Pizza popping up everywhere

by Eric Schroeder
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Pizza has been on an interesting path over the past few years. What once was a category dominated by large pizza chains such as Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesars, in the mid-1990s yielded ground to a burgeoning movement within the frozen food aisle.

Companies such as Nestle USA Inc. and Schwan Food Co. through their respective DiGiorno and Freschetta brands promised frozen pizza products that could deliver restaurant quality at a fraction of the cost. Consumer acceptance was exceptional.

In 1995, the year before DiGiorno and Freschetta hit the market, total U.S. frozen pizza sales were approximately $1.6 billion. Two years later, that figure climbed to nearly $2 billion, and in the 52 weeks ended May 19, 2013, total dollar sales in the category stood at about $4.3 billion, according to Information Resources, Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm. DiGiorno, which is just a few years shy of its 20th anniversary, is the leading frozen pizza brand with sales of nearly $1.1 billion, accounting for more than 25% of total category dollar sales, according to I.R.I.

Nestle and Schwan continue to pace innovation efforts in the category. Earlier this year Nestle introduced a line of pizzeria-style frozen pizzas in four varieties: four-cheese, pepperoni and cheese, supreme, and Italian meat trio. Each pizza has a crust drizzled with olive oil and a sauce made with tomatoes, garlic and herbs. Premium toppings include caramelized onions, Genoa salami and mozzarella, fontina, Parmesan and pecorino romano cheeses.

Meanwhile, Schwan expanded the Freschetta line with Freschetta Brick Oven Chicken Club Pizza, Freschetta Naturally Rising Margherita Pizza, and Freschetta Naturally Rising Sausage and Pepperoni Pizza. Each pizza is made with cheese, olive oil and sea salt.

Both companies hope the new products reinvigorate sales that are beginning to give ground to yet another new category for pizza growth: quick-casual restaurants.

Chili’s Grill & Bar, a unit of Dallas-based Brinker International, is in the midst of an aggressive pizza roll-out designed to generate 8% to 10% menu share from pizzas and flatbreads. Prior to this year the company had never offered pizzas, but the addition of ovens in the restaurant chain’s kitchens has made the menu addition possible. So far, pizzas have been an “interesting roll-out,” said Guy Constant, executive vice-president and chief financial officer for Brinker.

“I don’t think it necessarily surprised us, but pizzas have tended to be more attractive to our core guests,” Mr. Constant said during the Goldman Sachs Lodging, Gaming, Restaurant and Leisure Conference held June 4 in New York. “They tend to be more attractive to male guests. And they tend to be more used as an entree.”

The pizza is available in four varieties: five-cheese, pepperoni, Southwestern chicken and taco. Available in 6-inch and 9-inch sizes, the baked-to-order pizzas feature a crust with a crisp finish. Toppings include mozzarella, Monterey and pepper Jack cheeses, seasoned ground beef, pesto, pico de gallo, and cumin-lime sour cream.

Another company hoping to grab a piece of the pizza pie is Cosi, Inc., Deerfield, Ill. The company, which operates more than 100 restaurants in 16 states and the District of Columbia, has added handcrafted hearth-fired pizzas as part of its effort to become more inviting across all day-parts in its menu innovation.

While Cosi has offered pizzas in the past, two new pizzas — Smoky BBQ Chicken and chicken and spinach — are examples of the company’s move to incorporate more options for consumers.

With competition heating up from frozen food makers and quick-service restaurant chains, large pizza chains are not sitting idly by. Dallas-based Pizza Hut, a business unit of Yum! Brands, Inc., last week rolled out Firebaked Style Flatbread Pizzas, which appear to be a direct response to the pizzas being offered by Chili’s and Cosi. Pizza Hut’s flatbreads include a slightly crispy “wood-fired style” crust, cheese and toppings that extend right to the edges, according to Pizza Hut. The Flatbreads come six to a box, and may be topped three different ways with up to three toppings each.

“We wanted to give our fans a lighter crust experience that doesn’t skimp on flavor and believe we’ve delivered that with our Firebaked Style Flatbread Pizzas,” said Kurt Kane, chief marketing officer at Pizza Hut. “We take pride in our food innovation chops. Our latest creation is yet another example of how we pay close attention to what consumers want and bring it to them in a very accessible, convenient and value-focused way.”

The launch of the flatbread pizzas come just a few months after Pizza Hut introduced Crazy Cheesy Crust pizza. The product features a ring of cheese-filled dough pockets that may be removed and eaten separately or as part of the slice. Earlier, Pizza Hut launched Big Pizza Sliders, customizable miniature pizzas. The sliders are made with pan pizza dough and contain up to three toppings each and are available in orders of three for $5 or nine for $10.
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