Pizza industry experts weigh in on modern pizzeria trends
If you’re like many pizzeria operators, you might find yourself stuck in the pepperoni rut. Sure, the ingredient is the industry’s top seller, but how do you get your customers interested in more than just a traditional pizza? There’s a fine line between enticing taste buds and turning them off.
Over the course of the past year, we’ve worked with many up-and-coming ingredients in the Pizza Today test kitchen, including butternut squash, imported Teleggio, guanciale (pork jowl), fingerling potatoes, fried chicken, guava paste –– even lobster tails and littleneck clams. While our December Menu Guide might have included some far-out toppings, we’re sure there’s a little bit of something for everyone in there, whether you’re in California or Kansas.
When we brought Brian Weavel in as our guest editor last September, he spent several days with me in the Pizza Today test kitchen. Weavel runs a highly successful pizzeria, Anna’s Pizza & Pasta in Winnebago, Illinois, and is an experienced pizzaiolo. While here, even he experienced a couple of firsts, including arancini, which he is currently working to implement on his own menu.
“Since traveling back North we have tried several different things,” Weavel says. “We added a whole-wheat crust, we are working on a frozen pizza (and) we made several batches of arancini. They’re not on the menu yet but have been sampled by customers,” he says. “I took away a new respect for your craft.”
Indeed, considering pizza as more than just a fast food has become an increasing trend. Despite the onslaught of fast-baked pizza concepts entering the fast-casual market, many existing pizzerias have responded by placing more emphasis on quality over quantity.
“I think the single biggest trend impacting menus in all segments of the restaurant industry today is the demand for real and authentic foods,” says Nancy Kruse, a menu trends analyst with The Kruse Company and a speaker at International Pizza Expo this month. “These are slippery concepts, and they are difficult to define. They can refer to ingredients used, preparation techniques, presentation of a dish or some combination of these factors.”
Even the big chains have taken notice of customers’ appreciation of better toppings. With greater buying power, that means upscale ingredients are no longer reserved for the artisan pizzerias.
“In general, we should expect more upscale pizza toppings, especially as chains like Pizza Hut are starting to use higher quality ingredients,” says Darren Tristano, an International Pizza Expo speaker and executive vice president for Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm servicing the food and foodservice industry. “For example, UNO Pizzeria & Grill recently unveiled a handcrafted artisan crust pizza line. One of its pizzas is topped with more premium ingredients like prosciutto, roasted red peppers, arugula, a balsamic glaze and various cheeses.”
But that doesn’t mean you should give up when it comes to competing.
“In many ways, pizzeria owners have a leg up in meeting customer expectations for authenticity,” Kruse says. “The flour in the crust, along with the produce, sauce and cheese on the top, all offer potential marketing opportunities. Plus, pizzerias typically bake freshly to order, which is critical to customer expectations of real foods. The most important step for operators is to communicate with the patrons and take credit for all that they are doing in this regard.”
Aside from ingredients, how you market your concept can make or break it when it comes to standing out. Concepts like Pizzeria Lola in Minneapolis, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Cane Rosso in Dallas take pages from old-school baking techniques and have designed their pizzerias around their ovens, which take center stage.
“The artisan renaissance has arrived and the two showpieces are the pizzaiolo and his or her oven,” says Tony Gemignani, a multi-concept pizzeria owner and founder of the International Pizza School in San Francisco. “They both take center stage everyday and pizzerias are built around the kitchen –– not the kitchen around the pizzeria. It’s not hidden behind the wall. It’s literally in the dining room. This has always been common for the Neapolitan arena not only because of the beautification, pride and respectfulness of the craft but also for better airflow for the restaurant where the mouth of the oven faces the door –– even sometimes at or near the entrance.”
This growing trend not only bakes a better pizza but also gives your customers confidence in the quality and cleanliness of food handling –– not something that can be done with delivery or carryout items.
“In general, concepts are really emphasizing their pizza equipment,” Tristano says. “Concepts tout what kind of equipment they have (brick oven, wood-fired, ovens that can reach 800 F, etc.). Some concepts also prepare the pizzas on wooden pizza peels as customers make their way down the line for an added gourmet effect.”
Fast-casual concepts like Blaze Pizza and PizzaRev are taking those very concepts and speeding up the process for a pizza that bakes in under three minutes –– a noticeable response to consumers with little time but a greater desire for quality. These brands combine upscale ingredients like sea salt, fresh basil and artichokes and bake in fast ovens in front of the customers. Portion control is critical to these operations, as many do not place limitations on the amount customers can order.
“These chains are expanding nationwide and are ever-increasing,” Tristano says, “especially these customizable concepts — where customers can walk down an ordering counter and pick and choose their pizza toppings, sauces and drizzles.”
So what can you do in the immediate future to excite your diners in 2015? Begin by offering a few limited-time-only specials. You’ll find a number of great appetizers in the recipe archives of PizzaToday.com. Find out what your customers want in baby steps. Offer a new meat or two in the next couple of months, and make sure your staff is able to recommend complementary toppings to make those ingredients stand out.
Use your social media to tout any changes to your menu –– even something as small as a new appetizer. Your customers won’t know about any new offerings unless you promote it. Says Tristano: “Adding simply one premium ingredient can freshen up a menu.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is managing editor at Pizza Today.