The Pizza Proposition

Staying one step ahead in a competitive marketplace requires planning, knowing your customers and understanding what opportunities exist in the marketplace.

Pat Pape, Contributing Editor.

Everyone loves pizza. It’s convenient, tasty and usually a good value for the money.

“It’s easy, agreeable to all and enjoyable,” said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for NPD Group. And it’s a terrific way to “feed everybody with fewer items.”

In fact, 97% of U.S. adults eat pizza, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research firm. But today’s $40 billion pizza industry is crowded and competitive. Because of the ongoing economic recession, many pizza restaurants have seen sales drop as rivals discount products to entice customers. And this isn’t necessarily good for those customers, who are encountering a large number of almost identical offers, including indistinguishable pizza menus and discount coupons.

Stand Out From the Crowd
Aaron Noveshen is founder of The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco-based foodservice consultancy that creates business strategies for restaurants and food companies in order to maximize profits. He believes anyone selling pizza in the current market must take steps to be distinctive.

“Today, it’s less about filling your gut with dough and more about filling your mouth with flavor,” he said. “It’s about premiumizing the product.”

Noveshen advocates using as many fresh ingredients as possible and letting customers know about it. “People don’t want a lot of processed food,” said Noveshen. “There has been a lot of poor quality in the pizza space because there is a price war going on there. But people want to know what is in their food. Showing them that things are real is important. If you have display shelves, show the ingredients.”

To move away from what Noveshen described as “generic-looking pizza,” operators can use slices of mozzarella instead of shredded cheese and an irregular-shaped crust with an artisan appearance instead of one that is perfectly round. This livens up the menu.

“There is also the movement toward wild flavors, which goes beyond the traditional Italian toppings and takes it to the next level,” he said, pointing to pizzerias that cover their crusts with artichokes, chorizo, chicken and arugula.

In general, consumers want healthier food options, and some pizza producers have played with the better-for-you concept by creating whole wheat and multigrain crusts. Noveshen is not overly impressed. “When you’re going for pizza, you’re going for something indulgent anyway,” he said.

No matter what the crust is made from or topped with, each pizza must be handled properly to ensure that it satisfies when the customer takes that first bite. “It’s hard for pizza to live well over an hour without reheating it,” Noveshen added. “Some dough lasts longer, but once you get past an hour, the moisture starts to migrate and you lose crispness.”

Pizza in Cones
Novelty is one way to attract shoppers, and pizza cones are an innovative offering in the pizza channel. Pizza cones, which look similar to a wrap, are designed to be a more portable, less messy fast food. Traditional ingredients in a cone of pizza dough have been offered by a smattering of restaurants over the past few years. From the convenience point of view, a pizza cone can be held in one hand and a steering wheel can be operated in the other.

Recently, Little Caesars restaurants became the first chain to make pizza cones available on a nationwide scale. The company offers them as part of a Pizza Kit Fundraising Program to be sold by non-profit groups, such as schools, churches and sports teams. Presently, the cones are available only as a fundraising item and are not available in Little Caesars restaurants.

Cono Italiano Inc. of New Jersey has introduced the “pizza cono,” a grab-and-go pizza in a cone made of flaky, proprietary dough. The cones transport breakfast (eggs and cheese), salads, sandwich combinations or desserts and can be heated in conventional ovens, microwaves or TurboChef equipment. Currently, the product is sold at several convenience outlets in New Jersey.

Stone-Slab Success
The five Save Time convenience stores in Jackson County, Mich., haven’t consulted with The Culinary Edge, but Noveshen would no doubt give them two thumbs up for their pizzas. Each one is made to order from fresh ingredients, including homemade dough and blended cheeses, and then cooked for seven minutes in a stone-slab pizza oven that operates on natural gas.

“It’s a real, regular, big stone-slab oven,” said Kris Mullikin, general manager of Save Time stores. “What is unusual about our process is that we do everything from scratch.”

Save Time uses proprietary recipes that the chain’s owner created more than 20 years ago and eschews processed ingredients.

“We get raw meats and season and cook them. We receive blocks of cheese, and we cut them up and mix them,” Mullikin said. “Our dough is traditional and hand-tossed. Our sauce and dough are made from scratch every day. In my opinion, this makes it more authentic and less of a cookie-cutter pizza.”

Save Time doesn’t deliver, but that’s not a problem. Many customers are willing to drive across town to purchase their pies. “We have a following,” she said.

Promoting Pizza
Followings don’t happen without effort, even if your pizza is perfect. Promotions and advertising are mandatory tools for every successful pizza operation.

To remind shoppers about Save Time pizza, Mullikin distributes coupons at various points throughout the year, such as customer appreciation day. The coupon typically gives customers $1 off their next pizza or a complimentary order of bread sticks when they purchase a pizza.

“It sounds strange, but people in this area like the Yellow Pages phone book, which has coupons,” Mullikin said. “A lot of times, I will advertise in smaller, local newspapers, and we have a Website. I sometimes put a coupon there.”

She also advertises with nearby schools to promote the stores’ pizza program. “It’s a way we can support education,” she said.
Ben Johnson, director of foodservice at the 57-store Quickway chain based in Binghamton, N.Y., also uses its Quickway’s pizza program to back area schools. The stores allow schools to order multiple pizzas that are then sold by the slice at sporting event concession stands. “We give them a deal, and they allow us to put up table tent advertising,” he said.

In Upstate New York, the pizza business is fierce. Quickway drives sales by offering high-value promotions. For example, a lunchtime combo, including two slices of pizza and a fountain drink, sells for $2.99. In the evenings, customers can purchase a 16-inch cheese pizza for $5.99. “Nowadays everybody is so busy,” Johnson said. “Here, mom can get a pizza and feed the whole crew.”

Despite the discount on cheese pizza, Quickway customers’ favorite pizza is buffalo chicken. “For this area, it’s a very popular item,” he said.

Pizza Futures
Industry observers predict the pizza business will continue to be impacted by U.S. economic factors, a growing population of aging Americans and concerns about childhood obesity. However, pizza will remain in demand because it is fast, familiar and easy on the pocketbook when compared to other food options.

To outshine competitors, pizza providers must think strategically and produce hot, tasty, flavorful pies.  According to Noveshen, one of the best ways to excel is to rely on “high-quality bas
ics” when creating pizza. “If people want a frozen pizza, they can stay home and make one,” he said.

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