KANSAS CITY — There is no shortage of pizza lovers, and recent polls show it still ranks as America’s favorite comfort food. The category’s significant innovation is driven by the newer brands. Crust innovation is centered on gluten- and grain-free alternatives, as well as the introduction of gut-friendly sourdough options. Traditional sauces and toppings are top favorites, while producers play with new styles and varieties.

Overall consumption remained stable since 2018, with more than 44% of consumers enjoying pizza at least once a week, and certain demographics exceeded that number, according to Technomic’s “2020 Pizza Consumer Trend Report.” For example, a whopping 64% of millennials reported eating their favorite pies weekly.

With consumption high and growth steady, pizza could be an increasingly expanding market, making differentiation even more important as competition intensifies, according to the Technomic report. Differentiation will come in the form of new flavors, formats, convenience, portion control and the ability to cater to eating occasions.

Marketing to different eating occasions throughout the day engages consumers, and many pizza producers have not yet capitalized on the evolving at-home occasions. Determining which products meet these occasions will create incremental opportunity to drive growth.

“It’s all about engagement. There are so many ways to change your portfolio. But if producers are limited to supply chain issues, then they can just change the marketing. There are untapped opportunities,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader, IRI.

Toppings boost variety

Innovation with flavors and ingredients increases variety within brands and creates products that can be tailored to differing tastes. Milwaukee-based Palermo Villa Inc. responded to the need for attention-grabbing varieties with a beer-infused crust for its indulgent, heavily topped Screamin’ Sicilian line, Za’Brewski Pizza, made with Leinenkugel’s Original.

“As far as toppings and sauce, we are pushing the envelope with new dessert items and unique fun flavors,” said Nick Fallucca, chief product and innovation officer for Palermo Villa.

Palermo stepped outside the pizza box, offering its Orange Chicken Overload and Totally Taco Screamin’ Sicilian Pizzas, as well as two dessert pizza flavors, Smores and Cookie Brownie.

Consumers are choosing more authentic sauces and garlic sauces with bold, classic flavors. Fifty-one percent of consumers preferred tomato marinara, with 41% enjoying garlic parmesan sauce on their pies, according to Technomic. When comparing pizza sauce options, most consumers preferred a balance of sauce characteristics leaning a bit toward heavy (30%), savory (37%) and chunky (27%) sauces.

Sixty-two percent prefer pepperoni, and it is growing in appeal as the protein topping of choice on menus across segments. However, vegetable-forward pizzas are trending and can be positioned as a way for consumers to reduce meat consumption or as a unique dish, according to Technomic. Mushrooms and onions were the top two vegetable toppings preferred at 56% and 53%, respectively. Producers can also look to global or international inspiration for flavor variety innovation.

“Better quality ingredients, such as organic pepperoni, vegetarian and plant-based toppings are growing in popularity,” said Alex Corsini, founder and chief executive officer, Alex’s Awesome Sourdough, San Anselmo, Calif.

Pizza crust innovation

There are many different preferences in taste, texture and style of pizza crusts, and offering a wide range of styles and alternative ingredient bases helps producers reach a wider market. Many consumers are looking for a thicker crust and more indulgent toppings vs. a thinner crust and value brands. Deep dish is the favorite at 50% with thin crust preferred by 44%, according to the Technomic report.

“It absolutely starts with the crust,” said Anne Cookson, vice president of sales and marketing, Baker’s Quality Pizza Crusts, Waukesha, Wis. “The base of the pizza defines a good versus bad pizza no matter what sauce, cheese and toppings are used. The key is to develop different styles of pizza dough while maintaining high quality and high standards.”

Ease of use and quality are significant drivers for pizza crusts. However, producers must consider other factors when innovating with both refrigerated dough and frozen pizza crust products. For example, does the consumer want thick or thin, chewy or crispy, and how much work are they willing to do themselves?

“It simply comes down to taste, texture and preference. Doughballs make an absolutely fantastic pizza, but they require a more hands on approach and time management,” Mrs. Cookson said.

Los Angeles-based Caulipower’s cauliflower crust pizza created a popular category in 2017, paving the way for gluten-free pizza crusts. The brand launched its artisanal cauliflower crust pizzas earlier this year. The new stone-fired crust offers a thin, crispy, restaurant-style experience made with cauliflower as the first ingredient.

Sourdough has gained acceptance with gluten-sensitive consumers and others because of its digestive benefits and distinct taste. Alex’s Awesome is committed to offering pizzas with naturally fermented crusts made with organic flour and topped with organic ingredients. Like many health-oriented brands, Alex’s Awesome uses grassroots marketing, such as partnering with Moms Meet, a membership program for health-conscious moms to test products.

“We are building awareness and interest by expanding distribution in better grocery retailers, participating with our retailer partners on pizza-specific promotions and using the Moms Meet sampling program to build local store awareness and trial,” Mr. Corsini said.

Palermo’s Urban Pie pizzas use 100% rBST-free cheese and meats raised without antibiotics, and they are free from artificial ingredients. Urban Pie was first to market, introducing a hemp seed crust in 2020.

“The product features an artisan crust baked with hulled hemp seeds, delivering a great taste that has a functional purpose for consumers who are cognizant about their food choices,” Mr. Fallucca said. “Urban Pie also has a line of vegetable crust pizzas, including Sweet Potato Crust BBQ Chicken, Broccoli Cheddar Crust Bianco and Cauliflower Crust Margherita.”

