One restaurant operator segment well-positioned to weather challenging conditions, including economic downturns and even a pandemic, is pizza. This food’s popularity shows no signs of waning as its variety of toppings, crust options and formats continues to keep pace with consumer trends and demand.
Looking at pizza consumption during the pandemic, Chicago-based Datassential’s research shows the vast majority of consumers are either eating more pizza or the same amount as they were in the previous year.
According to Datassential’s MenuTrends database, vegan pizza is, by far, the fastest-growing variety on pizza menus. In fact, this type of pizza has experienced triple-digit menu penetration growth over the last four years. Other noteworthy areas of pizza variety growth include mash-ups like baked potato, lasagna, and mac and cheese.
When it comes to the most prominent ways pizza consumption was impacted during the pandemic, roughly a fifth of Datassential’s survey participants reported that they visited restaurants less. The largest impact overall was that the pandemic led to 25% of consumers ordering much more pizza for delivery or takeout.
“Pizza is an affordable meal,” says Tim Green, founder of Pizza Geometrics, based in Dallas. “Fast-casuals are trying to reinvent themselves with takeout/delivery, drive-thru options and adding chicken wings to menus.”
When it comes to pizza trends, what’s old is new again.
“In the last four to five years, Detroit-style pizza has been more popular,” says Tony Gemignani, owner of 22 pizza concepts across the country, including Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. “This pizza was big in the late ’40s and early ’50s but has experienced a renaissance recently.”
Typically rectangular, Detroit-style pizza measures 2 inches deep and is cooked in a specific type of pan. This style of pizza is distinguished by raised dough, brick cheese in place of mozzarella and two racing stripes of sauce on top. Green agrees that Detroit-style pan pizza has taken a front seat.
“Detroit-style pizza has a great dough that’s based on a 48- to 72-hour fermentation process; it bakes out like focaccia, is light and loaded with cheese, toppings and sauce,” Green says. “Its fried dough in the pan lends a different dimension to pizza. It has a crunch to it and a great flavor from olive oil.”
Another popular pizza type, which first emerged in the late ’60s from Long Island, N.Y., is grandma style. Similar to Sicilian, this square type utilizes a generous amount of olive oil for a crispier crust and is topped with cheese and tomatoes. “Unlike Detroit style, with grandma style, the cheese is not pushed to the edge,” Gemignani explains. “It uses sliced mozzarella, but the standout is the sauce, which can be applied before or after the bake and is more pronounced.”
It’s the thick crust of Sicilian, which rises longer for a softer crust, that sets it apart from grandma style. “Grandma’s pizza is really exploding in the Northeast, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut,” says Sabatino Covollo, international pizza consultant with Sabatino Consulting, based in Charleston, S.C. “By comparison, Sicilian pizza has a 1-inch rise and is airy in the middle.”
Chicago’s cast iron-style pizza is similar to traditional deep dish, but the crust is up to 3 inches tall, with ingredients layered and cheese caramelized around the edges like Detroit-style pizza. Roman pizza, by contrast, has a crust that’s rolled thin to be crunchy and crumbly. “Roman-style pizza is still big,” Gemignani says. “There are many types, and it is very beautified and colorful, with chef-driven toppings like prosciutto, arugula, anchovies, mortadella, pistachio and roasted eggplant.”
A growing number of restaurants offer only personal pan pizzas so customers can order their own toppings. “People like having their own pizza,” says Covollo. “However, pizza restaurants’ success relies on volume sales, so these concepts need a lot of customers.”
Along with varying formats, pizza menus have incorporated options based on today’s trends. As a result, better-quality gluten-free crusts and plant-based meat toppings are more common. “Gluten-free crusts are much improved, where three to five years ago, this wasn’t the case,” says Green. “Although traditional ingredients like the most popular pepperoni are still the norm, plant-based is [making headway], although more so with fast-casual concepts than with QSR chains.”
Fast-casual concepts also offer larger pizzas (14 inches) with heavier dough and add complementary items like chicken wings to the menu, Green says. “I don’t see our major [pizza chain] leaders going towards those [add-on] products so much,” Green says. “And these menu additions are not so much about bringing in new customers but rather are focused on satisfying current customers. Pizza deals with two toppings on a large pie with free breadsticks are a good option for families looking to pick up a meal or get it delivered.”
Pepperoni remains the most popular pizza topping, but there are gourmet and plant-based options that are changing the landscape.
“There are plant-forward pies with vegan cheeses and meats,” Gemignani says. “Big manufacturers are leading the way with pepperoni and chorizo that are plant-based.”
Also popular is Nduja, a spreadable salami that’s cured and soft and can be pinched on pies before or after baking. “It is spicy, like pate,” Gemignani says. “Another topping we’re seeing more of is Cup and Char, a thick pepperoni that doesn’t have to be cut from a stick.”
More restaurants also now offer burrata in place of mozzarella on pizzas. “Toppings we’re seeing include broccolini and portobella mushrooms on the West Coast, along with Hawaiian pizza,” Covollo says. “It’s hard to distinguish what’s trending because toppings are more regional.”
On the equipment front, Datassential asked pizza operators what types of appliances they use to make their pizzas and discovered operators use numerous types, although this varies by foodservice segment. For instance, quick-service restaurants are more likely to rely on speed ovens than other segments, while on-sites are more likely to utilize convection ovens, and casual-dining restaurants index high in brick pizza oven use.
According to Gemignani, chains mainly utilize conveyor ovens. “Most artisan pizza makers use electric ovens that are stacked and can bake different types of pizza,” he says. “But 25 to 30 years ago, gas was predominant.”
With fewer people dining on-site than in the past, in addition to a shortage of experienced cooks, wood-fired ovens are not as prevalent. “It’s about finding equipment that offers the same consistent quality, which may be a ventless electric countertop unit that cooks fast and consistently with less training,” Green says. “This is the direction the industry is headed. This way, the fast-casual concepts can take a 3,400-square-foot footprint and shrink it to 1,000 or 2,000 square feet for strictly pickup or takeout.”
Covollo has seen new oven technology that has focused on the evenness of pizza cooking. “Typically, pizzas need to be turned in a deck oven halfway through the bake due to the back of the oven being hotter than the front,” he says. “With newer ovens, there are more heating elements, so the results are more consistent.”
With the current labor shortages, pizza operators are seeking tools to help streamline production and add efficiencies. “For example, dough presses that heat and press dough or softly press it out are being implemented,” Gemignani says. “Operators also are looking at options like dough rollers, rounders and dividers for making crust.”
The way some operators view pizza dough mixers has evolved, too. “Back in the day, most pizza operators used planetary mixers,” Gemignani says. “But with more hydrated doughs, operators are turning toward spiral and port mixers, with planetary taking a back seat.”
Although these technologically advanced automated systems are an investment, there is a return on investment over the long term. “Where we used to be excited about being in front of a stone hearth oven making pizza, now it’s exciting to watch a robot [making a meal],” Green says.