As consumers demand more from the ready-to-eat and heat-and-eat pizzas they buy from the prepared foods sections of their local grocery store — more quality, more variety, more health-conscious, more transparency — ingredient suppliers are there to meet the need for retailers and the commissaries and central kitchens that supply them.

Cheeses move beyond commodity-grade

Several cheeses made at Fairfield, New Jersey-based Schuman Cheese’s Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, facility are a good fit for commissaries, central kitchens and instore kitchens looking to enhance their retail pizza programs with specialty cheeses, says Allison Schuman, the company’s sales director and a fourth-generation family member.

“Our Italian-style fontal, signature Copper Kettle parmesan, hand-crafted asiago and traditional romano all work nicely as pizza ingredients,” Schuman says. “We’ve also seen a large uptick in more specialty ingredients being used in pizza, and that includes cheeses that may not be as traditional but are incredibly delicious, like gorgonzola and mascarpone.”

In addition, many of the specialty cheeses Schuman Cheese imports from Europe — Taleggio, for example — are also perfect for pizza, Schuman says. And the company works closely with chefs to create custom shredded cheese blends that serve as a base or enhancement for a wide range of preparations, including pizza.

One of the things that separates Schuman Cheese from other companies that supply commissaries, central kitchens and instore kitchens with cheese for pizza is its use of high-end cheeses, which dovetails nicely, Schuman says, with changing consumer expectations.

“Typically, the pizza market has relied on commodity cheeses such as industrial mozzarella and parmesan that can be manufactured in high volumes with a lot of uniformity,” she says. “These days, with a growing demand for high-quality ingredients and a more inventive approach by restaurants and retailers, they’re focusing on purchasing specialty items and creating new flavor profiles for pizza.”

That, Schuman says, is Schuman Cheese’s “sweet spot” — the company prides itself on producing award-winning, high-quality cheese at a scale that’s economically appealing for the market. And more and more pizza makers seem to be getting that message.

“Pizza is very much a growing category,” Schuman says. “That’s partly due to the number of specialty pizza chains coming into the market that are focusing on quality over quantity and pushing the envelope of the traditional pizza. We have the benefit of being able to answer the demand for exceptional traditional cheeses, and also contribute some of those specialty flavors that make a really terrific gourmet pizza.”

As grocery instore has upgraded to include Neapolitan and other, more artisan pizza options, Green Bay, Wisconsin-based BelGioioso Cheese Inc. has been there to meet the demand, says Oscar Villarreal, the company’s vice president of marketing. Provolone, parmesan, romano, asiano, fontina and of course fresh mozzarella are among the BelGioioso options for pies marketed instore.

“As Neapolitan pizza’s popularity has grown, fresh mozzarella has become a staple for retailers,” Villarreal says. “Other types of pizzas are also gaining a following across the country.  Roman style ‘Pizza al Taglio’ is now of interest.  They use a specialty whole milk mozzarella that BelGioioso has developed along with the pizzaioli (pizza makers) specializing in these types of pizzas.” 

For BelGioioso, the formula for repeat business in the pizza category is pretty simple, Villarreal says. “Quality separates us from other suppliers,” he says. “We focus on quality ingredients and producing a consistent cheese and do not cut corners to reduce costs. We have one recipe for each of our cheeses, and it’s the same quality they would get when buying bulk presentations for pizza ingredients.”

Doughs diversify

Self-rising crusts are Waukesha, Wisconsin-based Baker’s Quality’s Pizza Crusts Inc. big sellers for grocery store prepared foods sections, commissaries and central kitchens, says Anne Cookson, the company’s co-owner and sales and human resources manager.

Retail grocery demand for pizza crusts is rising, as stores look to differentiate themselves and provide their customers with a better option to frozen, Cookson says. “I get requests every week from grocery stores and commissaries looking for ways to enhance their pizza programs,” she says.

And within the retail category, Cookson says, the balance is definitely shifting toward commissary and central kitchen pie production. “People are streamlining more,” she says. “It’s a consistency issue. Retailers want the pizza to be the same at all of their locations, made by the same people.”

