By leveraging the right ingredients and equipment and staying in tune with consumers' ever-evolving palettes, pizza operators can write their own recipes for success.

The pizza segment has weathered the economy well, which comes as no surprise to operators in this category. Not only are pizzas affordable, but this food offers widespread appeal and is easily attainable via delivery and takeout operations.

Pizza sales in the United States totaled more than $29.5 billion in 2010, which was a 3.2 percent increase over the year prior, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based foodservice industry research firm. Last year, there were 71,396 pizza units in the United States, with the top 500 chains comprising almost 62 percent of sales in the category.

"Great pizza will survive, and marginal, mediocre pizza will not," says Dean Small, co-owner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants, which has worked on branding for more than 200 restaurant chains, ranging from startups to well-known chains such as Pizza Hut, Shakey's Pizza and California Pizza Kitchen. "Operators are realizing that the art of pizza is the magical ratio of the bite to the chew to the sauce. Those that get it make an amazing product."

More than likely, it was recognizing the importance of the product that led pizza chain Domino's to implement a turnaround strategy that included incorporating higher-quality ingredients and dough. "The chain focused on ratcheting up flavors and textures, [which expanded the brand's appeal]," Small says.

Domino's is but one example in a segment that continues to evolve with consumers' palettes. For example, more authentic cooking platforms, such as wood-fired and coal-fired ovens have become more prevalent in pizzerias as an alternative to traditional impingement and deck ovens.

Many operators in this segment have become more focused on traditional and authentic pizza production. In fact, an increasing number of operators continue to seek VPN certification. VPN Americas is the local branch of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, an international nonprofit organization founded in the mid 1990s by a group of Neapolitan pizzaioli (pizza makers) seeking to cultivate the culinary art of making Neapolitan pizza.

Those seeking certification must use a wood-fired dome oven operating at 900 degrees F; fresh, all-natural and non-processed ingredients, preferably imported from Naples or Campania; dough kneaded by hand or with a low-speed mixer; and approved equipment, such as a marble slab work surface and wooden pizza peel. The resulting Pizza Napoletana is 11 inches in diameter with a raised edge crust and thin center.

In addition to utilizing authentic recipes, a growing number of pizza operators are incorporating organic and local ingredients into their pies. "Artisan pizza makers are determined to find raw materials that support buying local and sustainability efforts," Small says. "This is not always easy to do, but something the chains are trying to achieve."

Craig Agranoff, founder of the Pizza Experts, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based marketing consultancy, and, a website dedicated to finding the best pizza, sees the trend toward local toppings continuing, as more people seek to support their regions' economies. "Adding homegrown tomatoes and squash from the farmers' market to the pizzeria menu is a great way to differentiate product without getting too fancy," he says. "This is a great way to capture the eco-conscious folks."

The pizza segment has conformed to America's eating habits by incorporating trendy toppings, such as ethnic seasonings and upscale cheeses, in addition to more healthful ingredients, like vegetables, nuts and fruit. Addressing the hot-button issue of food sensitivities, some pizzerias have introduced gluten-free pizza crusts, Agranoff says.

Crust development remains a focal point for pizzerias, too. The largest chains, like Pizza Hut and Domino's, now offer signature touches, like cheese-filled crusts and flavored varieties. "Operators have come to realize that they can add value to the dough by flavoring it," Small says.

Some industry observers, like Agranoff, have noted a recent backlash against overpriced, gourmet pizzas, which has resulted in a more back-to-basics approach. "Consequently, more operators are concentrating on the sauce and cheese, rather than creating pizzas with a bunch of toppings that simulate a casserole," says Agranoff.

Pie towns like New York and Chicago are seeing increased competition from other areas of the country that are stepping up their pizza creations. California's healthy and unique pies, which resulted in the national success of the California Pizza Kitchen chain, are one example.

"Detroit-style pizza, with its deep-crust, Sicilian-style square shape, is one of the finest I've had," Agranoff says. "The same is true for Buffalo's style, which makes a hybrid Chicago–New York pie that is soft on the inside and crispy on the bottom, and contains round and crunchy pepperoni."

Pizza's versatility plays a big part in its ongoing popularity. This food has not only become a staple for many at lunch and dinner but also more recently has been developed into a breakfast item topped with eggs, sausage and cheddar. Dessert pizzas, containing a cookie or graham cracker crust with a variety of sweet toppings, are a fixture on many menus.

What does the future hold for pizza? Some foresee new formats that take the convenience factor to a whole new level. "In the future, we will see customized pizza in a quick-service format," Small predicts.

Italy is ahead of the game. The Manila Bulletin reported that a vending machine created at the University of Bologna kneads flour and water into dough, spreads tomato sauce onto the unbaked crust and tops it with ingredients before cooking the pie using infrared technology. The process takes less than three minutes. The machine, which includes windows so customers can watch the pizza being produced, has been rolled out in Europe and is expected to eventually be available in the United States.

"Pizza is a growing segment, but operators have to keep up with current trends to remain successful," Agranoff says. "Still, it only takes small changes to keep an operation thriving.

A Pizza Industry Snapshot

  • About one in seven Americans (or 15 percent) order takeout or delivery from a restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday. Among younger adults ages 18 to 34 that figure rises to nearly one quarter (22 percent).*
  • Hot pizza is predicted to be one of the hottest menu items for breakfast this year.**
  • Pizzerias are expected to purchase more than $4 billion worth of cheese annually this year.
  • Thirty-six percent of all pizza orders are with pepperoni.
  • Ninety-four percent of Americans eat pizza regularly.
  • Ninety-three percent of Americans have eaten pizza in the last month.
  • Pizza accounts for more than 10 percent of all foodservice sales in the nation.
  • Popular gourmet toppings are chicken, oysters, crayfish, dandelions, sprouts, eggplant, Cajun shrimp, artichoke hearts and tuna.
  • Over 5 billion pizzas are sold worldwide each year, with 3 billion sold in the Unites States alone.
  • Kids ages three to 11 prefer pizza over all other food groups for lunch and dinner. Regular thin crust is most popular in America. It is preferred by 61 percent of the population, while 14 percent prefer deep-dish and 11 percent prefer extra thin crust.
  • Sixty-two percent of Americans prefer meat toppings while 38 percent prefer vegetables.
  • Pizzerias represent 17 percent of all restaurants.
  • Mozzarella cheese accounts for nearly 80 percent of Italian cheese production in the United States.
  • The most popular pizza size in the United States today is 14 inches in diameter.

Source: *National Restaurant Association **The Food Channel