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Pizza On Fire

Classic combinations like tomato, basil and mozzarella hold strong appeal, while use of old-country ovens — brick, wood-fired and stone hearth — take pizza to a higher level. Photo courtesy of BelGioioso CHEESE INC. Trends like high-end toppings and authentic preparations fuel the craveability of pizza

By Rita Negrete

American consumers increasingly view pizza as their default “go-to” food when they don’t feel like cooking — an easy, convenient and affordable meal solution that will appeal to an entire group or family. Pizza is a serious “crave” food, and when consumers are in the mood for it, nothing else will do. When asked to name the top factors behind their choice of pizza on their most recent pizza occasion, 45 percent of consumers told Technomic that cravings drove them to choose pizza over anything else.

Two years ago, a quarter of American consumers were eating pizza from a restaurant once a week or more. Now, four out of 10 do so, according to Technomic’s latest Pizza Consumer Trend Report. Fully 68 percent of consumers now order carryout pizza once a month or more, and 45 percent say they order pizza for dine-in at least monthly.

There are important factors at work on the demand side. Some Americans still feeling the economic pinch are attracted to pizza chains’ special offers, as well as convenient, low-cost but high-quality take-and-bake and frozen pizza options. Absolute low price has been a tried-and-true strategy for a number of pizza chains. At the same time, other consumers are feeling more confident about their economic situation and are now trading up to higher-quality pizza restaurants and products. The data suggests that pizza establishments have room to expand their menus with innovative and themed pizzas. A third of consumers now say they are interested in trying pizza with highly innovative toppings and themed pizzas or regional options, such as Philly cheesesteak or Buffalo chicken pizza.

The enormous growth in pizza consumption can also be attributed in part to developments on the supply side. Non-pizza-specific restaurants are claiming an increasingly important share of the market: 37 percent of consumers order pizza from non-pizza restaurants at least once a month. To stay ahead of this new competition, pizza category players have revamped their menus to feature more-innovative specialty pizzas, gourmet ingredients, artisan preparations and a clear value message to help drive traffic and sales.

A greater familiarity with global cuisines is leading some consumers to expect authentic ingredient combinations for pizza. Operators are answering this call with pizzas that recall traditional Italian preparation methods. These offerings may drill down from a general “Italian” description to reflect regional positioning, such as pizzas described as Neapolitan, Sicilian or Tuscan.

Particularly hot are Neapolitan-style pizzas, typified by a thin crust and simple toppings that are quick-cooked in an ultra-hot oven. Innovative emerging brands are making their mark on the pizza category. Here are some examples of regional Italian pizzas seen on menus within the past year:

> Napoletana Wood-Fire Pizza — features salt-packed anchovies, garlic, oregano and pecorino cheese, finished in an oak-fire oven — Campiello, Minneapolis-based
> Sicilian Rustic Neapolitan Pizza — with fennel sausage, Romano and ricotta cheeses, roasted cremini mushrooms, fresh basil and a housemade sauce  — Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza, San Diego-based
> Genovese Pizza — with pesto sauce, Canadian bacon, artichoke hearts, tomato and mozzarella — Gambino’s Pizza, Wichita, Kan.-based
> Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggie Artisan Pizza — topped with garlic-Parmesan sauce, salami, spinach, onions, oregano and roasted red and banana peppers — Domino’s Pizza

Among the new artisan offerings from Domino’s is this Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggie Pizza with garlic-Parmesan sauce, spinach, onions, oregano and roasted peppers. Photo courtesy of domino’s pizza. ALL ABOUT THE OVEN
Many consumers are in pursuit of a different kind of pizza experience from the one offered by price-point-driven limited-service restaurant (LSR) chains. Instead of searching for the quickest, cheapest and most convenient options, these diners look for a more gourmet experience. There’s an abundance of pizza options on the American dining scene, including those from emerging concepts that focus on providing a high-quality offering in return for a premium price. Many of these pizza concepts emphasize the use of brick ovens, stone hearths and wood or coal fires. Any operation that serves pizza can add premium ingredients, but a pizza baked in a wood-burning or brick-lined oven is labor-intensive, and its preparation requires a certain amount of training and expertise. The end result is a lighter, crisper and bubblier crust and another layer of flavor added to the pizza — a lightly charred, smoky or woodsy taste.

