By Katie Ayoub
April 5, 2022
Pizza is baked into America’s national zeitgeist and rooted in its local communities, making it a surefire hit across all demographics. And although the comfort and craveability of pizza remain a constant, the category has never been more dynamic. The pandemic was a significant driver in recent changes here for a few reasons. Off-premise pizza served as savior, swooping in night after night to rescue families from delivery-choice dilemmas when indoor dining options were scarce or nil. Most everyone can agree on pizza, and it’s certainly a proven option in the to-go world. To gain share in this now very important off-premise market, pizzerias upped their game, and many other restaurants with the ability to add pizza to their go-to menu mix—or to spin off ghost kitchens specializing in pizza—seized that advantage. Competition, an engaged customer base and necessity fueled innovation. Anafre’s Pizza Pop-Up in Washington, D.C., offers a great example. Chef/owner Alfredo Solis pivoted his coastal Mexican restaurant to a Mexican-inspired pizzeria as a means of weathering the pandemic, offering both takeout and dine-in with trend-forward pizza options like El Sol Chicharrón, featuring slow-braised pork, guajillo sauce, Chihuahua cheese, cactus, onion and cilantro.
Another driving force behind today’s pizza innovation stems from enthusiastic pizza makers who got serious about their craft during quarantine days, tinkering with doughs, sauces and toppings at home and trying their hand at fashioning artisan pizzas. Some moved their creations into neighborhood pop-ups or food trucks and then kept the entrepreneurial spirit burning by carving out their own piece of the pizzeria business with brick-and-mortar restaurants. Although small in footprint, collectively they’re injecting a fresh energy of community spirit, passion for the segment, and keen exploration of flavor combinations and pizza styles.
Examples abound, including thriving restaurants like TnT Pizza in San Diego, which started life in the home kitchen of Kevin Gist, who, while laid off from his job at a New York-style pizzeria, started experimenting with Detroit-style pizzas. He first offered samples to friends, then sold them at a pop-up, and now menus them at TnT’s brick and mortar, which he co-owns. Its offerings include the Eggplant Parm Detroit, with eggplant, roasted red peppers, ricotta, “Detroit sauce” and breadcrumbs.
Of course, larger, established pizza concepts are innovating, too, reacting to evolving consumer behavior and market conditions. As restaurant brands navigate through this shifting landscape, and with the pizza category cycling through an incredible era of creativity, it’s an ideal time for a temperature check. A few savvy operators share their perspectives on sustaining pizza trends, operational learnings and the flavor combinations that inspire them.
Perhaps the most common theme in the modern pizza narrative is consumer expectations. They’re set high. Spoiled for choice, savvy customers are now also demanding new levels of accessibility. Over the last two years, speed of service and convenience in delivery, curbside and contactless ordering have moved into top priorities, so operational features that were once a luxury or bonus are now normative. In the pizza universe specifically, the defining factor is that the expectation of quality runs parallel to these convenience and speed of service expectations.
For us to compete with speed of service but give consumers the kind of pizza we think they really want, we had to work on improving kitchen flow, streamlining stations, developing labor workarounds and implementing smart technology. It’s allowed us to be very, very quick with a really good product. And that’s a rare combination in the pizza world.
—Matt Stanton, Mici Handcrafted Italian
Mici Handcrafted Italian, a Denver-based fast casual that specializes in New York-style pizza, wanted to dial up the convenience factor without trading down on the quality of its artisan pies. Jeff Miceli, founder and president of Mici, and Matt Stanton, partner and chief growth officer, made key operational innovations to tighten up ticket times. “Luckily for us, we’ve been doing this a long time, more than 18 years. Our New York-style pizza travels really well,” says Miceli. “The biggest change for us was a push toward convenience and speed,” says Stanton. The lightning-fast ovens that pervade the fast-casual space generally serve up Neapolitan-style or other thinner crust pizzas that require minimal wait times. “For us to compete with speed of service but give consumers the kind of pizza we think they really want, we had to work on improving kitchen flow, streamlining stations, developing labor workarounds and implementing smart technology,” says Stanton. “It’s allowed us to be very, very quick with a really good product. And that’s a rare combination in the pizza world.” Mici’s pizza options are Italian-inspired and family-oriented, and they include offerings like the Molto Carne, with hand-rolled, “family-recipe” sausage meatballs, nitrate-free pepperoni and mozzarella.
This movement toward the slice is driven by quality, passion and the technology that allows chefs to put out artisan pizza, even with limited kitchen space.
