With its easy-to-eat format and versatility that enables it to showcase both tried-and-true and trending ingredients and flavor profiles, pizza remains a top pick for consumers seeking a satisfying snack or full meal.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
America’s passion for pizza shows no sign of dwindling. CNBC reported that sales have reached $45 billion dollars in the U.S. this year (up from $38.5 billion in 2015) and that consumers eat 350 slices every second.
Ann Golladay, senior project director for Datassential research firm, pointed out that pizza has been one of the fastest growing categories in convenience stores over the last two years. When consumers were asked in a recent Datassential survey what foodservice item they purchased on their last visit to a convenience store, pizza came in first, even beating out hot dogs.
One of the main reasons is that convenience store operators are getting creative with their pizza varieties, according to Golladay.
“Convenience stores have a lot of ingredients already in their inventory that they can use to come up with innovative pizza toppings,” Golladay said.
One c-store chain where innovation fuels pizza sales is Shop ‘n’ Go in Reno, Nev., where the pies are made fresh in-store. Every day starts with the company’s signature breakfast pizza that is topped with a garlic spread, eggs, hash browns, ham or sausage, jalapeños or bell peppers and onion, explained Joe Linscott, Shop ‘n’ Go’s general manager of the company’s two stores. Customers can purchase the pizza whole or by the slice.
Shop ‘n’ Go’s pizza program is divided into two parts: 17-inch pies that are available whole or by the slice in seven or eight varieties and 12-inch personal, thin-crust “artisan” pizzas, which are available in five varieties.
Shop ‘n’ Go’s artisan pizza line began as a complement to one of the store’s beer growler filling station.
“We felt that the people who were coming in to get the craft beers might want something a little different and more upscale, so we spent a lot of time creating these flavor profiles,” he noted. “This part of our pizza business is really growing.”
The artisan pizzas use different meats such as prosciutto, chorizo and salami; cheeses such as gorgonzola, goat cheese and feta; and toppings such as fire-roasted red peppers, arugula, purple onion, sriracha and balsamic glaze. They take about two minutes to bake in the turbo oven.
Pizza is the flagship product at Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores, said Bill Walljasper, the company’s senior vice president and chief financial officer. He added that the c-store chain is the fifth largest pizza retailer in the nation.
Made-from-scratch-in-store pies represent approximately 40-50% of the total prepared food and fountain category, Walljasper said. About 1,900 of the chain’s 1,950 stores in 14 states (soon to be 15 with the opening of an Ohio location in January) produce and sell pizza.
About 45% of pizza sales at Casey’s are whole, regular-crust, made-to-order pies in small, medium and large sizes. Options are also available by the slice.
The company added flatbread pizzas about three years ago, each the size of a large regular pie, for customers who wanted a thinner crust. Since their launch, flatbread pizza sales have been consistently growing, Walljasper said.
Three breakfast pizzas are available including one vegetarian version. To keep the menu fresh and exciting for its customers, many of whom are regulars who live in the small rural towns that Casey’s serves, additional variations such as mac and cheese or spinach, chicken and artichoke are added to the menu on a rotating basis.
“Aside from making everything from scratch and using 100% whole mozzarella cheese, our pizzas are so popular because our employees undergo a rigorous training program to achieve consistency in all of our stores,” Walljasper said.
Customers can order in advance by phone, online or through the Casey’s mobile app, which made its debut last January.
Four years ago, Casey’s also launched a pizza delivery service after successfully testing it in selected stores. Currently available in 500 of the stores, the company is planning to bring the program to 100 more during this fiscal year, Walljasper said.
At La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip and Kwik Star convenience stores, the proprietary-branded Kitchen Cravings Cheese Mountain pizza accounts for 16% of the company’s hot food sales and 7% of total food sales, including hot and cold beverage, bakery and fresh case, said Paul Servais, food service zone leader.
Kwik Trip’s commissary produces 14 varieties of pizzas.
While sausage and pepperoni are still the top sellers, limited time offers (LTOs), which are usually on the menu for two months at a time, usually receive very enthusiastic receptions, Servais said. Examples include LTOs built around chicken, such as such as Chicken Carbonara, Chicken Alfredo and, the latest, Buffalo Chicken Deluxe.
A Bratwurst Pizza, developed to appeal to Wisconsin’s significant German population, also did quite well. And a Macaroni and Cheese Pizza, first introduced last August, was so popular that it was brought back in October as a permanent menu item.
Pizza is sold in all 500 of the Kwik Trip and Kwik Star stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Servais said the recipe was developed in-house.