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Operation Success: Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Virginia)

Building the foundation for a successful pizza program

When Executive Chef Randall Van Dyke and his team at Virginia Tech Dining Services sought to create a better pizza program for its largest dining center on campus, they knew the key was to tackle the foundation for any great pizza: the crust. What happened next included a nearly yearlong process to find the perfect flour and formula to achieve quality, cleaner-ingredient dough that they hope to bake up across other dining areas on campus.

We recently talked to Van Dyke and Virginia Tech’s Pastry Chef Joshua Carroll to learn more about the decision to change up their pizza program, what the process entailed and their key learnings along the way.

Pizza is King

Virginia Tech is known for its award-winning dining program that includes approximately 19,000 dining plan holders and one of the largest non-military dining halls in the country, D2 in Dietrick Hall. It’s an “all-you-care-to-eat” facility that boasts eight different venues and styles of food and can seat up to 1,100 people at any given time.   

Executive Chef Randall Van Dyke in Virginia Tech dining hall
“Executive Chef Randall Van Dyke in Virginia Tech dining hall”

Van Dyke says pizza is so important on a bustling campus. On most days, when the D2 facility can serve more than 1,300 people at lunch, they are making pizza as fast as they can. However, turning out large quantities of pizza doesn’t mean there has to be a sacrifice in quality.

“Pizza is king,” said Van Dyke, adding that’s why his team looked to create a quality pizza that tasted better than off-campus options while giving the outside community another reason to visit and dine on campus.

Tapping the Doughminators

Recognizing the opportunity with pizza, Van Dyke and Carroll wanted to create the best quality pizza possible. The process started by examining different flour types to help them achieve the perfect crust under the guidance of Shotsie Wilson, account executive with General Mills Foodservice, and Tom Santos, one of General Mills’ Doughminators™ who works closely with pizza makers to help them create the perfect crust.

“We really wanted to improve the quality of the pizza and offer a cleaner version,” said Carroll, who credits General Mills for helping them to make a transition to a lower protein, non-bromated, unbleached flour and also helping them to refine a crust formula that would make the most of the school’s new gas-driven brick oven.

Santos and Wilson spent four days at Virginia Tech, working with the team to educate them about different flours and experimenting with several pizza formulas that would work best with for their operation and equipment. This process included identifying the perfect temperature to achieve the Neapolitan-style crust with the quality and results the chefs were looking for.   

Pictured left to right: Virginia Tech Executive Chef Randall Van Dyke, Tom Santos, Shotsie Wilson, Michael Krygier, and Virginia Tech Pastry Chef Joshua Carroll.
Pictured left to right: Virginia Tech Executive Chef Randall Van Dyke, Tom Santos, Shotsie Wilson, Michael Krygier, and Virginia Tech Pastry Chef Joshua Carroll.

Wilson also invited Van Dyke and Carroll to attend Pizza Expo in Las Vegas last March to learn more about pizza making and attend General Mills’ Boot Camp, led by Santos and Bill Weekley, another veteran in the pizza industry with more than 45 years of experience making pizza dough.

“It was a great experience attending the expo to meet with other pizza makers and to learn more about making pizza dough in a mass production scale,” said Carroll.

Once they returned home, the duo continued to hone their own dough over the summer with another visit from the General Mills team before they started to turn out their new pizza just in time for students returning to school this fall.

“We were happy to return to Virginia Tech this past summer and work with Chef Randall and his team to put the final touches on the new pizza dough that we can all be proud of,” said Wilson who adds that the results truly represent a team effort. “This has been such a strong partnership from the start, and we couldn’t be happier with the results.”   

Michael Krygier, Chef Josh, and Tom Santos at Virginia Tech.
Michael Krygier, Chef Josh, and Tom Santos at Virginia Tech.

Van Dyke is thrilled they were able to remove oil and sodium from the process and now have ”beautiful, clean dough” that is easier to work with and handles much better. He says, “new dough is silky, like a cloud” and “the new pizza is a game changer.”

“We credit Tom and Shotsie for helping us through this process,” said Van Dyke. “With their years of pizza-making expertise and knowledge of flour, we were able to shorten the time span for us to achieve the results we wanted.”

Ingredients for Crust Success

Van Dyke shares three tips for other operations looking to amp up their menu with a signature pizza:

  • Know your audience. With so many different styles of pizza, it’s important to hone in on the type and style that your customers crave, whether it’s Chicago-style pizza, New York or Neapolitan.
  • Find the right flour. There are so many options, so it’s crucial to talk with the experts and find out what flour is best for the style of pizza you intend to make.
  • Refine the formula. It can take some trial and error, but it’s important to find the ideal water-to-flour ratio and figure out the ideal oven temperature and cook time in order to train staff accordingly and get the best results.

Sidebar: Virginia Tech Dining Services At-A-Glance

  • Serves approximately 7.5 million meals per year
  • Largest employer on campus with more than 2,200 employees
  • Approximately 19,000 dining plan holders
  • No. 5, Best Campus Food, “Best of 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition,” The Princeton Review
  • No. 2, Best College Food in America, Niche
  • No. 4, College Power Players, Food Management