The response is common when I tell someone I'm heading to Las Vegas for the International Pizza Expo. "What is the International Pizza Expo???" I'm not surprised this event isn't common knowledge, especially since there's little mention of it in the media (including this very website). Most of us who read Slice are interested in the glorious craft of pizza making, but the truth is it wouldn't exist if it wasn't a gigantic industry. The latest stats tag the American pizza industry's value at $39 billion. Any industry this large has multiple trade shows, but there's only one place where pizza professionals can see all the latest in pizza products / technology. I just returned from it last week.
I attended my first pizza trade show in September 2006, the last time the National Association of Pizzeria Operators (NAPO) held one in Atlantic City. This is the organization behind Pizza Today Magazine, a fantastic trade publication for the pizza industry (full disclosure: I write for the magazine). I was completely satisfied with the experience and it seemed like I wouldn't ever need to go again until I found out about the bigger show in Las Vegas happening a few months later. A few friends joined me for the trip to Sin City visit and my mind was absolutely blown away by the magnitude of the event. Again, I thought my thirst was quenched, yet I keep going back. I've been to about eight pizza trade shows and don't see myself slowing down anytime soon.
Before I get to the good stuff, let me clear out some of the negatives that come with Pizza Expo. The biggest flaw is that Expo is held in Las Vegas. I'm sure there are gems to be appreciated out there, but as far as I'm concerned it's the worst city on Earth. Humans aren't supposed to live in the desert. And I want to yack every time I see the mock-itecture of New York New York, Paris, or the Luxor's beaming pyramid. The truth is pizzeria owners just love Vegas and would rather take a working vacation where it's warm, rather than a city known for great pizza like New York or Chicago.
Once you're inside the convention center, the outside world is inconsequential. It's not hard to focus on pizza because there are product samples everywhere you turn. But beware, because rarely are the samples worth eating. They draw you in as the Sirens lured Odysseus, and the consequences are similar. Vendors hawking cheese often prepare pizzas with enough excessive toppings to mask the flavor of the product they're actually trying to sell. My advice is to go directly to the back area of the show floor where the Italian flour companies are trying to outdo each others pizza Margherita. But even if you do get tangled in the wrong free sample net, it isn't the worst fate imaginable.
As much as I love free pizza, that's far from being the main attraction at Pizza Expo. I'm there to learn as much as I can about the pizza universe and I can't imagine a more perfect scenario than having every major oven manufacturer, cheese maker, flour miller, and pizza box company under one roof. It's a bit overwhelming, so I try to focus on one or two categories on each of the show's three days. I've tried calling these companies to ask questions about their histories and products, but it's much easier to get a straight answer in person. Imagine being able to test all the top tomato products side-by-side while grilling the sales team about their canning process. I can accomplish more in one hour at Pizza Expo than I could ever dream of learning by pestering a company rep over the phone. It's also great to get a look at new products, although most never make it to mass market.
A great extension of the educational value at Pizza Expo is the incredible list of seminars and demonstrations. Pizzeria owners are tapped to share their experience. My favorite sessions are the annual Pizza Crust Boot Camp. I go every year to hear two guys from General Mills talk through a basic dough-making process. They field questions from the audience and it's almost more interesting to hear what problems people who run pizzerias are having. It's like eavesdropping on a private conversation because every pizza maker thinks their way is right and other methods are wrong. This year there was even a handmade dough demonstration by Franco Pepe and Jonathan Goldsmith (from Chicago's Spacca Napoli)—how cool is that!?!
My favorite aspect of the event is that it brings together a few thousand pizza professionals in one place. Pizza makers are often thought of as being overly protective of methods and secret recipes, but all of that seems to melt away at Pizza Expo. It's sort of a Camp David for pizza makers—a place where they can meet as peers rather than competitors. After the show floor closes every evening, there's an open brainstorming session in which attendees can poll each other for advice regarding their business issues. It's pretty great to see that kind of camaraderie in an industry that's so cut-throat. After all, I'm just a pizza lover looking for a glimpse behind the counter in order to better understand what I'm eating.