June 25, 2020 – Douglas J. Peckenpaugh
Pizza categories see growth through better-for-you diversification and authenticity.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., shoppers began to frantically stock up on select food products. Due to its convenience and comfort-food appeal, frozen pizza was a top choice, and retailers soon found themselves with dwindling supplies as American society braced for the worst.
As essential businesses, food manufacturing continued where possible, and in the suburbs of Chicago, that included the area’s Home Run Inn frozen pizza manufacturing facility. By the middle of March, the facility had ramped up to a seven-day production schedule, shifted workers from its temporarily closed restaurants to work in the frozen production facility, and raised output up by one-third compared to before the pandemic.
Pizza, after all, is essential to a high percentage of Americans.
Pizza sales are up, as are sales of frozen pizza crusts and dough for DIY-minded—but convenience-prone—home bakers. And a range of notable trends are helping shape the current U.S. pizza market.
For the 52 weeks ending April 19, 2020, per IRI, Chicago, frozen pizza sales were up 10.4 percent to $5.5 billion. The biggest news of the year is gluten-free, veggie-forward Caulipower moving strongly into the top 10 companies in frozen pizza, with sales up 54.2 percent to $79.3 million. Other hot spots in frozen pizza over the past year include Nestlé’s DiGiorno brand, the segment leader, up 8.4 percent to $1.2 billion; the Schwan’s Co. Red Baron brand, up 19.0 percent to $777.2 million; Totino’s from General Mills, up 10.1 percent to $401.5 million; and the Nestlé brand Jack’s, up 11.4 percent to $304.6 million. Nestlé’s California Pizza Kitchen brand also saw strong sales, up 22.7 percent to $195.8 million. Bernatello’s also had a good year for its Brew Pub Lotzza Motzza brand, up 28.9 percent to $85.7 million. Home Run Inn had a strong year, with its signature line growing 10.7 percent to $78.0 million.
Frozen pizza crusts and dough, a category now dominated by gluten-free, vegetable-based crusts, had another year of notable growth, up 29.0 percent to $45.3 million. Caulipower leads the way, up 33.1 percent to $18.2 million. Newcomer Cali’flour Foods, made with cauliflower and mozzarella cheese, popped into the No. 2 slot for the segment with sales of $6.8 million for the year. B&G Foods brand Green Giant saw its cauliflower pizza crusts hit $5.4 million in sales.
Refrigerated pizza saw an uptick for the year, increasing sales 5.7 percent to $370.1 million. Private label owns close to 90 percent market share and led the way with a 9.9 percent increase to $322.3 million. One notable area of interest is the entrance of Connie’s Pizza into the segment, under the Giacobbino’s brand, which saw $1.8 million in sales for the year.
Frozen pizza products have grown to offer more-authentic pizzeria-style experiences at home. “Consumers are looking for the real deal—food made with traditional methods and authentic-style ingredients,” says Sarah Waller, channel marketing lead, Ardent Mills, Denver. “They want pizza with an origin story, whether it’s Italian or from a U.S. region.”
Regional U.S. pizza styles have begun to expand beyond their boundaries. “At food shows, pizza operators always ask us what type of flour makes the best Detroit, Roman, St. Louis, or even Quad City–style dough,” says John Watercott, foodservice sales director, Ardent Mills. “New regional pizzas are continuing to pop up and gain a following.”
Waller notes that Neapolitan-style pizza has grown into a clear favorite in foodservice, where menu mentions of the style have grown more than 250 percent from 2017 to 2019, per Mintel Menu Insights.
“Another trend rooted in the desire for authenticity is consumer appeal for artisan crusts,” says Waller. She notes that per Mintel Menu Insights, descriptors like “hand-crafted,” “hand-stretched,” and “wood-fired” are appearing more frequently on menus and can help elevate pizza offerings. “In some instances, the pizza crust is the focus of a dish rather than just a support for toppings,” she says, “for example, a thick, spongy, focaccia-style crust with classic toppings and flavors.”
