Diversity & Inclusion

Women in IP case study

Carmela Vitale – Inventor of the pizza saver

To celebrate World Intellectual Property Day, which this year recognises female inventors, I wanted to tell the curious lesser-known story of one-time inventor and patentee, Carmela Vitale. Chances are you have never heard of her, but I am almost certain you have benefited from her ground-breaking invention.

A Slice of History

Carmela was born in 1937. By the early 1980’s she was living in Long Island, New York. Carmela was a mother and, one assumes, her family were occasionally treated to takeaway New York-style pizzas. Carmela became frustrated that when the pizza arrived, the cardboard take-out boxes had become weakened due to the steam from the hot pizza. The lids would often collapse and end up sticking to the pizza toppings, removing them altogether when the lid was opened. You may be familiar with this irritation.

Carmela decided to do something about it. Carmela started inventing and in 1983 she filed a US patent application with the title “PACKAGE SAVER”. The solution was to provide a small, three legged frame to stand on the centre of the pizza to support the lid of the box. The legs narrowed to a point causing minimal damage to the pizza, and using three legs meant the frame was always stable, à la a milking stool. The package saver (or pizza saver) was also formed from a high temperature resistant thermosetting plastic so it remained sturdy, even on a hot pizza.

The application was granted two years later as US Patent Number 4,498,586.

This is where the story becomes a little less clear. Some sources (here) claim Carmela licenced this patent to a large plastics manufacture. Others claim she ultimately benefited very little from the invention (here). We do know that the patent expired in 1993 because of failure to pay renewal fees, opening the market to copy-cat pizza savers. However it happened, the pizza saver became an instant hit and millions of pizzas have since been saved by Carmela’s elegant invention. The pizza saver has become so iconic that in 2020, IKEA and Pizza Hut together launched the ‘Säva’ table modelled on the pizza saver (here).

Other inventors quickly realised Carmela was onto something and began further refining the concept. In 1995, fellow female pizza pioneer Irene Marotta, also of New York state, filed a patent application directed to a “DETACHABLE LID SUPPORT WITHIN A FOOD SERVER”. The invention combined a pizza saver and a disposable serving utensil. The patent was granted as US Patent Number 5,600,889.

Pizza Verde

A number of my previous blogs have highlighted the importance of reducing plastic waste (for example here and here). As innovative as Carmela and Irene’s pizza accessories are, they do require single use plastic. But today, innovators are working to produce more sustainable solutions to Carmela’s pizza problem.

Indian based packaging company ‘Ventit’ has developed what it calls “the world’s first breathing pizza box” (here). The lid of the box, described in US 8,662,378 B2, includes two spaced apart layers of cardboard, each layer including a series of ventilation holes. The ventilation holes in the first layer are not aligned with those in the second layer. This allows steam to escape the box while retaining as much heat as possible. This not only prevents the lid of the box from bowing, but also helps to keep the pizza crust crunchy.

Others are working to remove the cardboard altogether. Californian technology company ‘Zume’ uses moulded plant fibres, such as sugarcane or bamboo, making pizza containers which are completely biodegradable. The lid of the box is domed and includes a series of flanges providing strength, preventing the lid from collapsing onto the pizza. The base of the box incorporates a series of ridges which both strengthen the base and allow moisture to escape from under the pizza, keeping the pizza base nice and crisp. In 2019, Zume partnered with Pizza Hut to provide the packaging for the “Garden Specialty Pizza” in a trial in Phoenix, Arizona (here). Pleasingly Zume’s 2020 patent, US 10,737,867 B2 cites Carmela’s earlier work, referring to pizza savers as those “ubiquitous pedestals” – the impact of Carmela’s invention is still being felt today.

Unsung Heroines

Drawing attention to such a seemingly low-impact invention may appear patronising on World International Property Day.  Curie, Franklin, Hodgkin; there are countless pioneering women who are perhaps more deserving of recognition, and I’m sure other articles will do just that. But Carmela’s story is important because of how little recognition she has been afforded for something which is so completely ubiquitous. Her genius has been taken for granted and it shouldn’t be, especially not today as we celebrate the can-do attitude of women inventors. One wonders if we would know more about the pizza saver if it had instead been conceived by Mr Vitale.

So next time you enjoy a takeaway pizza, and the mozzarella doesn’t end up smeared across the lid, spare a thought for Carmela Vitale, the unsung heroine of your Saturday night takeaway.

Written by Adam Kelvey, CIPA Fellow.

Date Published: 26 April 2023

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