Pizza continues to prove it is the total package. The food’s versatility, whether it’s a traditional hand-tossed crust or a gluten-free thin variety, lends itself to almost every market. Infinite toppings offer endless ways to dress up and put a bow on the gift that keeps on giving — for both consumers and manufacturers.
However, as the Italian icon evolves and the organic, gluten-free, non-G.M.O. and better-for-you trends influence the market, producers are having to adjust. This is particularly true for frozen pizza companies competing with quick-service, fast-casual and full-service chains.
“There is a growing demand for higher-quality and innovation that makes consumers feel like they are having an away-from-home experience right in the comfort of their own kitchen,” said Julie Adams, senior manager of consumer insights and analytics for the subsidiaries of the Schwan's Co. “Using a variety of prep methods to transform the crust in a way that is more premium or craft is something to watch this year.”
Thirty-seven per cent of households consumed frozen pizza bought from a grocery store two or three times a month or more, according to a 2016 Mintel report. Takeout or delivery pizza from a restaurant was even more popular and represents the most direct competition for frozen pizza and other types sold at retail. Overall, sales in the category picked up a modest 2% in 2015 and 2016, fueled by growing interest in premium pizzas. Increased variety has made up for flat consumption and volume sales. Mintel predicted the category will grow 11% between 2016 and 2021 to $5.7 billion in sales. 
Frozen pizza manufacturers are responding to heightened consumer expectations for quality crusts and toppings influenced by different regions of the world. By combining ingredients, producers must add value while maintaining the appeal of convenience and price.
Favoring fresh
Total pizza consumption has rebounded from a dip in the past several years, according to a Technomic 2016 pizza consumer report. Fast-casual chains and retailers have become more significant players. Menu innovation catering to demands for quality, uniqueness and convenience will be key in today’s crowded pizza market.
While frozen pizza is still a popular convenience choice, it trails takeout and delivery in today’s market. The Mintel study showed that 46% of people eat takeout or delivery pizza from a restaurant two to three times or more a month.
Rich Products produces a variety of pizza products ranging from frozen dough to parbaked crusts to fully topped pizzas for food service operators and in-store retailers. Tina Battistoni, customer marketing manager of prepared foods for Rich Products, said retail operators demonstrate freshness by allowing consumers to see a pizza being topped or by giving the perception that a pizza’s toppings may have come from fresh departments within the same store.
“The overarching theme for pizza is the notion of freshness and authenticity and the elevated expectations of consumers, not only in this category but also in all the foods they eat,” she said.
Fresh also plays into the popular transparency trend, Ms. Battistoni added. Rich Products deploys its culinary team not only to help operators maximize a product across recipes but also to educate and help convey the food’s story to consumers. Demand for transparency, Ms. Battistoni said, occurs across all channels.
“Whether that’s transparency on product packaging in the case of frozen retail pizza or transparency from a restaurant in telling the story of a product’s heritage or what the brand means, it’s a way engage with the consumer and establish credibility,” she said.
Frozen pizza manufacturers like Schwan’s Co., which produces the Red Baron brand among others, is capitalizing on the concept of heritage and authenticity to attract shoppers to the frozen aisles. The Schwan’s Chef Collective held a Kitchen Collaborative last summer at the Schwan Research & Development Center in Marshall, Minn., where a group of chefs, including celebrity chef Jet Tila, tested out different pizza flavors and crust types ranging from pretzel to flavored dough for potential consumer brand implementation.
“This year, we will accelerate the integration of Schwan’s Chef Collective into how we think about the innovation of the foods we provide to our customers and consumers,” said Dimitrios Smyrnios, chief executive officer of Schwan's Co. “Our collection of talented food professionals is translating emerging culinary trends into great-tasting frozen food that runs that gamut from wholesome to indulgent.”
Nation Pizza co-manufactures pizza around the United States, and Vince Nasti, vice-president of operations, said that younger consumers are pushing many of the new trends.
“They’re asking: ‘Are you sourcing locally? Are you giving back to the community? Are you sustainable from an environmental perspective?’” Mr. Nasti said. “We have an environmental statement. We do a lot of those things to try to keep up with the industry, to stay with the trends and not just stick with the old go-to flavors or products.”
