A hot niche

Pennsylvania's tiny anthracite coal industry finds a specialty: pizza oven fuel

Everything except the eggplant at Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza in Cranberry is cooked by coal. The restaurant ceiling is lightly charred with coal dust. Sometimes even the tables have a thin layer of Pennsylvania anthracite on them. 

In the morning, when the oven that has been burning since February 2011 is packed with its daily 300 pounds of shiny, hard coal, you can smell it in the parking lot.

Every day, Marcelino Ibarra reinvigorates the oven with eight more bags of the coal mined in eastern Pennsylvania and nowhere else in the U.S.

Anthracite burns hot — between 800 degrees and 900 degrees Fahrenheit. It can cook a pizza in five minutes and must never be allowed to extinguish because of the cost and time of reigniting. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two days when the pizza restaurant is closed, Mr. Ibarra still comes in to feed the oven.

A dozen bags of Blaschak Coal are wedged next to the oven, representing a tiny but expanding market segment for the company from Mahanoy City in Schuylkill County.

Pizza won’t save anthracite coal. “You can’t hang your hat on that,” said Greg Driscoll, Blaschak’s president. 

But it’s a growing slice of the company’s business and any growth in coal demand these days is a big deal.

Having weathered a century-long decline in demand, the tiny anthracite industry has diversified into a recently stable and, even more recently, growing segment of the coal business.

Of all the coal types, anthracite has the most carbon and the least sulfur and ash, so it burns hotter and cleaner and continues to be a residential heating option. It is also used in steel making. Those two markets make up the majority of Blaschak’s business.

Sugar beet refining, water treatment, and pizza fill in the rest. 

Blaschak is getting ready to open its fifth mine. With 370,000 tons sold last year, it is one of the larger mining companies in the industry mostly made up of small operators remining previously tapped coal deposits and yielding between 10,000 and 100,000 tons annually.  

In the past several years, Mr. Driscoll estimates there has been close to $300 million in new investment in anthracite and he thinks there could be enough demand in the market to quadruple current production in the U.S.

“The reserves are there, the market is there,” said Duane Feagley, executive director of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Council. 

Growth will depend on whether U.S. anthracite producers can compete with miners in Eastern Europe and southeast Asia. “Everything is done by pricing,” Mr. Feagley said.

The big decline

Last week, Mr. Driscoll chronicled eight decades of decline at Platts Coal Marketing Days, a gathering of bituminous coal producers and buyers held in Pittsburgh. He gave a kind of “how not to” presentation, cautioning the free-falling bituminous industry to avoid fads and artificial markets, and to brace for change.

In 1917, at the industry’s peak, the U.S. produced about 100 millions tons of anthracite. In 2014, production dwindled to a mere 2.5 million tons.

The more popular variety by far is bituminous coal, which is mined in Appalachia and in the western part of the country. It is softer, less energy-packed, and burns with more emissions, and is the kind used in power plants in the U.S. as well as in steel making. Bituminous made up 52 million of the 54 million short tons produced in Pennsylvania in 2013, the latest data available from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The other two million came from anthracite. 

World War I gave anthracite its glory days, with demand soaring for weapons and machinery. The second world war helped as well, Mr. Driscoll said, but the boosts came and went. 

State politicians tried to save the industry. They mandated the use of anthracite to heat state buildings and prisons, and pushed through legislation that required all U.S. military bases abroad to use Pennsylvania anthracite for heating.

Even today, 9,000 tons of Pennsylvania coal is shipped to a base in Kaiserslautern, Germany, each year in a program that does little to prop U.S. anthracite but elicits ire in Congress each time it is reauthorized. 

“Things that started out doing good things for the industry have come today to be an albatross,” Mr. Driscoll said.

“Anthracite fueled the industrial revolution and two world wars,” he said. “Big events foster growth but they’re temporary. Don’t make them your plan.”

“Just a taste”

That’s why in the mid 2000s, Blaschak went after the tiny coal-fired pizza market. The company noticed that chains were beginning to take an interest in coal-fired preparation.

Coal-fired pizza parlors are said to have started in New York City about a century ago, where the more compact and longer burning fuel competed favorably against traditional wood.

For decades, coal-kissed pies could be found around the New York City area until, about a decade ago, they became trendy across the nation. As the new pizza makers began to grow, Blaschak secured a contract with Anthony’s, a Florida-based chain with 49 restaurants across the country that’s co-owned by Pittsburgh’s native son and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.

Pizza demand comprises less than 4 percent of Blaschak’s annual sales, which in 2014 were 374,000 tons. But the market is growing and hungry.

It’s not much — “just a taste,” Mr. Feagley said.

Still, even on holidays, the ovens are always burning.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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