98 percent of the laser engraving, and we have some other family members: our sons, 26 and 24, help out occasionally. Conservatively speaking, if one person is working in the shop fulltime, one person can knock out 200 pizza peels a week from start to finish.

How did you learn woodworking? 

I’ve been a woodworker and an entrepreneur since I was probably in 6th or 7th grade. My dad had equipment in the basement, and we would make things that we would sell. My brother made cribbage boards, and I made a dice game called Shut the Box. It’s on the market. I’ve thought of adding new products, but sometimes it seems like it doesn’t mix.

That’s the way I felt when I was doing cabinets and pizza peels. I really didn’t have the infrastructure to be doing custom cabinets, but I kept doing it and kept doing it, and all I was doing was trading dollars and it didn’t work.

What challenges do you face?

The biggest problem with us is our sales volume would be better if we had more exposure. I always felt that local exposure wasn’t enough, so I started out national and it’s tough to fund that national exposure.

Is your website your main marketing tool?

Yes, and I do the proverbial cold-calling. I will follow someone on Facebook and ‘like’ what they do and start private messaging them, and pretty soon I’m asking, “Would you like your own pizza peel?” or if they want to add pizza peels to their product lineup, and pretty soon I have a sale.

What’s your favorite kind of pizza?

Chicken and garlic pizza with red sauce and cheese and pepperoni and that kind of thing. There’s no bad pizza as far as I’m concerned.