A new slice of the pie
By JASON PEREZ-DORMITZER, Standard-Times correspondent
NEW BEDFORD -- There's a pair of Ferrari red behemoths inside Paul Battaini's office that could do for the vending machine industry what the Internet did for computers.
With the touch of a couple buttons, a unit's internal stove can produce a 9-inch pizza in 90 seconds.
And because it's a vending machine, it can go anywhere a person goes to buy a Coke.
"It puts the world's most popular food -- pizza -- in places heretofore unavailable," Mr. Battaini said. "It was the kind of idea that had us saying, 'Duh. That's a great product.'"
Mr. Battaini and his partners, Mark Schmidt and Kevin Murphy, have exclusive rights to sell the Italian import in the United States and options to sell in Canada and Mexico. The company Wonder Pizza Italy, the makers of the vending machine, already has units throughout much of Europe.
The local threesome has founded New Bedford-based Wonder Pizza USA as a vehicle to sell the machines and Wonder Pizza America to make the ready-made pizzas stocked inside the machine.
The units themselves weigh 1,200 pounds and cost $20,000, and the profit margin, according to Mr. Battaini, is just as large. He said each $5 sale could garner as much as 50 percent in profit for its owner. This, combined with the highly profitable nature of the pizza business, should help in moving Wonder Pizza units throughout the country, he said.
The machines were not up and running at the time this article was written, and Wonder Pizza USA is still waiting to make its first sale.
"We've got between 26 and 28 orders right now," said Mr. Battaini, adding that they are starting out slow because it costs a lot of money to import the units from Italy.
"We don't want to break into a run before we warm up," he said.
The idea to bring Wonder Pizza to the States came after Mr. Schmidt, president of Automated Sales Inc. in Dartmouth, saw an article for Wonder Pizza Italy in Vending Times.
He said it would be a good addition to his vending machine business, which is co-owned by Mr. Murphy and Mr. Schmidt's wife, Lois. However, they couldn't get one because there was no distributor in the United States.
This opened the door of opportunity for the three, who asked, why not become distributors?
Mr. Battaini was working in business development at Automated Sales and also ran a pizza business on Cuttyhunk Island during the summer.
"Kevin would give me a call on his boat's radio for pizza, and all the other boats would hear and place orders, too," he said. "My daughters would bring them down to the dock on a scooter. It was a great deal."
He sold the business to concentrate on Wonder Pizza, a venture that led to a rollercoaster of business dealings that lasted a year. It included the key enlistment of Mr. Battaini's cousin in Italy, Gino Battaini, who is a lawyer there who works for the government.
Paul Battaini took seven trips to Italy and almost saw the whole venture crumble a few times. This included a three-week duration in which they thought the deal was dead, so they gave up until getting a "miraculous" phone call.
The business turbulence was a bit much for everyone to stomach.
"It's scary to risk all that money when you know you could fail," Paul Battaini said, adding that he would only describe the investment as significant. But, he said they had one ace in their pocket. "I didn't think we were going to fail with our Italian connection."
The trio, which is in their 50s, later found out that companies like Nestle and Kraft were researching a U.S. Wonder Pizza franchise.
The fact that they won the rights is a bit of a coup. They say it allows them to describe themselves as the Ben and Jerry's of the pizza world.
"We are just three local yokels with a dream and we beat some big names," said Mr. Battaini. "It's hard not to be excited. What a chance, at our ages, to launch off the pad."
The unit has a television key pad, and inside is a stone oven that uses infrared heat to warm the pizzas. Mr. Battaini said Wonder Pizza America will produce the pizzas using fresh dough and ingredients before they are sent off to owners of the machines.
The units and the pre-made pizzas will be shipped for the first few months from Wonder Pizza headquarters in Torino, Italy. But, the three said production of all aspects of the business will eventually take place in the United States with manufacturing of the machines planned for the Midwest.
Wonder Pizza will be the only place to buy either the machines or the pizzas, although they will also be available through Automated Sales for their list of local clients.
The first sales will be at places like college dormitories and large office buildings. The company plans to start its initiative in New England and gradually work its way west and south.
Mr. Battaini said he expects Wonder Pizza to make its mark in the business world and in New Bedford. He predicts hundreds of the huge machines rolling out of the old mill on Wamsutta Street, thus providing a shot in the arm for the city.
"I don't think we'll be as big as Titleist, but if developments go as they are projected in the business model, we could be a terrific resource for the city," he said.
Asked where they will be 10 years from now, Mr. Murphy said he was not sure. But he didn't brush aside the possibility that Wonder Pizza would be bought out by a bigger company.
"We could be had," said Mr. Murphy. The Wonder Pizza machines will have their official U.S. debut in October at a national vending machine trade show in Washington, D.C. Mr. Battaini, who worked in the media business for 20 years, said he will make sure the product gets an appearance on Good Morning America.
In terms of local sales, he said people working at the Wamsutta Street mill can come to their office to give the machine a try starting in August. Pizzas couldn't be done before this time because officials from Italy have the machine locked. They won't let the three dig in until they are trained in the operation of the machine.
Michelle Lussier, a manager at Pa Raffas Italian Restaurant, said she'd "love to see" one of the Wonder Pizza units. She said she doesn't think such a development would take a bite out of the pizza world.
"It's more of a convenience item, and I don't think it would hurt the average pizza place. But, you never know," she said.
This story appeared on Page D1 of The Standard-Times on August 3, 2003.