To help the chain’s stores produce the highest-quality pizzas, Domino’s Pizza Group plc, Milton Keynes, UK, operates under a couple of theories that have been thoroughly tested and finally proven over time.

First, the pizza dough balls must always be fresh, never frozen. The pieces are made one day, then rest for 24 hours before they are delivered via refrigerated trucks to more than 700 franchise stores from three central commissaries.

The second proven theory currently applies only to its flagship production facility, located next to the company’s headquarters in Milton Keynes. Inside the 103,000-sq-ft (9,600-sq-m) plant, not a finger touches the dough from the time it leaves the Reading Bakery Systems Exact continuous mixers until the pieces arrive at the retail stores and are ready to be formed into pizza bases.

The process at this highly automated commissary is unique, the only one of its kind in the Domino’s Pizza system, which employs nearly 200,000 in more than 10,000 stores in 73 markets across the globe, according to Gareth Franks, foodservice director, Domino’s Pizza Group (DPG), which owns Domino’s Pizza UK and Ireland.

In fact, production at Milton Keynes is entirely different than the group’s smaller and older commissaries located at Penrith, UK, and Naas, Ireland.

“The original method was a quite manual one,” Mr. Franks said. “We evolved the process. At the previously built facilities, we would hand-place dough balls, and that’s still done in most facilities around the world. We’re the only facility with such an automated operation within the Domino’s system anywhere in the world.” Executing the touch-free process wasn’t easy, and making it seamless meant resolving some “teething issues,” he added.

Touch-free operation

The initial planning stages for the facility go back to 2006 when the company served only 400 retail outlets, but its business model predicted rapid growth over the next decade.

“Back then, we wanted to improve the process and remove people from touching the product during the production stage,” Mr. Franks said. “People are very important, but the least amount of time that you can have individuals touching the product or involved in the process, the better the quality and consistency of the final product.”

Today, that’s exactly what happens on the production floor, and this automation will help the company as it steadily expands to a predicted 1,200 stores by 2021.

Additionally, the company may eventually operate more production facilities in Germany, where it purchased a 75% share in the master franchise in that country in 2011 and now has exclusive rights to the market. Although it just started opening units, the pizza producer is eyeing a rapid store rollout in the territory. Moreover, DPG recently acquired exclusive rights to the Swiss market, where it might need to build yet another central production and warehouse facility, according to Mr. Franks, citing a recently completed review of its projected infrastructure needs through 2025.

Producing premium pizza

Domino’s history in the UK goes back to 1985, when it opened its first store in Luton, and six years later, its initial Irish retail unit began selling pizzas in Dublin. By 1995, the chain operated 100 stores in the region. It had 300 in 2003 and 500 by 2007, and it had close to 800 stores by the end of 2012 with more than 20,000 employees (for more information, see “UK and the big cheese” on Page 49).

In addition to its emphasis on fresh dough, Domino’s Pizza franchisees in the UK and Ireland position themselves as premium pizza producers with quality meats, Welsh cheese and vegetables packaged in 2.2-lb (1-kg) bags for freshness, food safety and easy handling at the store level.

“We’re not going to compromise product quality,” Mr. Franks said. “We’re not going to get lower-quality ingredients. That’s just not happening. That comes from the very top of the organization, and it’s ingrained in our business.”

Such freshness is reflected in the pizza’s prices, which are set by individual franchisees. In London and other parts of southern UK, a large pizza can cost around $30 (£19), while in Scotland, the same pizza might be $21 (£13). As a result, Domino’s is perceived as a treat with the average customer ordering less than once a month — a frequency far lower than that in more mature markets such as the US and Australia.

Consistency through technology

Building the Milton Keynes operation ended up being a game changer in pizza production for Domino’s. Asked if the plant holds any breakthrough technologies, Mr. Franks replied, “For Domino’s, this entire factory is a first.”

Even the appearance of the production facility and DPG’s nearby headquarters makes a statement about Domino’s, according to Ken Denoven, commissary customer service manager, who was involved with the plant design and startup.

The buildings were designed by Ian Smith, architect for the Milton Keynes Dons Football Club stadium located next door. If it weren’t for the silos adjacent to the facility, even some industry veterans might not be able to tell this curved-ceiling plant produces pizza dough balls. “The company wanted to make this site architecturally striking because it’s the headquarters for meeting our customers and franchisees,” Mr. Denoven noted. The Domino’s sign also serves as a billboard for fans when a match is going on.

Starting up production was painstaking, especially because the company incorporated technology it hadn’t used before. Domino’s also wanted to take its time to ensure it could replicate the quality of the products. “There was extensive testing, and that was ongoing during the year of commissioning the plant,” Mr. Franks said.

In some cases, it gambled and used systems that would improve product quality and ensure consistency. “We don’t stand around at Domino’s,” Mr. Denoven observed. “We’re leaders in our industry. We’re willing to take calculated risks to make us the best in the market.”

