Any way you slice it, pizza remains a fast favorite for consumers and c-stores. Trendy toppings, saucier sauces and low-carbohydrate crusts challenge pepperoni’s dominance.
By Anne Baye Ericksen, Contributing Editor
Late last year, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Neapolitan pizza to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage items for its traditional Italian pizza-making method, including oven-fire preparation, dough spinning and twirling, and of course, toppings and ingredients.
“It’s interesting because, while last December more than 2 million Italians petitioned UNESCO to grant the traditional creation process for Neapolitan pizza (what many consider the one, true pizza) World Heritage status, U.S. pizza restaurateurs appear to be firing back with as many new variations on the traditional pie as they can innovate,” said Shelly Whitehead, editor for Pizzamarketplace.com.
Now, prominent pizza restaurateurs include convenience chains. In a June 2018 article featuring the pizza offering of Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s General Store, Food & Wine, the contemporary magazine for elite dining, had this to say:
“Pizza in convenience stores is hardly unique, but for the most part, it will tend to be the stuff of last resort. There’s something, however, about the pizza at Casey’s that gets people talking. Some Midwesterners will tell you that Casey’s makes the greatest pizza around; others can’t believe that people are so excited by pizza from a gas station. Either way, so closely linked is Casey’s to its pizza; you’ll see many stores classified as pizza restaurants in certain popular map searches.”
That’s heady stuff for a channel that once considered a pre-prepared offering as falling somewhere between roller grill items and cold sandwiches.
Fresh, frozen or by the slice, pizza remains a favorite food in America. According to the
“2018 Pizza Power Report,” the U.S. baked up more than $45 billion in pizza sales last year. Research firm Euromonitor International calculated that pizza’s North American market value rose 4.58%, and earlier this year, Technavio projected pizza would post a 3% compound annual growth rate between 2016 and 2020.
Those numbers are good indicators of a healthy economic forecast, but don’t really reveal American’s obsession with pizza. Restaurant Manager reports that one in eight Americans eat pizza on any given day throughout the year. Another industry measurement concludes 93% of Americans over the age of two eat pizza at least once a month. And if those statistics weren’t mouth-watering enough for pizza producers and sellers, the trade publication states that 350 slices are eaten every second somewhere in the U.S.
As these figures indicate, the Italian dish continues to be an incredibly popular lunch, dinner and snack choice. They’re also proof of why so many c-store operators showcase it among their hot foodservice offerings. For years, cheese, pepperoni and sausage dominated c-store pizza menus, but as local pizzerias, national chains and frozen pizza producers began to experiment with flavor combinations, so have convenience retailers.
“Our guests appreciate the variety and innovation in our PJ Fresh pizza offerings, from breakfast pizza to buffalo chicken,” said Shannon Johnson, vice president of foodservice innovation for Pilot Flying J. The company, headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn., owns and operates more than 750 retail sites in 44 states under the brands Pilot and Flying J Travel Centers.
“For our traditional guest, the trend of value, variety and abundance is our focus. We have found [they] want high-quality toppings and the freshness of handcrafted pizza and 100% mozzarella cheese,” Johnson added.
Creativity with ingredient combinations leads the way. At last month’s National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Show, pizza makers showcased interesting components, such as cauliflower, pork belly and Soppressata—an Italian dry salami.
“This past year or more, we’ve been seeing crusts made with pulverized cauliflower, pizza sauces and other dipping concoctions with exotic and often very spicy ingredients, and toppings of every variety you can imagine, from peaches and prosciutto to different types of squash and seafood,” said Whitehead. “The takeaway is if you’re serving pizza now, you’d best keep it creative and keep heeding your customers’ ever-changing tastes.”
While it appears virtually anything goes on pizza nowadays, there definitely have been a few star performers. Starting at the bottom, crusts have undergone a metamorphosis. You can still find thin, hand-pressed and rising options, but now some pies include substances such as activated charcoal, which gives the bread a black hue.
Gluten-free crusts allow individuals with specific dietary needs to still indulge. And for those who want their pizza pie without compromising their commitment to healthier choices, cauliflower seems to be a preferred additive. Some makers have even experimented adding quinoa.
Sauces are getting mixed up, too. Joining the traditional tomato sauce are other fairly mainstream options, such as white garlic, pesto and barbecue sauces. And apparently, condiments aren’t just for burgers and hot dogs anymore. As the “2018 Pizza Power Report” authors stated, “Millennials love their ranch.” Pizzas with a mustard-based sauce also have gained a fanatical following.
Of course, you’ll find the most variety in toppings. In addition to a plethora of meats, cheeses, including vegan options, people like to pile on the vegetables— from asparagus to zucchini. But, there’s no rule saying pies have to be confined to the savory, nor is pizza just for dinner anymore.
“Breakfast pizza is one of our unique offerings. Guests have really gravitated toward enjoying pizza during other dayparts, such as the mornings,” said Johnson.
Plus there have been regional breakouts. Pizza aficionados no longer have to drive to the Motor City to bite into the crunchy, crisp cheesy crust of a Detroit Pie as pizzerias as far as San Francisco serve up the Midwest squared classic. New York-style and deep-dish Chicago have long been sold nationwide.
Other regional favorites gaining national attention, according to Thrillist.com, include Colorado Mountain Pie—a sweeter doughy crust piled with toppings—and Indian pizza, featuring traditional Indian dishes, such as saag paneer or tandoori chicken. That said, observers say it’s important that c-stores still cater to diehard pizza purists.
“The demand for healthier options has yet to develop in this market,” said Sean Bumgarner, vice president for Ozark, Mo.-based Scrivener Oil Co., which operates about a dozen Signal Food Stores in Missouri, andcarries Papa John’s pizza. “One of our most successful limited-time offerings was the double-cheeseburger pizza, which will soon be offered again.”