The Wood-Fired Blog

Physical Goods in a Virtual Era

From the NY Times, Douthat: The Facebook Illusion

As a follow on to my posting on Facebook, Free and Forno Bravo, here is a NY Times column on the Facebook IPO. I agree with Douthat that “the “new economy,” in this sense, isn’t always even a commercial economy at all. Instead, as Slate’s Matthew Yglesias has suggested, it’s a kind of hobbyist’s paradise, one that’s subsidized by surpluses from the old economy it was supposed to gradually replace.

This reminds me of something we used to say in the early days of Internet 1.0, when companies were raising and losing large amounts of money on silly ideas like petfood.com, or e-commerce sites that sold physical goods for less than they paid for them in order to gain “eyeballs”. The Internet isn’t a business; it’s a channel.

This quote from the Douthat article caught my eye as relevant to Forno Bravo’s strategy. We make stuff!

It’s telling, in this regard, that the companies most often cited as digital-era successes, Apple and Amazon, both have business models that are firmly rooted in the production and delivery of nonvirtual goods. Apple’s core competency is building better and more beautiful appliances; Amazon’s is delivering everything from appliances to DVDs to diapers more swiftly and cheaply to your door.

New Third Generation FB Castable

This is the original version of the article I wrote on the new third-generation FB Castable. A shorter version of this appeared in the March 2012 Wood-Fired Newsletter.

James

We have developed a great deal of expertise at Forno Bravo over the years with refractory materials and insulators, and we have worked hard to continually improve. We are proud to introduce the third-generation of FB Castable, the material we use to produce our wonderful ovens. In fact, we have been shipping ovens with the new material for a number of months — and everything is going really smoothly; so we wanted to share the news with you. Plus, FB Castable is designed, blended and cast at our own factory in California (made in USA).

Our new material features a new and more complex array of refractory aggregates (calcined material in different shapes and sizes that create a structural web) that creates an even stronger ceramic bond, along with a higher grade of calcium aluminate cement — and it delivers an awesome (and industry-leading) 8,230 psi compression strength. That means better cooking performance and better durability.

In one sense, it all started with the first modular oven that I bought and installed in San Gimignano. Before I visited the oven factory, I found a company brochure for the producer at a local garden center and I spent a very contented afternoon sitting in the autumn sunlight and translating the Italian. The installation instructions were very helpful — particularly considering that my first experiences with brick ovens were Alan Scott’s Bread Builders and the two barrel vault brick bread ovens that I had built in my house in California.

But while the installation instructions were good, I was particularly struck by the fact that each residential oven was available in two versions — one in a red colored material and the other in grey. After struggling with my bad Italian, and the fact that the brochure had a number of technical terms that could not be translated online, I came to the realization that the company was following the traditional “good” and “best” product strategy, where the red oven was made using a product that roughly translated to “small volcanic pieces”. The grey ovens on the other hand were easy to identify. The company called them “refrattario”.

I met the company owners armed with a number of questions, and they did not disappoint me with the answers. The red ovens were in fact made using a locally sourced terracotta material strengthened with a heat resistant volcanic aggregate, which was significantly less expensive than true refrattario. And because in their minds the ovens were for occasional, hobby use (their word in this case), the red terracotta material wasn’t great, but it was basically good enough. Of course if you were serious, they said, you would pay a lot more for a true refractory oven — which used the same material as their restaurant ovens. But, they were a lot more expensive.

As a buyer, I thought this was confusing and it made the decision harder than it should be. Was the cheaper oven good enough? Would it work well and last? Should I pay a lot more for the better oven?

I decided from day one that Forno Bravo would use the same commercial-grade, true refractory material for all of our ovens. And over the years, we have continually improved our ovens and the materials we use.

Which is why we are so excited to announce the third generation of FB Castable. This true refractory material is our own proprietary technology that delivers remarkably fast heat-up times, great heat retention and unrivaled durability. It is incredibly strong.

You can read more about it on Fornobravo.com. Link to this page:

http://www.fornobravo.com/pizza_oven_selection/refractory_primer.html

Made in the USA

Every Forno Bravo oven (other than the Artigiano) is made in our own factory in Marina, CA (Northern California). I am extremely proud of our manufacturing team and their commitment to high quality, American-based manufacturing. Over the past three years we have continually added new manufacturing personnel, capacity, capability, equipment, and experise. In terms of we pure real estate, we have tripled our footprint in a little more than two years. We have made thousands of really great pizza ovens.

Beyond the basic numbers, such as square feet and head count, we have also developed a large number of “softer” assets. We have improved our refractory technology by introducing the new, third generation of FB Castable (you can read more about that here), the material we use to cast our oven domes and vents (that is made using raw materials manufactured in the American midwest), and we have developed a great deal of technology and expertise that no one will ever see—in the equipment, molds and processes that we use to physically manufacture our products. We are constantly improving the way we cast our products, resulting in smoother surfaces, sharper edges, fewer air pockets, and oven pieces that fit together tightly and accurately (and don’t have unattractive grinder marks).

Plus, we do all of our wonderful finish stucco work, paint and glazes, and all of own metal work in house, and the craftsmanship of our stands and enclosures is excellent. Just beautiful.

Friday pizza party
Andiamo prototype

Many of our ovens are tested to UL and NSF standards, and our factory is inspected by the Intertek Testing Laboratories on a regular basis. Also, we work hard to be a good corporate citizen, and we provide our employees with medical insurance and accrued Personal Time Off (PTO). There has been a great deal of attention in the media over the decline of the U.S. manufacturing base, and of course small manufacturers like Forno Bravo are dwarfed by losses in the heavy industrial manufacturing sectors, but every bit helps.

One reason I want to share this is that, in general, I believe in business transparency. In the Internet age, I think a higher degree of transparency is the right strategy for businesses and it is better for our customers and community members. After all, Forno Bravo is the company that published the free Pompeii Oven eBook—to take the mystery out of pizza ovens and wood-fired cooking. How many companies would go out of their way to show you how to not buy their product? haha. In the days before Forno Bravo and the Pompeii eBook, pizza ovens were extremely expensive in the U.S. and it was very difficult to build a real brick oven in your backyard. I experienced it first hand. I am equally proud of the role that Forno Bravo have played in shedding light on the pizza oven market and helping drive costs down and sales volumes up.

I am also writing this post on a more practical level. We have a couple of small competitors in the market who seem to think that it is in their best interest to spread mis-information on Forno Bravo. If you have talked with other pizza oven companies recently, you will know who they are, and you know that they will tell you that the Forno Bravo ovens are made in China. Now I am a really competitive guy (heck, I am a nationally ranked marathon runner) and I really like winning—but I don’t think lying is the right way to win. It’s like cheating in sports, and at some point you get caught. It’s also pretty offensive to our production manager and our team. So, the next time someone tells you that Forno Bravo ovens are made in China, you should tell them that they should be ashamed of themselves.

I also think about it this way; if some of our competitors are willing to lie to you about my company and where we manufacture our products, what else are they willing to not tell you the truth about?

But I don’t want to end this post on a sour note. We have come a far way since Forno Bravo was founded eight years ago, and the real winner has been you—the consumer. We have significantly increased the quality and lowered the cost of modular pizza oven kits, we have introduced new assembled oven designs, ovens on wheels and ovens that you can set up without any tools, and we are on the verge of introducing an oven that two guys can bring to a party. It’s been a great ride and we are just getting started.

More choices, lower prices and better quality. That sounds like a good market dynamic to me.