Pizzas on the Cutting Edge of Consumer Tastes
By Nancy Kruse
Pizzerias don’t operate in a vacuum. They’re subject to the same changes in consumer tastes and expectations as other restaurants. But catering to consumer demands can be a tricky proposition. Get it wrong, and you’ve lost a patron; get it right, and business can prosper over the long haul. Pizzeria operators have some real competitive advantages in the fight for share of stomach. First, pizza has broad-based consumer acceptance. Second, it’s versatile and adaptable; core elements of crust, topping, cheese and sauce all provide opportunities for innovation and differentiation. Even better, pizza is totally in tune with major menu trends, and savvy pizza makers are using their pizza crusts as delivery systems for the foods and flavors consumers crave.
- Comfort foods. Continuing interest in comfort foods is like the culinary gift that keeps on giving, as the trend crosses demographic lines to appeal to a wide range of customers. Pizza menus are jumping on board with creativity and a sense of fun. Milwaukee-based Topper’s Pizza, for example, exhorts patrons to “never settle for less than epic” and delivers with the Loaded Tot-zza, a pie that taps into the current revival of the iconic Tater Tot. Sporting a definite hipster vibe, it comes loaded with tots, ranch sauce, mozzarella, bacon and green onions and is finished with a drizzle of nacho cheese for good measure. Pizza Inn, headquartered in Dallas, responded to the grilled-cheese-sandwich craze with a Grilled Cheese Pizza that put a grilled cheese center on a New York crust, along with grilled cheese sauce, mozzarella and Cheddar. Papa Gino’s, based near Boston, doubles down on comfort with the Mac & Cheese Pizza, which combines macaroni in a creamy cheese sauce with a blend of American, Asiago, and sharp Cheddar cheeses, all topped with crispy breadcrumbs and served atop a pizza crust.
- Premium ingredients. Patrons expect upscale touches, and pizza makers are responding with style. Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza’s Gourmet Delite line includes Angus Steak and Roasted Garlic and Spicy Fennel Sausage Pies; the latter also features sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Burrata has shot up the charts with a bullet on the hit parade of trendy appetizers and has achieved near ubiquity in a very short period of time owing to its rich taste, smooth texture and compatibility with other ingredients. Now it is turning up as a pizza topper at operations like Pitfire Artisan Pizza in Los Angeles and Stella Barra Pizzeria in Los Angeles and Chicago. Atlanta’s Double Zero touts the excellence of its ingredients like double-zero flour, all-natural Fior-di-Latte cheese and DOP San Marzano tomatoes and promotes special pies like the Maiale, which is made with braised Nueske’s bacon, seasonal mushrooms, goat cheese, arugula, fig-onion agrodolce and vanilla salt.
- Ethnic flavors. Consumer embrace of ethnic foods has had dramatic impact on menu development in all segments of the restaurant industry, and it’s not surprising to see an international influence on pizzeria menus. Pizza Hut’s bombshell announcement in early November of its biggest brand update ever called attention to unexpected new ethnic ingredients such as Peruvian cherry peppers and honey-Sriracha sauce. Sriracha hails from Thailand and is literally and figuratively the hottest ingredient in the business; it also turns up in the Spicy Rooster Pizza at Modmarket in Boulder, Colo. California Pizza Kitchen has been a leader in making global trends approachable to a broad audience, and the Korean BBQ, Peking Duck and Carnitas pizzas are all great examples of using pizza crust as a blank canvas for ethnic exploration.
- Better-for-you foods. While pizza can certainly go over the top with indulgence, it can also adapt easily to more healthful treatments. In New Orleans, Naked Pizza’s 10-grain crust is one approach, while in San Francisco and Denver, Paxti’s Farmers Market Pizza with beets, feta cheese and arugula is another. The ability of diners to customize to suit their desires and diets is a powerful traffic driver, and pizza makers are responding with an array of fruits and vegetables, like Catskill, N.Y.-based Barnwood’s White Pizza with Broccoli and Red Pepper or New York City-based Stella 34 Trattoria’s Cavolfiore Pizza with cauliflower and Meyer lemon. Pizza hits the sweet spot, too, with fruit toppings that provide a sophisticated mix of sweet and savory flavors. Molly’s Caramelized Creation at Sauce Pizza and Wine in Phoenix is topped with Gorgonzola, Granny Smith apples, balsamic-roasted Brussels sprouts, caramelized red onion, arugula, apple-wood bacon and a touch of truffle oil. In Chicago, La Madia’s Taleggio and Grape Pizza is crowned with vin-santo-roasted grapes.
- Keeping it real. Today’s consumers place a high value on authenticity, and pizza makers are in a good position to oblige. Some, like Fritti in Atlanta, promote their authentic Neapolitan pizza made according to traditional artisanal methods and certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) Association. Others like Campania in nearby Alpharetta, Ga., boast of their imported, wood-burning ovens. Pizza Rustica in Miami serves “pizza a taglio”, pizza by the slice cut from rectangular pies like those found on the streets of Rome. And Paxti’s Heirloom Tomato Caprese Pizza delivers a true taste of Italy by putting the iconic Caprese salad on a crust and drizzling it with the requisite balsamic reduction.
Supermarket data show sales of frozen pizza in decline as consumers seek fresher foods and flavors, which augurs well for the future growth of pizzerias. To exploit this opportunity, restaurateurs will need to capitalize on current trends, and no matter what the pizza, to execute consistently, pie after pie.
Nancy Kruse is a widely quoted menu analyst for the restaurant industry and was author of “The Kruse Report,” a column on trends that appeared in Nation’s Restaurant News. She will give the seminar “Menu Trends for Pizzeria Operators: Cashing In on Today’s Hot Foods and Flavors” on Tuesday, March 24 at Pizza Expo.
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