The combination of a unique dining experience (wood, coal and brick ovens are often a focal point of these concept’s interior design and ambiance), a high-quality, premium product, and an expert cooking technique helps justify higher price points.

> Grimaldi’s, New York City’s legendary pizza brand, claims its coal-fired cooking method gives its pizza a smoky flavor that gas, convection or wood ovens cannot.
> Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza, based in Los Gatos, Calif., offers two types of crusts, California-style and Italian-style, both of which are baked in a wood-fired oven at 600 degrees.
> Farrelli’s Wood-Fire Pizza in Washington state uses an applewood-fired oven to enrich its pizza with a natural wood flavor.
> Punch Neapolitan Pizza of Minnesota takes authenticity seriously, flying in ingredients weekly from Italy, and makes its true-to-Naples pizzas in an 800-degree wood-fired oven.

For LSR chains, Technomic’s MenuMonitor data reveals that thin, crisp, stuffed, deep-dish and hand-tossed pizza crusts are the most prevalent. Full-service restaurant (FSR) menus largely promote pizza crusts that are thin, of the flatbread variety, wheat, deep-dish or those described as “crisp.”

Although hand-tossed and deep-dish pizzas remain consumer favorites, interest in flatbread pizza and cheese-stuffed pizza crusts have increased over the past two years. One of the many chains that has responded to the demand for ever-more-elaborate stuffed crusts is Ohio-based East of Chicago Pizza, which rolled out a Loaded Crust that features pepperoni and the chain’s signature cheese blend baked into a ring around the outer edge of the dough.

There also continues to be other news in crusts, particularly rollouts of gluten-free and whole-grain versions. Two out of five consumers say they would like more pizza restaurants to offer healthier components such as whole-wheat crusts, and operators seem to be listening. Recent new items include:

> Stevi B’s Pizza Buffet, based in Atlanta, added a whole-wheat pizza crust with more than 50 percent more fiber than a traditional crust.
> Russo’s New York Pizzeria added gluten-free pizzas to its menu and is rolling out a new line of six gluten-free pizzas at grocery stores. The Houston-based pizzeria’s vegan pizza crust is made with rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch, extra-virgin olive oil, honey and Italian seasonings.
> Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream Parlor, from Bettendorf, Iowa, is offering two new crust options — a gluten-free crust and a multigrain crust made with nine whole grains.
> Domino’s Pizza recently became the first national pizza delivery chain to launch a gluten-free crust, although the chain is taking precautions and recommending this as an option for those with only mild gluten sensitivities.

Restaurant operators have discovered that easily adaptable foods like burgers, sandwiches, stir-fries and pizzas are ideal ways to add customization to menus. Traditional pizza toppings such as pepperoni, sausage, peppers and mushrooms remain popular, and nearly half of consumers say they typically get the same order every time they purchase pizza from a restaurant. But there is also constant ferment, particularly in limited-time offerings. In particular, combo-meat varieties stand out as growth areas, particularly at LSRs. Some recent examples include:

> Five Sausage Pizza — topped with chorizo sausage, pork sausage, mild and spicy sausage and mozzarella — Papa John’s
> The Sicilian Pizza — salami, pepperoni, spicy Italian sausage, red onions, fresh basil and roasted garlic — Garlic Jim’s Famous Gourmet Pizza, Everett, Wash.-based
> Ricco Pizza — tomato sauce topped with Fra’Mani Italian sausage, Zoe’s Meats spicy salami and bacon, Belfiore mozzarella and roasted cremini mushrooms — Pasta Pomodoro, San Francisco-based

