Patrick Grady got his start with pizza more than 15 years ago as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut on Cottage Grove Road.
But it was in 2010, when he began making homemade pizzas for friends during Badgers football games, that a spark was lit and his own business was born.
The Madison La Follette High School graduate is now owner and founder of O'Grady's Premium Pizza. The frozen pizzas are for sale in nine area stores and by the end of 2013, he wants to add 23 more locations.
Grady, 37, joins a growing list of Wisconsin-made pizza companies that are filling up freezers in grocery and convenience stores around the state and adding to the competitive frozen pizza market.
"I'm real excited about it," Grady said from his East Side home office. "I want to see how I stack up against the big boys."
According to Packaged Facts, pizza sales were expected to hit $40 billion in the U.S. in 2012, with frozen pizzas accounting for $4.9 billion.
Collectively, private-label frozen pizza makers are a force in the industry with $332 million in sales nationally in 2011, according to the trade publication Grocery Headquarters.
That's a distant second behind Nestle-owned DiGiorno, which had $722 million in sales but ahead of Red Baron (Schwan Food Co.), with $263 million.
Two other Wisconsin originals, also owned by Nestle, made the top 10: Tombstone, founded and based in Medford, was ranked fourth with $231 million, while Jack's, founded in 1960 in Little Chute, was eighth with $127 million.
Local pizzas, local sellers
The hometowns of other Wisconsin frozen pizza makers include Eau Claire (Moke's and OvenWorks), Watertown (Emil's), Lebanon (Lebby's), Racine (Dino's), Port Washington (Mama Mia's), Edgerton (Zimm's) and Milwaukee (Palermo's).
LeRoy Meats, in Horicon, began making frozen pizza in 2010. The company uses its own pork sausage, has a three-person production staff and distributes to more than 35 grocery and convenience stores, taverns and golf courses in a 50-mile radius, said co-owner Ron Rose.
The pies are sold in Madison at Metcalfe's Market where the two locations are known for their local offerings and where the Hilldale store is pulling some frozen appetizers from one freezer door to make way for more Wisconsin-made pizzas.
"Our priority is on local," said Beth Peterson, marketing director at Metcalfe's, which held a grand opening at its Far West Side store on Saturday. "What we ask of our new local vendors is to demo their product three to four times in the first couple of months to help introduce it."
At Woodman's Market on Madison's West Side, the choices are overwhelming. There are 44 freezer doors and 14 chest freezers dedicated to pizza and pizza-like appetizers.
"The frozen pizza market is really competitive and it's gotten worse through the years," said Tom Salomaki who co-owns Park Plaza Pizza in Beaver Dam. "Everyone is making frozen pizza."
Salomaki co-owns a full-service pizza restaurant, and started making and distributing frozen pizzas in 1994. The 2,500-square-foot production facility employs four people and can crank out 400 pizzas a day that are delivered to 55 locations.
Salomaki is on the road virtually every day making deliveries and attending to accounts. His pizzas range in price from $4.49 to $5.19, more than some national brands, like Orv's, which can sell for $2.
"Some people are buying that because that's what they can afford," Salomaki said. "You have to produce a quality product and don't skimp on the topping. That's why my prices are little higher."
While many local pizza companies have their own production facilities, some, like O'Grady's, contract to have their pies made. It allows pizza entrepreneurs to focus on marketing and doesn't require capital investments for manufacturing space and equipment.
John Graycarek, vice president of Hansen's Frozen Foods in Green Bay, said it also allows his company to buy ingredients at a lower price than what a single operator could buy.
Hansen's made 2.2 million pizzas in 2012, about 85 percent of that total under contract with nine independent pizza companies who provide Hansen's with their own recipes. The company had just one company under contract 20 years ago and could have 12 to 14 under contract in the next five years, Graycarek said.
"We have certain customers that order every week and certain customers that order once a month," Graycarek said. "We work with them. We understand that they're starting from scratch. That's our niche."
A tough road for Grady
When Grady first started making his pizzas for the commercial market, they were made in Mineral Point at the Innovation Kitchen. In August, he moved production to Hansen's because of growing demand.
He now sells 25 to 30 cases (12 pizzas per case) each week, but it hasn't been an easy road for Grady. He is on disability, and has Crohn's disease and celiac disease, which prevents him from eating his own pizza because of the gluten.
Family and friends have helped with deliveries. A good friend, Larry Ring, who owns Joe Beck's tavern, was instrumental in helping launch the product.
Grady spends a few hours each day on the phone working with accounts and does grocery store samplings.
"If I do anything less than $100,000 (in sales in 2013), something's gone wrong," Grady said. "I had a lot of really good friends and good family and they really helped me out a lot. I'm starting to make it."