But fresh and better-for-you options in pizza like gluten-free or organic are not limited to new flavors and ingredients. The timeless varieties of pizza are also finding ways to incorporate these trends. The classics — cheese and pepperoni — are driving the majority of pizza sales in retail and many food service establishments. While Mr. Nasti said Nation Pizza looks for ways to take the next big step, he also knows where the stable ground is for pizza.
“There will always be demand for a traditional type of product,” Mr. Nasti said. “A lot of these other trends are come-and-go; they’re in-and–out. They’ll stay for a while, but the volume is still with the traditional items.”
Topping the charts
Technomic predicted regional and themed flavors will see the most growth over the next year. And when it comes to flavor, the focus is on the toppings.
Asian-themed pizzas, such as the popular Atlanta-based food service chain Mellow Mushroom’s Thai Dye pizza, as well as Caribbean-themed pizzas, such as the Whitewater, Wis.-based franchise Toppers Pizza’s Jamaican Jerk Chicken, will emerge across channels, according to Technomic.
Sixty-three per cent of consumers listed toppings as the most important factor when shopping for frozen pizza, according to Mintel’s study. Meanwhile, 54% noted cost and crust type as the most important factors. Interest in ethnically or regionally themed pizza also is growing. Technomic’s study showed that interest has risen from 25% to 31% for all ages from 2014 to 2016.
Reflecting an adventurous approach to food, young adults are especially likely to express interest in a variety of new pizza features, in particular, flavored crusts, specialty cheese and regional flavors such as barbecue or Southwestern. Similarly, millennials in the Technomic study were 47% more likely to try regional or themed pizzas at least once in 2016 compared to 37% in 2014.
Retail pizza’s continued push toward higher quality and greater variety appears to be helping the category increase dollar sales despite flat consumption and volume sales, Mintel said. It also aligns with consumer attitudes. Nearly 75% of the category’s consumers agree that they would spend more on better-quality frozen pizza, and more than seven in 10 stated they like to try new varieties of frozen pizza, according to Mintel. These sentiments point to opportunities for frozen and refrigerated pizza marketers to break frozen-pizza shoppers out of their routines for purchasing the same variety or brand.
There are several big markets for pizza across the United States, said Diane Harper, vice-president of consumer insights and analytics for Schwan’s Shared Services. Each market’s flavor preferences vary, and pizza companies need to factor that in, she said. For instance, consumers in the Midwest favor meat toppings while cheese dominates the East Coast, and the West Coast features more better-for-you options such as gluten-free pizzas. Pizza producers may then plan which varieties to offer in different regions.  
“These factors play a role in how product sets are built at the store,” Ms. Harper said. “Bigger sets mean more topping and crust type options.”
DiGiorno, a brand of the Nestle S.A., makes authenticity one of its priorities.
“We keep our mission to make a better pizza at the heart of everything we do,” said Chris Brody, marketing manager for DiGiorno.
DiGiorno offers everything from classics like Rising Crust Supreme to lighter, more premium offerings like Pizzeria! Thin Margherita to indulgent options like Bacon & Cheese Stuffed Crust.
DiGiorno’s new Crispy Pan Pizza is baked using a consumer’s pan in about 25 minutes. The pizza is topped with extra cheese that melts over the edge to create a caramelized crust for a crunchy outside and a light, soft and tender inside.
To attract the consumer seeking better-for-you pizza, Schwan’s Consumer Brands developed Freschetta Gluten-Free and Artisan pizzas. The Gluten-Free line is produced in a dedicated wheat-free facility in California and made with a crispy rice flour crust and topped with a blend of cheeses. The Artisan line features a 51% multigrain crust made with a blend of three whole grains: whole wheat, brown rice and oat flour.
Under the Red Baron brand, Schwan’s also released a Classic Crust Chipotle Chicken pizza in February.
“We want to expand the appeal of Red Baron to a more diverse consumer set by bringing them bolder, spicier flavors,” said Brian Van Otterloo, senior director of pizza marketing for Schwan's. “The chipotle flavor profile is a restaurant menu staple, and chicken has been outpacing all other protein consumption, so we wanted to bring these trends to retail in an approachable way.”