Chicken has become a
go-to protein option, starring atop pizzas like Florida-based Pizza Fusion’s barbecue chicken pizza, along with roasted red onion, garlic, basil, mozzarella, provolone and Parmesan. Photo courtesy of pizza fusion. In line with the recent bacon-mania, it’s no surprise that bacon-topped pizzas figure prominently on both limited- and full-service menus. Some of the more creative include:

> Bacon Leek Pizza — with bacon, leeks, breadcrumbs, mozzarella, white cheddar and arugula on an olive-oil crust  — Pagliacci Pizza, Seattle-based
> Mac ’n Cheese Pizza — mozzarella and blue cheeses, applewood-smoked bacon, macaroni and cheese and Italian breadcrumbs — Stacked: Food Well Built, Newport Beach, Calif.-based
> Savory Bacon & Goat Cheese Pizza — bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted onions, spinach and crumbled goat cheese — Pandini’s, Gaithersburg, Md.-based
> Apple-Bacon-Gang Craft Pizza — bacon, sausage, apples, cheddar, provolone and signature sauce  — Ledo Pizza, Annapolis, Md.-based

Chicken’s adaptability contributes to its widespread use, largely due to barbecue and Buffalo chicken varieties. Recent innovations in chicken-topped pizzas include:

> Mexican Pizza — wood-fired white pizza with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeños, mozzarella, cheddar and salsa  — Arizona Pizza Co., Lenox, Mass.-based
> Get Your Greek On Pizza — basil pesto sauce, mozzarella and feta cheeses, grilled chicken breast, sun-dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives — Stacked: Food Well Built
> Grill-Fired Autumn Squash Pizza — with applewood-smoked bacon, caramelized onions, basil pesto, pine nuts, mozzarella and fontina cheese, with a balsamic glaze — Weber Grill Restaurant, Chicago-based

But it’s not all about the meat. There has also been growth in toppings that focus on less common veggies — including, of all things, potatoes.

> Chicken Rosemary Primo Pizza —featuring vinaigrette-marinated chicken, rosemary-and-garlic-roasted potatoes, red onions, parsley, and mozzarella and kasseri cheeses — Pagliacci Pizza
> Grilled Chicken & Roasted Potato Pizza —lemon, rosemary and garlic butter topped with grilled chicken, roasted potatoes and Belfiore mozzarella  — Pasta Pomodoro
> Mojo Supreme Pizza — Shakey’s crispy Mojo Potatoes, melted cheddar, mozzarella, crispy bacon, green onions, black olives, salsa and sour cream atop original thin-crust pizza — Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, Alhambra, Calif.-based

Fruits and fruit flavorings are also being used to add distinctive sweet-spicy flavors to pizza. For example:

> California Pulled-Pork Pizza — slow-smoked pulled pork, red grapes, olive oil and arugula, finished with Trail Dust pizza topper — Pizza Ranch, Orange City, Iowa-based
> Cranberry-Teriyaki Butternut Squash Pizza — roasted butternut squash, ricotta and spinach with cranberry-teriyaki glaze  — Not Your Average Joe’s, Middleboro, Mass.-based
> White Pizza — lemon-pepper cream sauce topped with ricotta, Asiago, mozzarella and Romano cheese, brick-oven baked — Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant, Northborough, Mass.-based

There’s every reason to believe the upward trend in consumption of restaurant pizza will continue. As pizza consumers continue to weigh the value equation with quality as well as price in mind, expect artisan components, regional Italian preparations and wood-fired cooking to continue to gain ground.

Technomic’s MenuMonitor data shows that two pizza categories stand out as growth avenues, especially at LSRs — combo-meat varieties and calzone-style stuffed pizzas (which grew in incidence by about 50 percent over the past two years).

What’s next for pizza in foodservice? The fast-casual subsegment is ripe for expansion of pizza concepts. Look for service formats built around the customization of high-quality pizza ingredients to be a new growth model for the pizza category.


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