A staple in the pizza segment, conveyor ovens save labor since the unit does not need attending and can cook various menu items fast and consistently.

Although they produce cooking results that differ from wood-fired ovens, conveyor ovens offer less chance of operator error. High-capacity operations tend to favor these units over other options.

Applications

Given the versatile nature of conveyor ovens, operators with menus that include pizza and certain other foods will find these units quite useful. In addition to pizza, conveyor ovens can cook entrees or proteins, melt cheese on pasta or sandwiches, or bake cookies, among other applications.

Heating Methods

Some conveyor ovens emit columns of hot air above and below the pizza for consistent results. When this technology was first implemented about 30 years ago, it took nine minutes to cook a pizza, while today, it takes four to five minutes to complete a pie. With this heating style, operators can cook various products at the same time, including both thin- and thick-crust pizzas.

Some conveyor ovens require manipulation of the columns of hot air inside to control the type of bake. Some units use a fixed jet plate design, with the cooking performance adjusted on the top and bottom by variable speed motors. Ovens with variable speed air are configurable, while those with adjustable finger arrangements are set to one type of bake.

Units that use a combination of hot air and infrared heat or solely infrared heating are also available. Operators with high-temperature applications, such as broiling or cooking proteins, should consider infrared conveyor ovens. However, this heating method is not as well-suited for baking. The combination of infrared and forced air is more commonly used in the sandwich segment as opposed to pizza since this method provides a char or toast on bread.

It’s important to note that the latest mechanical codes require venting with conveyor ovens.

Capacity

Typical conveyor oven sizes for the pizza segment measure 14 to 20 inches wide. Lengths range from 18 inches for countertop use up to 55 to 70 inches for more throughput.

Large models typically produce 100 pizzas per hour per deck, while a medium oven accommodates 75 pies per hour per deck. Smaller units handle between 20 and 25 pizzas per hour per deck and are more suited for retail operations, such as convenience stores.

High-volume pizza operators typically use two medium-size ovens.

Features and Options

Operators can choose between electric and gas conveyor ovens. Digital controls can provide more precise heat than dial types.

Conveyor extensions serve as options for those operators requiring added flexibility. This consists of caps at the end of the conveyor and provides the capability to run full sheet pans through the unit.

Operations requiring multiple cooking temperatures and conveyor speeds for different pizza makes or dayparts should consider programmable units. Staff can preset these ovens for breakfast items or a prep program, running at different times, temperatures and speeds. This saves labor as the unit won’t need adjusting from item to item or daypart to daypart.

Conveyor ovens typically run at full power throughout the day. However, newer models with standby modes use sensors that gauge when the oven is empty and automatically stop operation. This saves energy and operating costs.

With a split-belt option, the front and back of the belt operate at different speeds for use with various types of products and temperature requirements. For example, pizza may require five minutes cooking time, while sandwiches need two and a half minutes, so the latter would be put on the faster belt. The split can be variable, such as 50/50, 70/30, etc., depending on the application, product volume and operator needs.

A newer feature on smaller electric conveyor ovens, built-in catalytic converters provide ventless operation. This is only available on electric types.

Stackable capabilities depend on the unit. Most conveyor ovens provide this feature as it increases volume while saving space.

Conveyor ovens with doors that close help mitigate heat emanating from the unit.

Care and Maintenance

Care and maintenance can vary greatly with these units. Much depends on whether the foodservice operation mixes dough fresh on-site or at an auxiliary commissary.

“Flour is the enemy of conveyor ovens,” says Jim Mucher, service manager at Commercial Appliance Service, Inc. in Sacramento, Calif. “It’s best to have a separate room for this task as a combination of oil, grease and flour can do a number on cooling vents, motors and fan guards.”

An improperly functioning cooling fan can cause high-temperature issues that impact more expensive oven parts, like the motor and temperature sensors. “It’s a common and simple problem that can be corrected with regular cleaning and maintenance before becoming a bigger issue,” says Mucher.

Periodic maintenance visits with qualified service technicians supplement regular cleaning by staff. “We tackle the electrical components, which are more complicated,” says Mucher. “We don’t want the wires being pulled or knocked, and there are safety issues with this task.” Technicians also clean air vents, adjust combustion blowers on gas units, and check belts and bearings.

Depending on the volume, operation and environment, most manufacturers recommend operators break down and thoroughly clean their conveyor ovens at least quarterly. Staff can use soap and water with scrub brushes to clean conveyor belts and components. When reassembled, bushings on shafts and brackets should be checked for damage and excessive wear and tear. “The biggest thing is making sure components are clean, and service by a qualified company ensures less downtime and catches potential problems before they happen,” says Mucher.

Conveyor ovens have a service life of up to 30 years, but generally average about 20 years. “Some ovens can get a second life if refurbished,” says Mucher. “But when these units get older, components can become obsolete. Equipment over 15 years old experiencing excessive problems should most likely be replaced.”

Purchasing Considerations

When purchasing an oven, pizza operators have a number of choices. The best option depends on the application and type of operation. Deck ovens are great for even baking but are typically slower and require a great deal of training to keep from over- or under-baking the product. High-speed ovens represent the perfect solution for a quick cheese melting/crust browning for made-to-order pizzas, but typically the crust is pre-baked or even par-cooked.

“Conveyor ovens are the ultimate workhorse of pizza shops all around the world,” says Tracy Taraski, manager of design services at The Bigelow Cos. Inc., Kansas City, Mo. “With faster bake times, more foolproof operation for newer employees, and the wide variety of sizes and configurations available, it is no wonder these versatile units are the go-to solution of the pizza industry.”

Operators do have to take into account a variety of considerations with these units. For example, being open units, conveyor ovens expel heat into the atmosphere, which impacts the kitchen environment. Also, conveyor oven fans operating on high create a lot of noise. For these reasons, location is an important factor when designing a kitchen around these units.

For those with space limitations, ventless models eliminate the need for an exhaust hood over the oven. Although this option is only available on smaller electric units, which can affect volume, it does not remove the necessity for fire protection. Operators should first confirm local codes allow use of ventless ovens.

“One thing to keep in mind: Operators can always start with a just single deck conveyor oven and add a second or third deck as needed,” says Taraski. “It should be confirmed that power and gas are available for those additional units in the initial design as adding these after the fact can be costly and very disruptive to an operation.”

The exhaust hood should not have to change if ovens of the same size are added since the size of the hood is based on the size of the oven, not the height and/or added decks.