Detroit-based Banza’s chickpea-based pizza brand offers another alternative to traditional wheat flour-based crusts. The line consists of three ready-to-eat options and a plain crust to customize at home featuring portion-sized nutritional values on the packaging.

Health claims influence premium

It isn’t just one health attribute, but multiple claims influencing pizza’s appeal. All-natural, gluten-free and plant-forward ingredients are resonating. Portion control and calories per serving are also emerging as a popular health claim for consumers.

“The portion-control attribute, outside of the crust alternatives, is playing out with pizza,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “Calories per serving is appealing if they are trying to be more health-minded, and it gives them permission to indulge in a pizza knowing that the calorie count will not sabotage health goals for the day.”

For example, Alex’s Awesome Sourdough Mushroom Pizza includes the calories per half of the pizza on front of package, along with other nutrition values per portion size. The brand’s sourdough pizzas also feature other popular health claims, including increased protein per serving and no added sugar.

Palermo has seen a resurgence in the popularity of single-serve options and introduced a line of Connie’s Single Serve pizzas in May. Similar to its Screamin’ Sicilian I’m Single line, Connie’s is heavily topped and uses all-natural ingredients.

“Connie’s is a favorite of consumers across the Midwest. We felt there were very few high-quality microwave single-serve options available and wanted to provide a better solution,” Mr. Fallucca said.

For pizza, producers can charge a premium for higher quality ingredients and for those that boost health claims. Offering a veggie crust, gluten-free, plant-based alternative or reduced-fat cheese creates a higher dollar premium product.

“Gluten- and grain-free crusts represent approximately 30% of the premium market,” Mr. Corsini said. “While gluten-free is the largest segment, grain-free and sourdough continue to experience increases in demand. We see this trend continuing as manufacturers seek to improve the nutritional considerations as well as the taste of these crusts.”

Palermo’s tapped into the alternative crust appeal with its Italian Stone Baked line. However, for Baker’s Quality Pizza Crusts, clean label is most important.

“There is a place for gluten-free, plant-based and organic in the category, but we are in the pizza business after all. Pizza is for pleasure, gatherings, fun nights out and keeping the kids happy,” Mrs. Cookson said. “However, there is always room for improvement and adaptation to further quality, and we focus heavily on clean label to make our products with the best quality ingredients.”

IRI data has shown that consumers were buying premium over the past 18 months, despite income level, for several reasons. Premium products gave consumers an outside/in experience at home. They also chose to splurge on premium food products to treat themselves and their families to something that was just a little better than what they would have normally purchased. Finally, IRI found that consumers purchased more national brand name products because they trusted their quality.

“These three drivers were key as consumers looked in store or online,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “However, with pending inflation, it remains to be seen whether those with a shrinking food budget will continue to buy premium or instead look for more value.”

Channels and value

Consumers’ return to in-store deli, perimeter bakeries and restaurants has positively impacted pizza sales for these channels. E-commerce is growing, and it’s going to drive growth throughout the store, but the rate of growth will slow down slightly.

“We’ve seen very large growth this year as consumers have become more optimistic about getting back out,” Mrs. Cookson said. “We have experienced great sales on our e-commerce Crustology pizza kits, and we believe that will continue as it’s a good complement to dining out.”

As more consumers get back to in-person dining, there has been a shift in frozen pizza sales, Ms. Lyons Wyatt said.

“Frozen pizza sales figures are waning a bit right now, but only when compared with the double-digit increases of 2020,” she added. “Growth is still elevated versus 2019. It may be troubling to producers right now, but there are still a lot of consumers eating pizza at home, both fresh and frozen.”

Shoppers trying to stretch their food dollar understand pizza purchased in the store can feed more for less.

“As inflation kicks in, you’ll see consumers opting back to buying pizza from the stores and more pizza eaten at home. The quality of frozen and in-store fresh pizza has evolved over time, so it’s not quite the tradeoff that it was in the past,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt said. “Time will tell.”

Going forward, price will be the focus. National brands will likely continue to do well, and private label will pick up market share as cost begins to influence purchase. These potential shifts in consumer purchasing tie into the importance of attributes and what is included on product packaging, because producers can charge more for specialty claims.

“We continue to monitor trends and offer innovative pizzas in the better-for-you space and ultra-indulgent offerings as well,” Mr. Fallucca said. “We like to push the envelope with flavor innovations, so consumers can try something new and different while enjoying their favorite comfort food.”

Banza expanded its pizza footprint after only a year on the market, announcing its first foodservice partnership with Oath Pizza and increasing its pizza line from four to six SKUs, including a Plant-Based Cheese Pizza with Follow Your Heart Mozzarella and a Supreme Pizza with Beyond Meat Sausage.

“For Banza, the equation is less about claims and trends and more about the enduring need to eat more chickpeas and beans,” said Brian Rudolph, chief executive officer and co-founder of Banza. “We’re playing the long game.”

Differentiation across channels is the key to creating opportunity. If pizza producers can figure out how to tailor products online or in-store to meet differing consumer needs, they will generate significant growth potential.

“The sky is the limit if pizza producers can get really creative with differentiation and daypart,” Ms. Lyons Wyatt concluded.