Consumers are looking for more vegetables in their diets, and that’s largely fueling the growth of plant-based pizza and flatbreads, says Donna Reeves-Collins, vice president, pizza and flatbread, Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, NY. “We’re seeing consumers opt for clean ingredients and authentic products across categories. That’s no different when it comes to pizza. In addition, consumers expect high quality and are not willing to sacrifice taste for other benefits, which is where Rich’s focuses first, whether it’s ready-to-stretch pizza doughs, parbaked crusts, or flatbreads.”
Rich Products, along with recently acquired Venice Bakery and Rizzuto Foods, has introduced several new plant-based pizza products, notes Reeves-Collins. “Rich Products has significantly increased its manufacturing infrastructure, capacity, and capabilities to continue to lead the way in the pizza and flatbread categories in foodservice, in-store bakery, and e-commerce.”
Gluten-free products include:
- Gluten-free 5-inch Bambino cauliflower crust
- Gluten-free 12-inch pan pizza
- Keto-friendly 10-inch gluten-free cauliflower crust
- 10-inch vegan cauliflower pizza crust
- 14- and 10-inch gluten-free seasoned cauliflower crust
Plant-forward products that offer a more-traditional crust experience, with gluten and vegetables:
- 10-inch cauliflower pizza crust
- 10-inch vegan zucchini pizza crust
- Sweet potato flatbread 6×6 inches
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Reeves-Collins notes that the industry is likely to see a number of trends emerge in the pizza category:
- An increase in smaller portions and individual-sized products
- Quality, authenticity, and taste will remain an expectation—perhaps even more so
- Consumers will continue to pay more for plant-based products and healthier food options, but they better taste great and be worth it
- Consumers will gradually look for more punch—more reasons to buy food, more healthy options, more vegetables, more clean ingredients, more positive nutrition
- Free-from ingredients, such as vegan and gluten-free, will become increasingly more important
“With the continued growth in the frozen pizza category, we’ve seen increased interest in automation equipment and technology from processors big and small, established and start-ups,” says Randy Medina, application specialist, pizza, Grote Co., Columbus, OH. “Manufacturers turn to automation to address consumer demand for quality products, allowing them to ramp-up production and keep consistency while improving efficiencies. Even with the new influx of available labor, we believe processors will be investing in equipment and automation—only on a somewhat delayed schedule.”
Medina noes that, with the current pandemic, consumers are buying more frozen pizza—but often shifting back to known and comfortable brands and pizza types, such as classic cheese and pepperoni. “Fortunately for Grote, that’s the wheelhouse of our topping equipment. When consumers venture back into unique or diverse pizza will determine when manufacturers move back to their rapid product R&D and roll-out schedule we’ve seen over the last several years. Regardless of the pizza product mix, having an efficient and optimized production line has proved important during this short/moderate-term time of demand, and will remain so after.”
Having equipment that’s flexible enough to handle a diverse product mix, with the capability for fast and simple product changeovers, and the ability to ramp production up and down as demand dictates gives producers the ability to react and satisfy market needs, says Medina. “The current pandemic exemplifies that we can’t plan for everything, but producers can set up their operations to scale for new contracts, trends, seasonality—or unforeseen events.”
Medina notes that safety and sanitation will stay in the spotlight. “Utilizing solutions that allow labor on the line to be reduced improves employee and consumer safety, from equipment to IIoT and robotics.”
Strategic ingredient selection is another way to foster company growth. Pizza producers should look toward today’s wealth of grain diversity when considering how to differentiate their crusts. “When it comes to innovating with pizza crusts, the availability of diverse specialty grains in a range of different formats is key,” says Waller. This helps pizza product developers and operators experiment with crust flavor, texture, and appearance. “For health-conscious eaters, using grains that offer certain nutritional benefits is also important,” she notes.
Distinct regional pizza styles often developed through the use of specific types of pans, such as the steel pans historically used in Detroit, and finding the right synergy between a crust and its pan can take some experimentation. “When it comes to creating regional and authentic pizzas, or even making hand-crafted pizzas, choosing the right flour is imperative,” says Waller. “It needs to function well for the associated baking technique, and it also plays an integral role in delivering the right bite and chew in the final crust.”