There were few bright spots for the restaurant industry in 2020, but pizza was one of them. And after a year where many consumers say they’re eating more pizza, their desire for that comforting combination of cheese, crust and sauce may just be growing even stronger.
Pizza has always been one of consumers’ most loved foods, but there are lessons in the story of pizza’s rise during the pandemic, when thousands of restaurants shuttered or failed to adapt in rapidly changing times.
As an industry, pizza pivoted to off-premise sales last year, which is not surprising, but the rate at which the industry did it is significant. Prior to the pandemic, more than half of all operator pizza sales were sold on premise for dine-in occasions, takeout pizza represented a third, and delivery just 12% on average. But over the past year, delivery grew to 19% on average, and takeout captured the majority of sales to comprise nearly half (48%) of all pizza sales, according to Datassential’s Pizza Keynote report.
Consumers also began to shift the ways in which they got their pizza. More took to the grocery or convenience store and other non-restaurant options for their pies, choosing frozen pizzas, take-and-bakes or premade dough balls and pre-cooked pizza crusts to assemble or top at home. All those categories showed growth since the last consumer pizza survey was conducted in 2018.
So consumers still love their pizza, possibly more than ever, but what do they want on and in them?
Americans came out of the pandemic anxious to eat healthier and shed those pandemic pounds. But consumers are not interested in giving up their pizza, so healthier versions, including those with cauliflower crust are seen as a good compromise. Cauliflower crusts are also on the rise among those who adhere to low-carb or gluten-free diets. Gluten-free pizza is currently on 11.4% of menus and is projected to grow another 27% in the next four years.
Superfoods like avocado, kale and arugula are also among the fastest-growing pizza toppings.
And the plant-based trend cannot be ignored. The term plant-based has soared on menus in recent years, and consumers are looking for everything from plant-based meats to more vegetable-forward pizzas to experiment with.
Vegan is the fastest-growing pizza type by far, surging 187% on menus in the last three years.
Also ranking high among consumers in terms of pizza options: stuffed crust and global flavors like Mexican, Hawaiian and other non-traditional pizza flavorings, like Thai Peanut, which has seen a 58% rise on menus since 2018. Consumers want variety and bold flavors, but they also have room for the traditional.
Stuffed crust, in particular, represents the biggest gap between consumer demand and operator adoption.
Adding dayparts is another area of growth potential for pizza. Breakfast pizza, currently on 2.9% of menus, is expected to grow 15% in the next four years.
Beyond the pie itself, consumer interest in innovative pizza technology is also growing. And that’s not surprising considering the pandemic created unprecedented demand for safe, hands-free solutions. Offerings that only a decade ago seemed straight out of an episode of “The Jetsons” or a science-fiction movie are now a reality, including delivery by drone. Consumer interest in this technology, for example, has grown to 42% from 35% just three years ago. Other options like GPS tracking of food delivery, phone or alternate device delivery and even pizza vending machines have increased consumer appeal.
Not surprisingly, operators are optimistic about pizza’s future, with the continued interest from consumers for both the traditional and innovative — and the desire to eat it more often. It’s looking bright for the pizza industry, any way you slice it.
Samantha Des Jardins is a writer for Datassential, a food industry market research and insights firm.
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