Baker’s Quality distinguishes itself, Cookson says, by making its crusts by hand, using top-drawer ingredients and no preservatives or artificial flavors. That dovetails nicely with today’s grocery retailers, who are mindful of clean-label and of the need to step up their game when it comes to quality. As far as trends, Baker’s Quality is seeing big demand for the beer-infused pizza crusts it introduced two years ago, which were a big hit at the International Pizza Expo in March in Las Vegas.

As a value-add to its customers, Baker’s Quality also shares pizza recipes it’s developed over the years and ships pizza sauce and a pizza seasoning blend. The sauce and blend are Baker’s Quality but are not made in-house, Cookson says. “What makes them special is that they are delicious,” she says. “The sauce is a bagged, shelf-stable product and the seasoning is super-unique.”

Utica, N.Y.-based DeIorios Foods Inc. sells shells, par-baked shells, gluten-free and organic shells and dough balls for instore prepared foods sections and commissaries and central kitchens that make pizzas for them, says Jim Viti, DeIorios’ vice president of sales and marketing.

For commissaries and central kitchens, shells and par-baked shells are the most popular, Viti says. Shells are a great fit if retailers are looking for a pie that more resembles one you’d get in a pizzeria. Par-bake is more for those customers looking for durability and a longer shelf life.

Dough consistency can be an issue for instore grocery pizza programs, Viti says. Kitchens making the pies, for instance, may be using different machines for their crusts. With more than 90 years’ experience, DeIorios differentiates itself from its competitors with the reliability of its doughs, he says. “The consistency of our products is second to none.”

Instore grocery demand pizza is growing, Viti says. And within the category, two sub-categories stand out for DeIorios when it comes to growth: meal kits and organic. DeIoirios provides its doughs for kits and often co-packs for other pizza ingredient companies that provide the sauces, cheeses and other ingredients for the kits. “It’s still very early for the category, but it could definitely be more conducive going forward,” he says.

On the organic side, DeIorios can make pizza doughs with the same mouthfeel, taste and overall quality of conventional doughs, Viti says. The problem is making organic feasible on the financial side, given the greater expense of raw materials. “The challenge is supply and demand,” he says.

Another pizza sub-category that’s performed well but still has some kinks to work out is gluten-free, Viti says. Not too long ago, you might find gluten-free at the back of the store by itself, relegated to second-class citizenship. Now, Viti says, it’s marketed side by side with conventional. “Gluten-free has made strides, almost monthly, to become more mainstream,” he says. “The strides it’s made in the past three to five years have been tremendous.”

That said, today’s gluten-free pizza doughs and crusts are only better relative to earlier versions of gluten-free, Viti is quick to point out. “I still wouldn’t compare a gluten-free dough to a conventional dough,” he says.      

Secrets to the sauce

Chicago-based Pastorelli Foods has been making pizza sauces and other products since 1927. Richard Pastorelli, the company’s president, says a focus on what flavors consumers are looking for helps separate Pastorelli Foods from the competition.

“Moving away from the traditional sweet flavor profile and towards a zesty profile will truly sets one's pizza apart from everyone else,” he says. “Pizza sauce as a topping is a key element that allows pizza to differentiate itself from large multi-chains.”

Using only the top ingredients in its sauces — imported Pecorino romano cheese, for example — also gives Pastorelli Foods a leg up on the competition, Pastorelli says. “Our products are made with only the finest ingredients. Our pasta sauces are chunky, not watered down, and all of our products are from a family recipe that was used for centuries.”

Part of being a successful sauce maker, Pastorelli says, is having the flexibility to meet customers’ changing needs on short notice. “For over 85 years we’ve owned and occupied a 50,000 square foot manufacturing and bottling facility which is capable of custom blending to a specific recipe and is also able to privately label for both restaurants and distributors alike,” he says.

Pastorelli Foods ships pizza sauce under both its Pastorelli Italian Chef and Pastorelli Continental Chef labels. In addition, the company ships bulk sizes: Regina-brand pizza sauce concentrate (4 x 190 oz containers), Italian Chef pizza sauce (4 x 190 oz bags) and Continental Chef bagged sauce (6 x 105 oz bags).

In addition to sauce, Pastorelli Foods ships 55-gallon drums and 250-gallon totes of hot break and cold break tomato paste and diced tomatoes in juice.