Did you ever wonder how those chain pizza places that crank out hundreds of orders a night do it? How do they keep the pizzas coming with as many as 20 orders in the queue, and more importantly how do they keep straight which pizzas go with which order?

The answer is uniformity of procedure. I work at a Papa John's, so my answers will be based on that, but almost every high-volume pizza place, chain or independent, will operate this way or similarly.

You start off with a guy peeling a ball of dough off the tray (ideally the dough is soft, and slightly sticky but not adhesive. In practice this gets stretched a bit), coating it in flourlike stuff so it's easier to work, and spinning and slapping it out into a flat circle of the right size which is placed on a screen. If it's slapped out right, it bakes into a breadlike crust about a quarter-inch thick in the topping area and a half-inch thick or so around the edges. A bad slap results in lumps, bubbles (more on this later) or spots that burn because they're too thin.

Once it's slapped, it gets sauced (regular, light or extra), then topped, then cheesed (same options as the sauce). Any of these four steps may be done by separate people or combined -- usually a manager will slap out dough, a make-line worker will sauce and top it, and someone else will cheese it. Papa John's toppings include (in alphabetical order):

ground Beef
Cheese (not really a topping unless it's eXtra Cheese)
grilled chickEn*
Green peppers
Italian sausage
Jalapeno peppers
bacon (designated K because all the letters in "bacon" are used by more commonly-ordered or well-known toppings)
Light Cheese
Light Sauce
Ripe olives
green oliVes*
eXtra Cheese
eXtra Sauce
banana peppers (designated Z)

* info provided by partx

How much of each topping you get is dictated by a guide posted above the make-line -- so many pepperoni slices, cups of cheese, etc. for each size and type of pizza (you won't get as many pepperonis on a Works, PIMOGHR, as you will on a Pepperoni-only pizza -- if they didn't reduce the amount of each topping somewhat, you'd have a Teapot Dome of toppings, and every time you tried to pick up a slice everything would drop off into your lap halfway to your mouth). Some employees will be more generous than the dictated amounts, but you should never get less.

So, now the slapped, sauced, topped, cheesed pizza goes into the oven. Most likely this is not an oven like you have at home, but a conveyor oven. The pizza goes on one end of a conveyor belt, either top or bottom, and takes between 5 and 7 minutes to travel to the other end, baking in air heated to between 470 and 490 degrees Fahrenheit as it goes. On the way through, somebody is watching it for bubbles that may start pushing up the crust -- bubbles can form and grow to several inches in just seconds, so this is often a separate employee unless the store's really not busy. This employee, armed with a two-pronged poker with a wooden handle, will periodically open a door in the side of the oven and pop them with the poker.

As the pizzas come out the other end, another employee (possibly the same one that was doing poker duty) will bring them over to the cutting table on a paddle, pull the box each pizza belongs to, pop the pizza in, slice it, add the pepperoncinis and sauce cups and whatever else was requested, and put it on the heat rack. This is harder than it sounds: by the time it gets out of the oven, the cheese is well and truly melted. Is this a cheese, an extra cheese, or a light cheese? Is there pepperoni under there or not? Is that beef or sausage or Italian sausage (they're all processed the same and by the time they come out cooked even the distinctive red of the Italian sausage can be hard to tell from the other two). Is this the Meats, or the Works minus a bunch of toppings? Sometimes you make a judgement call and hope.

Typically deliveries go on one rack and pick-ups on another. You walk in, they grab your pizza on the rack, you pay for it if you haven't already, and you walk out. Or the next delivery guy out grabs it and pops it in a heat bag and brings it to you.

Hopefully what you have at the end of the whole process is a fresh, hot, tasty pizza, that you and your family or friends can consume joyfully while engaged in whatever you do of an evening.

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