Coal is finding its way back into the nation’s favor -- one pizza at a time.
The growing appetite for coal-fired pizza is creating new demand for anthracite coal -- it’s the hardest kind and burns the hottest. “That market just kind of snuck up on us,” Greg Driscoll, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania producer Blaschak Coal Corp., said in an interview. “It’s sort of in the face of everything that is going on.”
The US coal industry is dealing with its worst market slump in decades because of a global supply glut, escalating competition from cheap natural gas and tighter regulations as policy makers try to wean the power market off of fossil fuels. While anthracite represents a fraction of total US coal production, increasing demand for the product is one bright spot in a sea of bad news.
“The phenomenon of coal-fired pizza has a lot to do with flavor,” Fred LeFranc, founder of restaurant adviser Results Thru Strategy in Charlotte, North Carolina, said. “It’s the difference of having a steak cooked over a gas grill versus charcoal. You get this great smoky flavor.”
While coal sales to pizza restaurants make up less than 4 percent of Blaschak’s total tonnage, they represent the company’s fastest growing segment, Driscoll said.
Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a Florida-based chain with 49 restaurants across the eastern US, used about 6.7 million pounds of Blaschak’s anthracite in its restaurants last year, said Chuck Locke, the company’s chief operating officer. Demand is set to average 7.7 million in 2015 and reach 8.9 million in 2016 as they open more locations, he said.
The company’s coal ovens cook pies at hotter temperatures and more consistently than wood ovens do, Locke said.
Demand’s also rising because Americans are simply eating more pizza, in part thanks to a boom in casual pizza parlors. Sales at limited-service pizza restaurants gained 3.6 percent to $35.4 billion last year, according to researcher Technomic Inc. That’s more than the growth at sandwich and burger chains.
Anthracite was once a darling of the US fuel market. It heated homes and burned in locomotives. Production peaked at more than 100 million tons toward the end of World War I. It fell to 1.3 million in 2003 as places to mine for the coal became scarcer.
Now that it’s one of the few coal markets that’s still expanding, production stands to rebound, Driscoll said. Anthracite output this year will reach 2.5 million tons, and the industry may average 5 million to 10 million in the coming years, he said.
The variety is mostly produced in Pennsylvania, according to the Energy Information Administration.
For almost 100 years, anthracite production went “in one direction,” Driscoll said. “We see an opportunity to grow the business.”