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Pizza maker grabs slice of school market

As the son of a restaurateur in Racine, Wis., Bill Wells spent his time after school each day working in his father's Italian restaurant, busing tables, filling glasses, making pizza and other meals. Today, Wells is 58 years old. He has started his own restaurant and watched it grow into a chain of 11 eateries. He has seen his son become a successful restaurateur.

And all along he has continued making pizzas.

Now, in one of his biggest undertakings yet, Wells and his son are planning to start making a lot of pizzas _ almost 1.2-million per week, to be more exact _ that they are hoping to sell to virtually every school kid in the country.

"All my life I've been in pizza and pasta," said Wells, who last year sold Guido's Restaurant in Spring Hill _ the last of a chain of 11 restaurants he once owned _ to concentrate on his new project.

"This thing has been a dream I've had for the past six years or so."

The dream is one probably shared by many a pizza peddler.

It is a $1.5-million, fully automated pizza factory that has the capability of churning out 3,600 pizzas per hour, starting with the crust and ending with the pepperoni.

Wells, through his Guido's Food Co., is planning to market the plethora of pizza pies that his factory will make directly to the biggest group of pizza consumers _ school-age children, of course.

"Pizza is the fastest-growing type of food in schools today," said Wells, whose own pizza-eating habits have been curbed somewhat by a case of diabetes. "Our goal is to supply school districts all over the country."

Last week, the goal, and Wells' dream, got a significant boost when the Hernando County Commission agreed to issue $1.5-million in industrial revenue bonds that will be underwritten by investors Wells said he already has lined up.

With money in hand, Wells is planning to begin construction on the pizza factory, which will be at the Hernando County Airport Industrial Park, sometime next month.

The 16,000-square-foot plant will employ about 35 people when completed sometime in September and will eventually employ more than 70 people, Wells predicted.

"I'm not crazy," said Wells, who spent the past three years researching the mass-market pizza industry. "I know this will work."

Pizza's tops with kids

If the size of the market and the prices of its current suppliers are any indication, Wells' idea for supplying schools with pizzas is definitely a sane one.

According to a 1989 Gallup poll, pizza was the favorite food of about 82 percent of all children nationwide under the age 13. With teen-agers, pizza is as popular as fast cars.

"Pizza is the No. 1 main dish item in the system by far," said Etha Bailey, director of food services for the Pinellas County School District.

"No doubt about it," she said. "First there's pizza, and then hamburgers and tacos."

Ms. Bailey should know. Each year, she surveys students throughout the more than 120 schools in the Pinellas County School District to find out their likes and dislikes in the cafeteria.

She is also one of several school-system food directors throughout Florida who has sampled Guido's Food Co.'s pizza and who has had some schoolchildren sample pies made in Wells' Pizza Cafe restaurant, his test kitchen.

The results were good enough to prompt Ms. Bailey to invite Wells, through a distributor, to bid on supplying all the pizza to all the schoolchildren in Pinellas next year.

"Yes, we are interested in him bidding," Ms. Bailey said. "Particularly because it is a Florida company."

Almost all of the pizza in Florida's schools comes from a handful of giant companies, none of which are in Florida. The closest company is in Kentucky. The farthest is in California.

Ask most children and they'll probably tell you the companies' pizza is pretty good nonetheless, for school pizza, that is.

But if a recent test survey that Guido's Food Co. ran with the help of Ms. Bailey in several Pinellas schools is any indication, students think the pizza made in Hernando County is even better.

"I am not crazy about sausage, but this tastes better than some of the sausage pizza I've had," wrote one student who participated in the survey.

"I love this pizza," wrote another. "Serve it. Get some . . . to Boca Ceiga, where I will be going to school next year. I give it two thumbs up!"

The price of Guido's Food Co.'s pizza is just as attractive to school district accountants as the taste of it is schoolchildren, Wells said.

"I can do it for about one-third less than anybody else can," he said. "There's just a lot less transportation costs."

Despite a lower selling price, Wells is predicting sales of more than $1.5-million in his first year.

"I can break even in my first year alone," he said.

Schools and beyond

Along with Pinellas County, Palm County school officials have also sampled Guido's Food Co. pizza and have expressed an interest in having the company bid, Wells said.

He hopes to get Hernando and other school districts on board later.

Several food distributors who supply school systems throughout the state have already agreed to carry Guido's Food Co.'s pizza, Wells said, even if they have to go with another company's brand at the beginning of the next school year while the company's factory gets up and running.

And according to Wells and his 33-year-old son, Billy, supplying Florida's schoolchildren with pizza is just the beginning.

If everything goes as planned, Guido's Food Co. will begin marketing its pizzas in hospitals and other institutions throughout Florida, and later throughout the country, within the next several years.

"The bottom line is that once we sell to the distributors, we don't care where he sells it," said Billy Wells, who managed Guido's Restaurant in Spring Hill until it was sold.

The restaurant, like others the Wellses have owned, was named after the family's original surname, before it was changed by Bill Wells' Italian-emigrant father.

Although it will be the elder Wells' job to get the factory up and running, it will be the younger Wells' job to sell the pizzas to distributors and oversee management of the factory.

"What really entices us is that through our research we know what's going on right now," Billy Wells said.

"But the market in the future is simply wide-open."

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

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