Delivering the right order
Flavors can range from traditional to bold and spicy, but food manufacturers must also make pizzas that fit into today’s modern eating habits. Pizza, once considered a celebratory meal among large groups, continues to evolve as a single-serve, on-the-go option.
One of the biggest appeals of pizza is its convenience. Whether purchased at a restaurant, ordered for delivery or baked at home, pizza offers a quick, filling meal.
Adding to the convenience factor is the ability to store several frozen pizzas in a home freezer to bring out and bake as needed throughout the week. Frozen pizza has this advantage over quick-service or limited-service restaurant channels. Mintel’s 2016 study showed that four in 10 people keep their freezer stocked with frozen pizza.
While weeknight dinner is the most common ­pizza-eating occasion in all age groups, consumers aged 18-34 are considerably more likely than older adults to cite a wide range of other occasions, including weekend dinners, lunch and snacking, according to Mintel. Snacking in particular is an opportunity to drive pizza usage among younger adults who are more likely to incorporate snacking into their everyday meal routines. According to Mintel data, 18 to 34-year-old consumers are 11% more likely to eat pizza as a snack and 16% more likely to consume it alone or for lunch.
Ms. Battistoni said the trend toward more Americans eating alone is prompting some serious questions of the pizza industry.
“When you think about a product or a meal like pizza, it’s very much a celebratory meal option,” Ms. Battistoni said. “So when people are having parties or they’re inviting guests over, pizza tends to be a solution of choice. As we think about trends toward smaller portions, the way consumers are spreading out meals and the fact that a lot of younger consumers are eating alone, we need to think of ways to position pizza to fit evolving consumer needs in addition to celebration occasions in large groups.”
Catering to individuals can open a lot of opportunities for customization, Ms. Battistoni added, not only in ingredients but also in packaging for on-the-go lifestyles.
Examples of smaller servings include DiGiorno’s Artisan Style Melts, made on focaccia bread, and DiGiorno’s snackable Pizza Bun, both of which hit stores in early 2017. The Artisan Style Melts are intentionally created to eat any time without leaving the consumer feeling too full. Pizza Buns are a snack option baked golden brown on the outside and soft and airy on the inside and stuffed with ingredients like Italian sausage, pepperoni and mozzarella cheese.
“We are very conscious of consumers’ evolving eating habits and offer a variety of products to meet different occasions throughout the day, ranging from small, medium and large pizzas, to single-serve options,” Mr. Brody said.
Meanwhile, Red Baron offers Deep Dish Pizza Singles, French Bread Pizzas and Deep Dish Minis to cater to different occasions as snacks, appetizers or meals.
An uptick in growth during the past two years is an indication that the retail pizza category is making the right moves by enhancing product quality and introducing a wider range of new premium varieties. The opportunity exists for pizza marketers and retailers to accelerate the category expansion even more by introducing creative new flavors and combinations that can break shoppers out of their routines and capture new use occasions.
Gaining with gluten-free options
The future of pizza will include a widening variety of gluten-free options due to growing demand for gluten-free products, whether for dietary necessity or personal choice.
“Gluten-free continues to grow as consumers are choosing gluten-free options for dietary reasons,” said Tina Battistoni, customer marketing manager of prepared foods for Rich Products. “I don’t think it shows any signs of slowing. Gluten-free menu penetration continues to grow with pizza being one of the most prevalent gluten-free menu options.”
While gluten-free has come a long way, Ms. Battistoni said, opportunity exists for improving gluten-free crusts, both in flavor and texture, to appeal to the broader market.
DiGiorno introduced its first gluten-free thin-crust product this year with the Ultra Thin Crust Pizza. The crispy thin crust is topped with non-G.M.O. ingredients such as 100% real cheeses and Italian sausage. The Ultra Thin Crust Pizzas were released in May for a suggested retail price of $6.49.
Nation Pizza produces gluten-free dough for its manufacturers. Vince Nasti, vice-president of operations, said gluten-free, like other organic and natural claims, has proved it has staying power. “Those items have really taken off; there is really a demand for those types of products,” he said.