No matter how you slice it, the battles for dominance in the world of pizza are fought with toppings. But the war is won with what comes underneath the perennial top-selling mainstays of pepperoni, cheese and supreme varieties or a lesser-known hot honey barbecue or globally inspired tandoori pie. 

“Crust type leads the decision-making process for consumers when shopping their local frozen pizza aisles,” observed Maddie Essman, senior marketing manager for Schwan’s Consumer Brands Inc. 

During the past few years, the Red Baron brand has introduced several different varieties, including its Stuffed Crust Pizza and Fully Loaded Original Pizza.

Now, Bloomington, Minn.-based Schwan’s is in the process of launching Red Baron Fully Loaded Hand Tossed Style Crust Pizza, which is an extension of its Fully Loaded Original Crust Pizza that debuted in 2021. 

“We noticed there are a significant number of consumers who seek out hand-tossed pizza within the restaurant pizza industry,” Ms. Essman explained. “It is the No. 1 selling type of crust in pizzerias and quick-serve restaurants across the United States. However, the crust style accounted for less than 1% of frozen pizzas in the market.”

She added that the hand-tossed style pizza crust is soft and chewy but crisp enough on the bottom so there is no “flop” when holding up a slice. It’s designed to be an indulgent, restaurant-style experience that provides consumers with a distinct option from the brand’s original pizza crust, which Ms. Essman described as “crispy and airy — like a deep-dish pan-style pizza.”

From a market researcher’s perspective, “it’s all about the crust” when it comes to consumer preferences, according to Mintel’s 2022 report on the US pizza category.

“While a substantial portion of retail pizza consumers express interest in premium toppings and unique varieties, those concepts are likely to fall flat if the crust isn’t right,” the study concluded.

It’s also been a heck of a ride for the pizza category during the past three years.

Mintel’s report noted sales of retail pizza, including frozen pizza, refrigerated take-and-bake pizza, and pizza kits and components spiked in 2020 during the pandemic with a 24% surge that outpaced the gains by many other food categories.

After sales eased in 2021, they shot up in 2022, driven by inflation, while unit sales fell back to pre-pandemic levels.

That’s still the situation in the freezer case this year. Frozen pizza sales rose 10.2% to nearly $6.9 billion while units slipped 3.1%, according to Circana data for the 52 weeks ending May 13. The average price per unit jumped 13.7%, more than making up for any unit decline.

“When you think about a 10% increase and losing 3% in unit sales, that’s incredible,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader for client insights at Circana. “It shows that pizza still has staying power for the category in the stores.”

Convenience and affordability are the key forces behind the frozen pizza segment’s strength.

“Consumers have it in a freezer in their own homes, and they can get it when they want it and bake it when they want it,” she added.

Meanwhile, deli department pizza is firing on all cylinders, rising 16.5% to almost $2.1 billion while unit sales climbed 8% during the past year, according to Circana.

Whole pizza sales surged $17.1% to $1.2 billion with a 9.9% hike in units. Individual slices grew 16.1% to $532.2 million, while units rose 6.8% in the deli. The smaller all-other pizza segment also expanded at a double-digit rate while sales of deli calzones declined.

Ms. Lyons Wyatt suggested affordability provides another driver for deli pizza sales, especially for those consumers who are commuting to work more often.

“A deli slice is $2.63 on average and a full pizza is $7.51 in the deli on average, but a frozen pizza is $4.97, so it’s still more economical to buy frozen versus fresh,” she explained. “However, when you’re ready to eat and you’re getting something for that ‘just now,’ fresh is winning.”

Overall, pizza makers have been focusing on creating different types of crusts in recent years.

“We see more innovation around the crust itself,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said, “so you might have a filled crust or pretzel crust or flatbreads.”

Nestlé USA, Arlington, Va., offers a full variety of crusts under its brands, which include DiGiorno, California Pizza Kitchen, Jack’s, Lean Cuisine, Life Cuisine, Stouffer’s and Sweet Earth.

“As a category leader known for its crust, DiGiorno is constantly reimagining how to bring fan-favorite pizza styles to people’s kitchens,” a company spokesperson said. “The brand recently launched two new pizza varieties to address the ongoing debate of thick crust versus thin crust.”

Nestlé is focusing its innovation strategy around three consumer trends.

First, indulgent options like DiGiorno Fully Stuffed Crust Pizza provide “over-the-top taste,” the spokesperson said.

Second, the company is looking at new eating occasions with the expansion of its DiGiorno personal pizza line, adding two new Hand-Tossed Crust Style varieties, including BBQ Recipe Chicken and Chicken Alfredo, to elevate snack time.

The third includes dietary preferences with such varieties as DiGiorno Gluten Free Crust Pizza, Life Cuisine Carb Wise Keto-Friendly Veggie Pizza and Sweet Earth plant-based pizzas.

“People’s dietary preferences are constantly evolving, as consumers look for convenient options that meet those lifestyle changes,” the spokesperson explained.

By rolling out new products that pique consumers’ curiosity, pizza makers can not only win the battle but also the war in the pizza market.

This article is an excerpt from the August 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Pizza, click here.