September 1, 2015 |

Whole and Healthy

By Pizza Today

Fresh ingredients, special options becoming more important among health-conscious customers


The low- and no-fat fads have come and gone, and even carb-conscious customers aren’t worrying so much when they walk through the doors of their local pizza joints. Consumers may be wary of giant-sized portions and calorie-bomb ingredient lists, but few foods or nutrients are totally off limits.

That doesn’t mean pizza customers are ignoring their diets, though. Fat phobia and carb cutting are out, but today’s consumers care more than ever about what they’re eating, how it was made and where the ingredients came from. From fresh, locally sourced toppings to alternate options for special diets, an expanding variety of quality ingredients is becoming key for shop owners who serve discerning, health-conscious customers.

Fresh, Whole and Local

Avoiding trans fats, cutting out chemicals and even going organic are no longer enough for some shops. “Probably the most significant trend this year is going to be around fresh and authentic ingredients,” says Patty Scheibmeir, Pie Five Pizza vice president of research and development. “Consumers are more conscious about the sources of their food and its quality.”

For some shops, this trend may require an expansion of current offerings: specialty cheeses, for example, or wider selections of fresh vegetables. But for most customers, the main issue isn’t simply the types of toppings they can choose. It’s knowing where and how the ingredients were grown, and that they were minimally processed before being served on a pizza. Locally grown products generally trump foods grown in different states and certainly different countries, and seasonality is playing a growing role in changing customers’ demands throughout the year.

More and more customers also care about the ethics of what they eat. “There’s an overall growing consciousness of sustainability and food in general,” says Jim Minidis, founder of Redbrick Pizza. “We’re going to see more organic and natural foods, as well as more direct farm-to-table ingredients that encourage sustainability.” If it hasn’t happened already, don’t be surprised to hear your customers ask about the farming practices used to bring your ingredients to market.

They may well be willing to pay more for food they can feel good about.

Special Options

Vegetarianism, lactose intolerance and egg allergies certainly aren’t new, but the pizza industry is facing increasing pressure to cater to these and other restrictions. “Another trend we’re seeing is customizable pizza,” says Scheibmeir. “Guests with dietary restrictions want to personalize their meal options, and we want to make sure we have options for everyone.”

Gluten-free products are a prime example. Once a necessity for only a small population, they’re now in demand among millions of consumers. “More people are asking for gluten-free, not necessarily because they have Celiac disease, but because it just makes them feel better,” says Drew French, founder of Your Pie. A small, separate selection of wheat-free pies may have once appealed to customers who can’t handle regular flour, but the growing gluten-free population is demanding more.

The same is true for customers who avoid dairy. Between vegans, dairy-free dieters and people diagnosed with milk allergies, there’s a large and growing group demanding high-quality alternative cheese products. “Pizza is all about cheese, and while the technology for soy and nut cheeses isn’t really there yet, it’s getting better,” Scheibmeir says. Current products will have to suffice for now, but shop owners should keep an eye out for new and improved dairy-free cheeses to substitute upon request.

Indulgence or Diet Food?

Pizza has long been viewed as a treat, a comfort food, something to be eaten at parties and on special occasions. So, medical and ethical restrictions aside, how much do customers really care about their “normal” dietary habits when they buy pizza? Do their demands for fresh, high-quality, sustainably raised ingredients apply as much to their restaurant purchases as their grocery carts?

For the most part, the answer is yes. “I think the general consumer sees pizza as a treat and reward for being good all week, but they still expect those healthier options,” says Scheibmeir. French likewise noted that, “We’re changing the ways people look at pizza. It’s becoming something you can eat for lunch and not feel like taking a nap after.” While certain varieties are still considered treats, consumers want pizza they can feel good about eating any day of the week. And, even when they are indulging in a deep dish or meat-filled pie, they still want to know that even those salty, fatty ingredients were ethically grown and responsibly raised.

The Price of Quality

Of course, higher quality comes with higher prices. “Everything’s still cost-driven, and if something costs three times as much to produce, you can’t put it on your menu,” says Minidis. Fortunately, there are plenty of cost-effective ways to add fresher and more diet-friendly items to a menu. A two- or three-fold increase in cost isn’t feasible, but an extra dollar or two for a specialty product certainly is. Whether they want locally grown vegetable toppings, additive-free sauces or a wider selection of gluten- and dairy-free substitutions, conscious consumers are increasingly willing to trade cost for quality. “Customers are willing to pay for perceived value, so if they’re getting great quality and a great experience behind it, they’re going to pay more,” says French.

MORE on how you can change your menu to accommodate today’s health and dietary concerns

David LaMartina is a Kansas City-based freelance copywriter who specializes in the finance, food and health industries.