From the development of agriculture, if not before, people have been inventing ways to preserve, process, package, and cook food. Things we take for granted today, such as home refrigeration, freeze-drying and vacuum packaged food, continuous ovens and freezers for mass production, microwave cooking, beer in cans, and yes – even sliced bread (or at least pre-sliced and packaged loaves), were all invented in last 100 years. Many of these more recent inventions were patented. Currently, whole branches of chemistry, engineering, and biotech are applied to generate new food technology. It would take many long books to explore the breadth and depth patentable food technology inventions. However, we can get a small taste of it by looking at inventions related to what a recent survey confirmed as America’s favorite food: Pizza!
A stereotype image of how pizza is made is that of a pizzaiolo slinging and twirling a ball dough in the air to make the pie and then loading it up with toppings and sliding it on a pizza peel into an oven. While more than adequate for a neighborhood pizza shop, this process it is much too labor intensive for mass production.
One of the first patented machines for automatically producing pizza is described in U.S. Patent No. 2,190,483 for a “Machine for Making Italian Pizza” and which was filed by Mr. Pacilio Salvatore in 1939. (Pizza was not quite as popular at that time and so the patent attorney helpfully defined a pizza as “a baked cake-like food consisting of a body of dough which is covered over and impregnated with cheeses, tomato, and oil.”) Recognizing the difficulty of keeping up with demand for fresh pizza during the lunch and dinner rush, Mr. Salvatore invented a circular conveyor belt with a ring of pizza pans. Dough is dropped onto and pinned to a pan which is then spun quickly to form the pie using centrifugal force. The spinning is slowed and the conveyor carries the pan around to stations that automatically deposit seasonings, grate and slice cheese over the pie, and apply “tomato fluid” and olive oil. The conveyor continues into an oven and when the fully cooked pizza emerges at the other side it is pushed off the tray to slide onto a table and, presumably, then into the hands of a hungry patron.
Technology has come a long way since 1939 and pizza restaurants have continued to innovate. As one example, Little Caesar Enterprises has a family of patents on a pizza-making system that uses an articulated robot arm to move a pizza pan to separate stations for spreading sauce, spreading cheese, and applying pepperoni while also moving the pizza pan to properly distribute the cheese and pepperoni. The initial patent claims the basic system. Later patents claim specific design details, such as Patent No .10,792,818 which issued in October 2020, and that claims a specific structure for a pizza sauce nozzle.
Once pizza pies are rolling off the assembly line, it becomes possible to make extras for later. In 1950, a man named Joseph Bucci in Philadelphia filed what may be the first patent for frozen pizza. U.S Patent No. 2,668,117 for a “Method for Making Frozen Pizza” explains how to solve issues with quick-freezing pizza dough, including the need to eliminate from the dough excess moisture that “renders it soggy and unpalatable” by applying an “edible sealing agent” to prevent tomato sauce from permeating the dough when it bakes.
At its essence, Pizza is nothing more than bread, sauce, and topping. Each of these is subject to study by food scientists and engineers who work to improve various qualities. In early May 2021 Patent No. 10,993,453 was granted for “Dairy Product and Processes.” The patent discloses and claims a pasta filata cheese with a particular composition of moisture, non-fat solids, and specific mineral content. According to one claim, the cheese can be applied in a frozen and shredded form to a pizza. When the pizza is cooked the cheese “will produce all the desired functional effects” with good performance for stretch, blister color, and tenderness.
The Whole Pie
Some have decided that rather than improving parts of a pizza they would instead improve the entire pie. One famous example is Patent No. 4,661,361 for a “Method of Making a Pizza”, invented by members of the Mongiello family from Brooklyn, NY. The patent claims a method of making a pizza pie that includes the steps of putting “food portions” inside closed pockets of the dough, covering the rest of the pizza with sauce and cheese and then cooking the pizza. When Pizza Hut introduced its Stuffed Crust Pizza in 1995, the family sued claiming that damages over the life of the patent across Pizza Hut’s thousands of restaurants could exceed $1 billion. In 1999, the court ruled that Pizza Hut did not infringe because even if its completed pizza product resembled that of the plaintiff’s patent, the patent claims recited a method and Pizza Hut did not use that method.
Perhaps having learned their lesson, Pizza Hut itself later patented its own “System and Methods for Making a Pizza Pie having an Outer Cheese Portion” (Pat. Nos. 7,610,837 and 7,823,489). The patent actually is for a specialized cutting system that forms openings around the periphery of the dough and into which cheese can be placed.
Given the long popularity of pizza and of pizza takeout and delivery, it should be no surprise that there are many patents on different designs of pizza boxes. Patent No. 4,441,626, filed in 1981, discloses a classic cardboard box with venting but that also has a multi-layer bottom that is designed to absorb grease to prevent accumulation along the bottom of the pizza and trap it so the grease does not leak out through the bottom of the box. Patent 5,961,035 is for a “Designer pizza box with enhancements” in the form of a foldable box with at least 6 sides (plus top and bottom) while Patent No. 10,266,302 is for a “Tiered pizza box” that can carry two full pizzas at once. And if you want a pizza box solution for dining on the go without making a mess look no further than Patent No. 10,800,593, issued in October 2020. This patent discloses an ordinary-looking pizza box but where the lid has a perforated part on its edge that can be torn off to leave a U-Shaped section “to accommodate the neck of a user”. When the section is removed, a hungry pizza eater can sit with the box on their legs, open and facing outwards with the lid up against their chest acting as a bib.
Finally, let’s not forget about the plethora (OK, enough with the “p” words…) many gadgets and accessories that can be used with pizzas. A search will uncover dozens of patents on pizza trays, cutters, novelties, and the like. One useful item, disclosed in Patent No. 9,895,818, is a multi-function rotary cutter that can be used for cutting pizza and also cutting herbs. Since cutting a pizza is usually followed by lifting the slices, there is the solution offered in Patent No. 10,967,529, issued April, 2021, for a “Dual Scissor with Lifter”. The patented product has two scissors, one for each hand, and that can be used to cut both sides of wedge shaped slice at the same time. Adjustable size supports between the scissors allow the slice to then be immediately lifted out. And to make sure that all of the cuts are even, you can use the system disclosed in the very helpfully titled Patent 10,239,220 for a “Laser device battery powered, which shows the cutting path to get equal portions of a cake, pizza or similar food.”
While this discussion about pizza patents is intended to be fun, food tech is serious business. Technology for virtually all aspects of a food product, including novel formulations and chemistry, production, packaging and storage, and distribution can be very valuable. Business that are involved in developing any of these areas should routinely assess newly developed products and methods to identify any inventions that may be suitable for patenting. Patents can then be practiced in your own products, or otherwise monetized by licensing enforcement, or even sale.
If you are developing food tech-related products and have any questions about patenting or protecting other intellectual property, the attorneys Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman are available to help.
 Angelo Mongiello’s Children, LLC v. Pizza Hut, Inc., 70 F. Supp. 2d 196 (E.D.N.Y. 1999)