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Engineering Alum Visits White House to Talk Pizza, Pride

Al Contarino’s KettlePizza Represents Massachusetts at ‘Made in America’ Product Showcase

Al Contarino and George Peters at the White House Photo by courtesy
Engineering alum Al Contarino, left, visits the White House with KettlePizza co-founder George Peters for the 'Made in America' product showcase.

08/22/2019
By Ed Brennen

An idea that began in his backyard barn in Boxford has taken alum Al Contarino ’92 all the way to the White House.

KettlePizza, a company co-founded by Contarino in 2010 that makes stainless-steel inserts to convert gas or charcoal grills into backyard pizza ovens, was invited to represent Massachusetts at the third annual “Made in America” product showcase in Washington, D.C., this summer.

One business from each state whose products are “all or nearly all” made in the United States was invited to display its wares for President Trump, members of his Cabinet and members of Congress at a trade show-style event held in the East Wing and on the White House lawn.
 
“It was surreal to be there, but it was mainly an honor to be recognized for creating American jobs where I can,” says Contarino, who attended the event with KettlePizza co-founder George Peters. They brought a special Gas Pro KettlePizza oven kit adorned with the presidential seal that they gave to staff “so they can cook KettlePizzas at the White House.”

Contarino, who earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from the Francis College of Engineering, spoke with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross about his company and how they make their products, and with Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who “seemed very interested in pizza.”
Al Contarino and George Peters outside the White House Photo by courtesy
When Al Contarino, left, received a call from the President's office saying that KettlePizza had been chosen to represent Massachusetts at the White House, he initially thought it was a joke.

While Trump did not make the rounds during the showcase (he walked through the night before, according to aides), he did hold a press conference on the White House lawn afterward that Contarino and the other business owners attended.

KettlePizza is headquartered in North Andover, where it has a showroom and warehouse space for assembly and distribution that employs a dozen full- and part-time workers.

“I always thought it was important to make products here,” says Contarino, who notes that 98 percent of the materials used to make KettlePizza kits are produced domestically.

Some of the metal parts are machined at Sparton Technology Corp. in Hudson, N.H., where Contarino’s friend and fellow industrial technology alum, Scott Breton ’92, is vice president. 
 
“Starting and running a small business is hard enough,” Contarino says. “Add to that the challenge of trying to source American-made components whenever possible makes it all the more difficult.”

Like most inventions, KettlePizza was borne out of necessity.
Al Contarino demonstrates the KettlePizza product Photo by Ed Brennen
Al Contarino demonstrates the KettlePizza oven kit at the company's showroom in North Andover.

“I’ve always been a grill guy, but I found it really hard to cook pizza on the grill because you lose all the heat when you lift up the lid,” says Contarino, a lifelong tinkerer and inventor who went to work on a solution in his backyard barn. 

“The trick to pizza is hot and fast. We get the grill up to 900 degrees so you’re cooking a pizza in three minutes. If you’re into pizza, it’s a great alternative to spending thousands of dollars on a pizza oven.”

Business has heated up through the years. Most of their sales are online but the products are also found in Crate & Barrel and local hardware stores.

“It’s a challenging market, but I love having my own business,” says Contarino, who has been thinking of ways to turn food into a business since as far back as middle school.

“I would walk to the five-and-dime store in downtown Andover and get all those different 10-cent candies – the boxes of Mike and Ikes and the Jolly Rancher sticks – and then sell them for a quarter at school. My whole locker was full of candy,” recalls Contarino, who even kept track of his sales on his family’s Apple computer by learning to use VisiCalc, the first-ever spreadsheet program. 

Conatrino’s love of pizza goes back to his earliest childhood memories, as his family would always cook pizza on Christmas Eve. “It was a tradition ever since I was a baby,” says Contarino, who has learned a lot about cooking a good pizza while developing his grill products.

“The pizza you get at any of the pizza places around here is not real pizza,” he says. “What a real pizza person is looking for is ‘leoparding,’ the little black spots on the bottom and around the crust. That’s important for a really great pizza.”

As a pizza aficionado, Contarino is always happy to hear a good review from professional chefs who use KettlePizza. Now, the next review just might come from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.