—Brad Kent, Blaze Pizza / Bagel + Slice
As the co-founder and chief culinary officer of Pasadena, Calif.-based Blaze Pizza, one of the fastest-growing chains in history, Brad Kent understands the balancing act of quality and speed of service. Freshly made dough, incredible customization and a 3-minute cook time rocketed Blaze into success years ago, but a perceptive read of its market keeps it in the spotlight. Kent has observed a few shifting behaviors among pizza consumers. “Blaze has seen a decline in the demand for its keto cauliflower crust and a greater demand for our high-rise crust. So, I think people are less concerned about diet overall,” he says. Kent also serves as chef/owner of Olio Wood Fired Pizzeria in Los Angeles. There, he’s seeing an uptick in pepperoni sales, perhaps mirroring the ’roni cup craze that has captured the hearts and minds of pizza lovers across the country. “I’m seeing more pepperoni orders because I think people today want more flavor, more fat, more comfort. Pizza offers that overall, but the selection of toppings is definitely skewing more toward indulgence than before.”
Playing To Your Audience
Chef and cookbook author Bill Kim offers real-time consumer research on flavor preferences, serving up pizza for both an urban market and a college campus. Chef Bill Kim’s Pizza & Parm Shop, originally launched as a ghost kitchen during the pandemic, menus Detroit-style pizza and chicken Parmesan sandwiches, currently with a pick-up/delivery location in Chicago plus an on-campus location at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., operated in partnership with Aramark, the college’s foodservice provider.
We are finding at the Purdue location that our guests want more traditional toppings like pepperoni and sausage. Our guests in Chicago expect something different, like the BBQ Chicken Katsu Pizza.
—Bill Kim, Chef Bill Kim’s Pizza & Parm Shop
The Chicago menu runs adventurous builds, like the BBQ Chicken Katsu Pizza with spicy Asian barbecue sauce and the Korean BBQ Ground Beef & Kimchi Pizza. “The flavors in that one are spicy, sweet and tangy,” says Kim. “And the barbecue sauce introduces the flavors of tamarind, pomegranate molasses, tomato, brown sugar and sesame. Kimchi adds texture, with its earthy, funky, rich and full-umami flavor.”
At Purdue, specialty slices include BBQ Chicken and Mushroom Ricotta, with three classics anchoring the menu: cheese, pepperoni and sausage. “We are finding at the Purdue location that our guests want more traditional toppings like pepperoni and sausage,” says Kim. “Our guests in Chicago expect something different, like the BBQ Chicken Katsu Pizza.”
Of all the pizza styles to menu, Kim chose Detroit-style, with its rectangular shape and frico edge, that craveable caramelized cheese crust. “I wanted both worlds of thin and thick, plus I wanted light and airy, so that is why I picked Detroit-style,” he says. He’s certainly not alone. The allure of crispy bottoms, frico crusts and airy middles is powerful. Detroit-style also travels and reheats well, making it particularly appealing for these times.
Two other rectangular pizzas are showing up on menus across the country, too: Sicilian (thick-crusted and pan-cooked, sometimes topped with strong-tasting cheeses) and Grandma Pizza (homestyle, thin pizza hailing from Long Island, N.Y.).
“Today, there’s this race to come up with the most beautiful frico on the edges of your square or rectangle slice,” says Blaze’s Kent, pointing to a big opportunity in enhancing craveability and modernizing pizza offerings.
The Slice Is Right
The classic slice ordered at the mall on a first date does not immediately trigger thoughts of leading-edge builds, but it’s worth taking another look. The slice is perhaps the pizza trend that serves up the most opportunity in menu development today. It offers portability, snackability, value and low commitment, all with the promise of high quality and great flavor.
As evidence, look to Sauce Pizzeria in New York, where each pizza slice is served with a side of “Grandmother’s Tomato Gravy” for dipping. Customers can order either a classic wedge or a square slice, and flavor options include trend-forward profiles like the Al Pastor, with tomato sauce, pineapple sauce, mozzarella, pecorino, roasted pork, pickled red onion, jalapeño and cilantro. At Corner Slice in the Gotham West Market, also in New York, pizza squares are on the menu, showcasing the craftsmanship that’s behind this trend. This site uses artisan flour to ensure a flavorful crust and ferments the dough for 60 hours, building both strength and flavor. Slices on offer include Tomato Pie, with tomato sauce, garlic, Sicilian oregano, pecorino and Grana, and White Pie, with seasoned ricotta, fresh mozzarella, black pepper, parsley, pecorino and Grana.
“I think that more pizza slice places are going to come into the market,” says Kent. “And I think that the trend is going to continue for the next five-ish years or so. This movement toward the slice is driven by quality, passion and the technology that allows chefs to put out artisan pizza, even with limited kitchen space.” Kent’s banking on the pizza slice’s popularity, opening Bagel + Slice this year, a true-to-its-name pizza-by-the-slice and bagel shop, next to Occidental College in Los Angeles. Menu items run the gamut, from a slice of pepperoni pie to one with yellow teardrop tomatoes and basil, along with vodka-cashew cream and spicy tomato sauce.
Technology is helping the cause here, says Kent, giving chefs the ability to answer today’s demand for wood-fired quality with an electric oven. “You can create the high quality of a wood-fired pizza with as much nuanced heat intensity that a chef would appreciate,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s a slice, but it’s an upgraded slice. Giving diners the best possible pizza experience is what it’s all about.”