Frozen pizza outperforms the department as manufacturers roll out new crust types, bold flavors and better-for-you options.
As cash-strapped consumers cut back on takeout and dine-in, frozen pizza sales continue to outperform the frozen department as a whole. Dollar sales rose 4.4% to nearly $1.51 billion during the 12 weeks ended July 16 while units fell 3.9%, according to Chicago-based market research firm Circana, formerly IRI and The NPD Group. However, five of the top 10 brands saw unit sales rise, including the biggest gainer, No. 9 Screamin’ Sicilian, up 39.6%. (Jack’s and Tombstone, also registered double-digit unit gains.)
Milwaukee-based Palermo’s has added several innovations to its Screamin’ Sicilian lineup recently, the latest a new collection of Tavern Style Pizzas introduced last month. Featuring an extra-crispy, cracker-thin crust, the Midwest tavern-style favorite comes in five flavors: Pepperoni, Pepperoni & Sausage, Sausage, Supreme, and Sausage Mushroom & Onion.
“They are inspired by local tavern-style pizzas but are meant to be enjoyed in the comfort of home,” says Nick Fallucca, Palermo’s chief product and innovation officer.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE CRUST
More than ever in today’s frozen pizza landscape, the crust is king, and re0gional-favorite crusts are increasingly popular, says Mike Watts, president of Against the Grain Gourmet, Brattleboro, Vt. “Frozen pizza crust is no longer looked at as merely a vehicle to deliver toppings but as a source of nostalgia and flavor. No matter what segment a brand plays in — premium, value, gluten free, or better-for-you — it is clear that the crust needs to deliver.” He adds, “Driving innovation from the bottom up is quite literally the key to success.”
Watts adds that sales of Against the Grain’s gluten-free cheese and pepperoni SKUs are up almost 14% year to date through mid-July, “while many of our gluten-free counterparts are experiencing declines.” He believes a superior crust plays a big role in the items’ success.
In contrast, some consumers are beginning to demand no crust at all, a trend that led to Chicago-based Conagra to debut three new crustless pizzas under its Banquet brand this past summer.
“The concept of crustless pizzas has picked up traction at national delivery chains in recent years, but there has not yet been a satisfying retail option,” says brand communications manager Dan Skinner.
“These products meet the demand for an indulgent pizza experience that’s low in carbs, but still high in protein.”
The Banquet MEGA Crustless Pizza lineup includes three varieties: Pepperoni, Three Cheese and Supreme. Each delivers 25 to 29 grams of protein, and contains fewer than 13 grams of net carbs per 10-ounce serving.
HOT SPICES, BOLD FLAVORS TRENDING
Frozen pizza manufacturers also report an uptick in demand for bolder flavors. “Hot sauce has been a big trend over the last few years due in part to the popularity of shows like ‘Hot Ones,’” says Abby Thaine, marketing manager at New York- based Blackbird Foods. “Recently, we have experienced increased interest in and demand for spicy [pizza] products as well. After the success of our Buffalo Wings launch last fall, we started to discuss what a Blackbird Buffalo Pizza might look like.”
The company debuted the Buffalo variety in April at Sprouts and began expanding to select Whole Foods locations in August. Wider distribution is planned through the rest of 2023. Made with Daring plant-based “chicken,” plant-based cheese, red onions and buffalo sauce, “The new flavor has quickly become a fan favorite and one of our best sellers,” says Thaine.
Blackbird Foods also emphasizes the quality of its pizza crusts. It eschews “round discs of pre-frozen dough” in favor of hand-tossed, overnight-rising dough, which the company says provides better flavor and texture. “It taps into consumer desire for high-quality comfort foods,” says Thaine. “In our experience, consumers are prioritizing quality over everything else, thus growing the premium segment.”
Another brand jumping on the bold flavor trend, Solon, Ohio-based Tombstone, part of the Nestlé USA port- folio, recently added Spicy Italian and Chipotle Chicken to its permanent product line. The Spicy Italian features Italian sausage, pepperoni, onions and red pepper, while Chipotle Chicken combines white meat chicken, mozzarella, cheddar cheese and chipotle sauce.
