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'The Black Friday of pizza': How pie-makers prep for Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is technically all about football, but for the 99.9 percent of fans who aren't actually at the game, the Super Bowl is also all about… food. And sure, you can make an argument for wings inching their way toward becoming the reigning champs of Super Bowl party foods, but pizza really is the king.The Super Bowl is the pizza joint version of Black Friday, the No. 1 day when pizzas ar
Domino's sells 80 percent more pies on Super Bowl Sunday than on typical Sundays.
Domino's sells 80 percent more pies on Super Bowl Sunday than on typical Sundays.Wallace Weeks / featurepics.com / Today

The Super Bowl is technically all about football, but for the 99.9 percent of fans who aren't actually at the game, the Super Bowl is also all about… food. And sure, you can make an argument for wings inching their way toward becoming the reigning champs of Super Bowl party foods, but pizza really is the king.

The Super Bowl is the pizza joint version of Black Friday, the No. 1 day when pizzas are ordered, prepared and delivered (or picked up) in the span of just a few hours. So how do pizza shops prepare for and handle it?

In Amite, La., James Atkins, current Papa John’s franchisee and former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, says prepping for the biggest pizza day of the year isn’t that different from prepping for the big game.

“It’s a rush like none other. You prepare your staff like you would be preparing to go into the stadium and you coach them like you would coach a team,” he told TODAY.com. “I tell them, ‘Be excited, be energetic, don’t ever say you can’t do something.’ Can’t is a word I don’t let them use. Just like a football team, you put people into their positions and then you have to have good management.”

And the team will need to be ready for action. Atkins expects to sell close to 500 pizzas starting from about an hour before kickoff through the end of the game, more than twice what he’d sell all day on a typical Sunday.

“We have six phone lines and we’ll be taking orders on all of them. Instead of the six drivers normally working each night, I’ll have 15 or 16 and working in the store, we’ll have 13 or 14 people up from the normal 6 or 7. My wife works with me as the district manager, but even she’ll be back there in the kitchen during the Super Bowl, taking orders and cheesing pizzas.”

In New Orleans, Glenn Mueller, Domino’s largest franchisee in Louisiana with 100 stores, is preparing for the double whammy of being the site of the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras celebrations happening the following week.

“For Super Bowl Sunday, we usually have all hands on deck — it’s going to be one of our busiest days and with Mardi Gras coming up right after, it’s going to be big happenings back to back. Our downtown stores could have twice the normal business we would normally have for a Sunday. We have everybody report to work. Even I’ll make deliveries.”

According to Domino’s, on Super Bowl Sunday, drivers will cover 50 percent more miles than they would on a typical day, but in Mueller’s store in the quaint but congested downtown area, deliveries are done the old-fashioned way.

“Around New Orleans we have a few logistical challenges with gridlock,” he said. "We have a store within a block of Canal Street and Bourbon Street and that store will deliver by bicycle or by foot. It’s the only store outside of New York City that does bicycle deliveries.”

Domino's sells 1.4 million pies around the country on Super Bowl Sunday, about 80 percent more than on a typical Sunday, according to the company's vice president of infrastructure, Lance Shinabarger. And more than 30 percent of those orders are done online, so the IT team needs to be up to snuff.

"Every year we go through and do extreme load testing," he told Nation's Restaurant News in 2012. "We set up a bunch of synthetic transactions that basically emulates a human placing an order on our system. Because the process is automated, it gives us the ability to ramp up the number of orders to the point where it would be greater than what we’d expect to see during the Super Bowl."

While it might be the biggest sales day of the year for the big chains like Papa John’s and Domino’s, what about the mom-and-pops?

At Ian’s Pizza in Madison, Wis. — where mac n’ cheese pizza and smoky barbecue chicken bacon cheddar with homemade ranch are the two biggest sellers — managing partner Nick Martin says that the biggest challenge is the unpredictability.

“The Super Bowl three years ago was our biggest delivery day, but two years ago, when the Packers were in it, it we saw far less. We’ve had owners delivering pizza on certain years when they didn’t know how crazy it was going to be. We’ve called drivers in at the last minute. We’ve definitely had some crazy production days, but it’s unpredictable from year to year. It is one of the bigger delivery days of the year for us, but it’s not the biggest sales day of the year. Our eat-in business is really dead during the game and that affects sales.”

At Home Slice in Austin, Texas, which runs a brisk take-out business, manager Jeffrey Settler agrees that it’s a tough day to pin down.

“It’s actually a lower sales day for us because all of the business is done in a three-hour period and by 7:30 or 8, the phones have stopped ringing. We might have five phone lines going during the game, but no one’s eating in the restaurant.”

Settler runs his pizza operation with military precision, using a system he created.

“The trick is being able to do a concentrated amount of business in just a few hours. I view it as something mathematical,” he said.

He’s calculated they can put out 16 pies every 10 minutes and has time slots allotted to each oven, sort of like the way restaurants reserve tables, enabling him to keep control over the chaos.

“I’ve had success making things calm and mellow,” he said. Even on the craziest day of the year, he says, “My job is to make sure crazy doesn’t happen."

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