In 40 years of working at R.I. Lampus Co., Bob Welling has come up with some pretty good ideas for new cast concrete products. In the time he has been trying out one of them, a wood-fired oven, he has gotten pretty good at making pizza, too.
As two hungry reporters watched, Mr. Welling slid a cheese and pepperoni pie through the arched opening and onto a 600- or 700-degree brick hearth. Within 30 seconds, mozzarella cheese on the side closest to the burning logs started bubbling so he and his steel peel began turning. A minute later it was done -- and delicious.
"I've practiced a lot," he said. "It's fun."
From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. today, Springdale-based Lampus will be serving up pizza and a preview of its new Lifestyle Collection (www.lampus.com) at its annual outdoor living expo at the Syria Shrine Center, 1877 Shriners Way, Cheswick (15024). Mr. Welling is expecting hundreds of visitors to come see three working ovens, firepits, bars, benches, countertops, flaming columns, outdoor kitchens and other concrete items.
Mr. Welling's favorite is the oven, which sells for $3,989 as a build-it-yourself kit and $7,595 already assembled. But it's just one piece of Lampus' response to the growing demand for outdoor dining/entertaining spaces. It's a bold new path for an 88-year-old company best known for Omni-Stone pavers and Versa-Lok wall blocks. Over the past 15-20 years, Mr. Welling said a big part of his job as vice president of the concrete products division has been to come up with new products. Luckily for him, the public seems to like the things that interest him, like the pizza oven.
When he started baking in one several years ago, he quickly discovered "wood-fired oven people are kinda like a cult." Soon he was spending 20-30 minutes kneading homemade dough and baking bread. That required letting the fire die down to about 400 degrees and placing a steel door in the opening. He's also made roasts and chicken in an earthenware container called a Chicken Brick.
Other Lampus employees have also gotten into wood-fired baking. New product development manager Ken Lenhardt can expertly toss a pizza shell and has cooked steaks. Graphic designer Scott Blades, who stopped by to check on Mr. Welling's Neapolitan pizza, helped create the foam prototype for the kit of numbered pieces.
The key to the oven's design is the ratio between the area of the dome-shaped firebox and the height of the arched opening, Mr. Welling said. Those dimensions haven't really changed since ancient Rome or Pompei, he said.
So how hard is it to build one yourself?
"It can be assembled by someone accustomed to working with mortar," Mr. Welling said. Rookie masons "could end up with ugly joints," he said, laughing, but the oven would work just fine.
Construction generally takes about a week, a big benefit over the months it can take to build one from scratch. The price is also fairly low, even for the assembled unit. Ovens bearing the names of famous chefs can sell for $12,000 or more.
Mr. Welling said his goal is to come up with a smaller, less expensive oven. This one has a cooking surface of 36 square inches, big enough to cook two 15-inch pizzas. Since they cook so fast, it makes sense to make one at a time, he said.
Other new products on display today include an outdoor kitchen with built-in gas grill ($6,971); square and round firepits ($850), fire columns ($1,299) and benches ($715). All prices are for kits and do not include assembly. Visitors may also get to see the Rosetta line of natural-looking steps, walls, pavers and dimensional flagstone, Eco-Tek permeable pavers and European-style circle pavers.
One product they won't see is Flex-N-Edge, a series of five edging stones ingeniously linked by molded-in geosynthetic webbing. Gardeners will love how it holds the curve of any flower bed -- never falling out of line. It will be introduced this summer.