While bold toppings and cool crusts are making headlines, a just-released line of frozen pizza from Tillamook, Ore.-based Tillamook County Creamery Association celebrates a pizza component that often goes underappreciated: the cheese. The four-SKU collection features a trio of Tillamook cheeses, including its award-winning medium yellow cheddar, whole milk mozzarella and Monterey Jack. “Together, the cheeses bring serious flavor when paired with premium toppings atop a crispy, stone-fired crust,” says the company. Available varieties include Cheesy Uncured Pepperoni, Three Cheese, Three Cheese Supreme (uncured pepperoni, Italian sausage, pepper and onions) and Cheesy BBQ Chicken.
The line will be available in select locations beginning next month, according to the company.
MORE VEGGIE OPTIONS
Pizza may be an indulgence, but that doesn’t mean consumers aren’t looking for ways to make it healthier — or to fit their particular life- style. For those who follow a plant-based diet, Petaluma, Calif.-based Amy’s Kitchen debuted a new vegetarian option, Braised Greens & 4 Cheese Pizza, at Whole Foods in August.
“A plant-based diet has never been more popular,” says vp of marketing Ritu Mathur. “In April 2023, Amy’s Kitchen surveyed over 2,000 Americans nationwide to better understand the motivations behind the meatless mindset. We found that 56% of adults said they want shortcuts to plant-based meals.” And what’s easier than frozen pizza? But the product doesn’t skimp on nutrition either. Although it features melted fontina, mozzarella, Parmesan and ricotta, the new Braised Greens variety is also “a delicious way [for consumers] to add more dark leafy greens into their diet,” says Mathur.
Another player in the plant-based space, CLO-CLO Vegan Foods, Edina, Minn., is launching two new pizzas this month: Tuscan and Garden Nirvana. But the new- comers aren’t just vegan; they also boast an allergen-free ingredient list and an FDA-approved health claim as a good source of fiber.
‘In our experience, consumers are prioritizing quality over everything else, thus growing the premium segment.’
CEO Augie Hinnenkamp says the better-for-you frozen pizza segment “is changing because of the growing demand for healthier food options. CLO-CLO is responding to this demand by creating new products that are healthier and more nutritious than traditional products.”
The better-for-you formula is kept simple at New York-based Yough!, which recently introduced a trio of frozen pizzas built on crusts made with its own Greek yogurt-based dough. Currently available only direct-to-consumer, the gut-friendly collection offers a lower-calorie, lower-carb, higher-protein alternative to frozen pizza made with cauliflower, chickpea and traditional wheat crusts. The lineup includes Cheese and Turkey Pepperoni varieties as well as a plain crispy crust to which shoppers can add their own toppings.
“We knew two-ingredient dough was taking off but felt there had to be an easier way for consumers to enjoy it while also making it cleaner and more delicious,” says Jason Miller, Yough! co-founder and COO.
PIZZA CUSTOMERS CRAVE CHOICES
When it comes to frozen pizza, variety is essential because restaurant diners are accustomed to being able to customize toppings, pie size and other options. “Pizza is not a one-size-fits-all category, and each consumer group is going to want something a little different,” says Watts of Against the Grain. As a result, it’s important for retailers’ shelf sets to “give consumers the same power [they have at restaurants] by providing options that appeal to a range of dietary, price, form and flavor needs.”
Unfortunately, he has seen some retailers go in the opposite direction in the past year by scaling back on more premium offerings while maintaining space for value brands. That’s a problem because, although it may be counter-intuitive during an inflationary period, premium brands are on the rise. Even a $10 or $12 gourmet frozen pizza is less expensive than takeout or delivery — and no one feels like they’re making a sacrifice. It’s an inexpensive indulgence, according to manufacturers.
Blackbird Foods’ Thaine agrees. “While frozen pizza was previously considered a low-quality meal, there are now plenty of healthy, artisanal and high-quality pizza options available. It is time that the category be rebranded to reflect the increasingly accessible [premium] options.”