Among the firsts involved was use of continuous mixers instead of the high-speed batch processes common to its older operations. At the Milton Keynes facility, production focuses on strict front-end controls to maintain quality. “Where we use high-speed mixers, there is a lot of weighing out of ingredients and our premix,” Mr. Franks noted. “We thought, ‘If you can remove that element, it would increase product quality,’ and that’s what happened.”

Production runs on one 12-hour shift, six days a week, with downtime typically on Friday for sanitation and maintenance. Its 29 refrigerated trucks serve 540 stores, starting out in the late morning and returning in the late afternoon with empty plastic trays that are used to transport the dough balls.

Like nearly everything in the plant, even tray washing requires no manual labor. The Numafa dual-tray system unstacks, flips trays upside down, prewashes off the food ink label and sanitizes them before feeding them back to the production area at a rate of 2,000 per hour, although it’s capable of cleaning 2,500 hourly.

A ShickUSA ingredient handling system includes four Braby 60,000-lb (27,000 kg) silos that sit on load cells and pneumatically transfers flour through pipes located 25 ft (8 m) under a driveway to holding tanks and two Great Western sifters. The bulk handling operation also features a 6,000-gal (22,700-l) vegetable oil tank as well as a ShickUSA super sack system that scales Domino’s proprietary premix.

Mixing and makeup is done in a temperature-controlled room set at about 64°F (18°C). Two Reading Bakery Systems Exact continuous mixers turn out about 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of dough an hour, or enough to make 1,000 doz pieces. All dough balls use the same formula and come in four sizes for making 6-in. (15-cm) personal pizzas or garlic pizza breads, 9.5-in. (24-cm)  small pizza bases, 11.5-in. (29-cm) medium size and 13.5-in. (34-cm) large pizzas. They’re not exactly round balls, Mr. Denoven noted. “Rather, they’re more oval — more like the shape of your head,” he said.

Both mixers are located in the center of the production shop. One feeds two makeup lines on the south end of the room while the other supplies twin lines on the north end. The hoppers on four Reiser Vemag 5-pocket dividers call for the donut-shaped dough pieces discharged from the continuous mixers. A belt conveyor either feeds the dividers’ hoppers to the left or right line as needed.

After portioning on each line, dough pieces methodically travel through a Baker Perkins belt moulder, a Werner & Pfleiderer conical rounder and a Scanvaegt checkweigher. An ABI Ltd. pizza panning system supplied by Gemini Bakery Equipment conveys the dough balls to a pattern former, and a retractable conveyor gently drops them into a blue tray or tub. Depending on the product’s size, a tray will hold anywhere from four to six pieces, according to Mr. Denoven. Each makeup line handles up to 600 trays an hour. Videojet printers apply a washable ink label, noting product and code date information on each tray.

In an adjacent room, two ICS ammonia-cooled spiral conveyors chill 1,200 trays an hour, reducing the dough temperature to prevent premature yeast activation. After passing through a CEIA metal detector, the trays enter a Numafa stacker. An empty red tray is placed at the top and bottom of each stack to protect the dough balls in each of the 12 blue trays from contamination by the floor or roof of a truck.

The stacks travel via rail on a Nekos automatic warehousing system, which can hold 45,000 trays. The stacked products then rest for 24 hours in the temperature-controlled warehouse to age the dough and provide it with maximum flavor, texture and elasticity, according to Mr. Denoven. Ideally, he said, dough balls are best made into pizza crusts in three to six days after manufacture, but the refrigerated pieces can last up to nine days.

Everything a store needs

The Milton Keynes operation is certified by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) as part of the Global Food Safety Initiative. In addition to producing dough balls for its franchisees, the facility serves as a central warehouse for everything its restaurants need. In addition to spices, sauces, meats, cheese and any ingredient to make a pizza or any other Domino’s product, the central commissary ships signage, delivery boxes, uniforms, cleaning supplies and even toilet paper to its customers. The facility’s refrigeration and freezer space can store up to seven days of perishable ingredients for making pizza.

Mr. Franks added the company has an effective disaster plan that includes restarting a 33,000-sq-ft (3,100-sq-m) facility nearby at Kingston that the Milton Keynes factory replaced. Reopening that operation can meet demand for dough balls for at least 24 months.

However, he stressed, the company has experienced “absolutely zero” interruptions to its supply chain. In fact, redundancy has been built into the facility, which includes a local generator, to keep the building operating in case of a power outage.

“Keep in mind we produce products to order,” he said. “The longest that it sits in the stores is six days, and they receive three deliveries a week.”

As for the future, the company’s goal is to keep expanding at an increasing pace. According to Mr. Franks, the formula for success remains focused on producing premium pizza, which he described as the centerpiece for everything else its franchisees sell. The strategy definitely works. He noted 18 of the Top 20 performing stores among Domino’s global operations are located in the UK.

As the company’s mantra goes: “Sell more pizza; have more fun.”