Promoting Pizza’s Popularity

According to Mintel, an independent provider of market research, sales at the 16 leading pizza restaurants grew only 1.2% into 2008 to $16.6 billion. Among the challenges facing pizza providers is the public’s desire for healthier products as opposed to “high-calorie, high-fat pizza offerings and limited menu variety, which may be more of a turn-off at a time when health awareness is on the upswing,” said Joanna Gueller, Mintel spokesperson.

Two trends prevalent today are providing the best flavors and making the product healthier, according to Peter Reinhart, a baking instructor at Johnson & Wales University in North Carolina, and a food product developer for several restaurant brands.

There is a movement toward more whole grains and less salt and fat. “Of course, salt and fat make the flavor so good,” said Reinhart, who is also the author of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza.

Using whole grain flour for pizza crusts and building more fiber into the dough are two things pizza producers are doing to meet customers’ health demands. One major pizza chain, Reinhart noted, is now adding herbs to its pizza dough, giving it a new twist. “But you are not going to get a vitamin benefit from a couple of herbs in your dough,” he said.

Last year, Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, the Canastota, N.Y. -based retailer with approximately 80 stores, offered customers the option of choosing a whole wheat crust for their pizza. “It was interesting and did well,” said Jack Cushman, the chain’s vice president of foodservice.

While the whole wheat crust is not on the chain’s current menu, Nice N Easy continues investigating innovative options. Currently, the company is working with manufacturers to develop a flat crust pizza that creates no extra labor for store employees. “Obviously, in a c-store environment, you can’t do things like you can in a pizza shop,” said Cushman. “You don’t have the room.”

Top It Off
Moving beyond traditional pepperoni and ground beef toppings is one way to provide appealing menu choices. “Obviously, interesting cheeses are easy, and you can buy a lot of them pre-shredded,” said Aaron Noveshen, founder of The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco foodservice consultancy that has helped c-store chains develop proprietary products.

Niveshen is a fan of precooked meats, such as oven-roasted chicken that has been frozen and then thawed at the store. “It takes the hassle out of  it,” he said of pizza construction. He also advocates using jazzed-up versions of common ingredients. “Take familiar items, like sausage, and go with something different, like chicken apple sausage,” he suggested. ”You get a more interesting flavor and no additional labor.”

Some retailers are promoting specialty pizzas with a global influence, said Gueller, such as Mediterranean-inspired pies, featuring spiced grilled chicken and mozzarella cheese and then crowned with a chilled Greek salad of cucumbers, red onions, fresh tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and a lemon-herb vinaigrette.

“Almost anything can go on top of a pizza and be really good,” said Reinhart. “Always remember the flavor rule—flavor rules. Flavor trumps health. It trumps everything. People want to eat healthy, but in the end, they want to eat what they like.”

Nice N Easy knows that taste is crucial and is currently experimenting with a macaroni and cheese pizza sprinkled with bacon bits. “We’re getting into the comfort food wave,” said Cushman. “We try to do something new and interesting every quarter.”

“My Pizza”
Giving customers the option to create their own pizza topping is important today. For example, pizza providers like Hot Stuff, Piccadilly and Hunt Bros. allow customers to design their own pies by adding as many toppings as they like.

Consumers looking for that better-for-you meal can select several veggie toppings and a thin crust. The made-to-order pies are ready to go in less than 10 minutes, making it more convenient than delivered pizza, which takes 30 minutes, Cushman said.

Typical c-store programs include traditional pizzas and limited-run flavors each year, such as Hunt Bros., which is currently selling buffalo chicken pizzas enhanced with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

Different Shapes
Not every pizza is round. In fact, Niveshen believes the hand-finished look of the irregular, artisan-style pizza is the way to go in 2010, “especially when it is topped with fresh, bright tomato sauce not heavy, herby sweet sauce,” he said.

Not every pizza is full-sized either. At ampm convenience stores, with 900 locations in five Western states, busy customers can pick up a 6.5-inch, single-serve pizza that is made in advance and kept hot in anticipation of their arrival. Introduced in early March, the personal pizza is available in either four-cheese flavor or pepperoni at a retail price of $1.59.

“It’s done very well, and we’ve seen good repeat purchase,” said Tom Terlecky, senior category manager for ampm. “It’s for the person who wants immediately consumable food on the go, and that’s our customer.” Already ampm is looking at additional toppings and flavor options.

Rutter’s Farm Stores, the Pennsylvania-based chain with 56 locations, has been steadily phasing out traditional round pies for the past few years and only a few locations still offer them.

“It is very difficult to compete with heavy discounting,” said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s, referring to the price war now underway among pizza delivery chains whose margins are traditionally low. “We have an extensive food program. Discounting doesn’t serve our purpose.”

Instead of pizza, customers can pick up a stromboli ready-to-go or made-to-order with Rutter’s fresh, hand-stretched dough. Weiner describes it as “a folded-over pizza” that has been filled with meats and cheese and then baked in a TurboChef oven. “Basically, it’s a pocket food,” he said. “It’s easy to eat while driving.”

Currently, stores offer a trio of breakfast strombolis and several lunch items, including strombolis filled with meatballs or Philly cheese steak.  “If a customer wants a specific combination, it can be made to order,” Weiner said.

As a bonus for Rutter’s, the stromboli beats pizza when it comes to being held hot.  “Open-top food cools faster and the cheese congeals,” he added. “People like our product. It’s user friendly.”

No matter what form it takes—thick or thin, flat or folded—pizza will continue to be a staple of the American diet. “Kids love pizza,” said Niveshen. “People will eat their childhood foods for the rest of their lives.”

“Pizza is really a flavor delivery system,” said Reinhart. “There is no such thing as bad pizza.” CSD

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