A top-notch pie and artistic appeal help differentiate the offering for this important foodservice segment.
By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
Pizza, a perennial favorite of American culture, is grabbing headlines as some restaurateurs and retailers devise gourmet versions with a variety of innovative toppings and crusts. And while that’s all well and good, c-store shoppers will almost uniformly come back to their tried-and-true pizza varieties provided, of course, that the quality is there again and again.
According to Chicago-based restaurant industry research firm Technomic Inc., Americans’ pizza preferences break down like this, and don’t exactly scream exotic or gourmet:
• Crust: hand-tossed
• Sauce: tomato/marinara
• Cheese: mozzarella
• Favorite meat topping: pepperoni
• Preferred non-meat topping: mushrooms
Bill Anello, director of perishables/foodservice for Williamsville, N.Y.-based Wilson Farms Stores, suggested that turning out a so-called gourmet product in a convenience setting is not only difficult, but quite possibly beside the point.
“When people refer to gourmet pizza I’m not exactly sure what that classification is,” Anello said. “We have about eight or nine different varieties of pizza that we offer. We still sell traditional cheese and pepperoni as the lion’s share of our business, and we sell a lot of pizza by the slice. It’s easier to turn your product over when you’re focusing on the more traditional favorites that everyone likes.”
Wilson Farms sells pizza in about half of its 190 stores.
Operators expecting a rush of new business to appear when they roll out more exotic pizzas might be dissapointed, for some very sound reasons. “Customers may like the taste of exotic flavors, but the difficult part is finding the space to market many different varities,” Anello said. “Since we don’t put a lot of the unusual varieties into the case it’s out of sight, out of mind in a sense.”
Of much more importance for consumers is the overall quality of the pizza product. “The biggest thing I focus on is high-quality ingredients. That’s what customers notice and react to right away, and it’s what keeps them coming back,” Anello said. “That’s how we’ve been able to turn our program around significantly in terms of sales gains.”
To emphasize quality, Wilson Farms recently switched away from a par-baked crust to a self-rising fresh dough crust that Anello described as “outstanding.”
“Taste and quality is where we have had our best success because we have a true pizzeria taste to the crust,” Anello said. “Then you put good quality ingredients on top of that and we feel we can compete with anyone.”
Pizza for All Tastes
Steve Green, a consultant and publisher of Pizza Marketing Quarterly magazine in Oxford, Miss., chalked up the fact that pizza is growing more exotic to the fact that pizza is a mature industry. “It’s a natural outgrowth that began in the 1980s in California and has taken off.”
Pizza has traveled throughout the industry and even around the globe. “We have a pizza magazine in China and Australia and we have seen there and in other parts of the world like the Middle East and Russia that pizza is a favorite of customers everywhere,” Green said. “It moves over and then it adjusts to the local flavor a little bit and a new variety is born. All of the world flavors that manifest themselves in city centers with immigrant restaurants also are mirrored in pizza, which is a basic food of the world. It’s only natural that people are becoming more experimental. And with the world getting smaller and pizza getting better, this is just a natural phenomenon.”
According to Green, fully 90% of a c-store’s pizza business comes from customers who are “looking for a good pizza in their neighborhood,” he said. “The growth of gourmet is not going to change that. The most fanatical people—those who really will walk a mile for a pizza—aren’t going to do it for a gourmet pizza. They’ll do it for the pizza they grew up with, the pizza that reminds them that they’re at home. That’s the taste that they really want. Usually it’s a simple pizza.”
The pizza products that usually win diners’ loyalty and command the most respect, Green pointed out, are the basic ones. “In a market that is growing and as endless as our industry is, there is plenty of room for experimentation,” he said. “There is always going to be a niche—and a growing niche—for the upper end of that continuum of pizza variety.”
Upgrading pizza may require new dough products or toppings, but not new equipment. In fact, the most important ingredient may not be one that needs to be purchased at all. “You need to listen to your customers and take their input very seriously,” said Green. “A consistently great product supported by good marketing is a recipe for success.”
The most effective way to offer the best of both worlds—familiar favorites and trendy new varieties—is on an in-and-out promotional basis.
Marcus Watson, general manager for Buzz Buy stores in Magnolia, Ark., has also seen pizza evolve into a more upscale product. “The average person has grown bored with their same old pizza,” he said. “For us, this is a becoming a gourmet sale.”
CWIP Inc., Buzz Buy’s parent company, contracts with Hunt Brothers Pizza, which has a couple of limited-time pizza offerings: Philly Cheesesteak and Buffalo Chicken. The Philly Cheesesteak product debuted over the summer to much fanfare. It includes white cheddar cheese sauce, slices of beef steak, green peppers, onions and mozzarella cheese.
According to Watson, the addition of the limited-time-only (LTO) pizza was a success. “Anytime we can mix up our menu and offer something new it becomes an attractive draw for us,” he said.
The Buffalo Chicken pizza did similarly well. “I would love to see LTO’s integrated into the menu on a regular basis,” Watson said.
Hunt Brothers said it plans to do just that. The company has a research and development team that is testing other LTO pizza varieties plus other menu items like chicken tenders.
Jill Dreher, owner of a single JD’s Quick Stop convenience stores in Akron, Colo., has not only embraced Hunt Brothers’ limited-time specialty pizzas, but constantly looks for ways to bring new flavors to her consumers. In fact, she adds toppings requested by customers—fajita chicken, pineapple, ham and others—to the standard Hunt Brothers menu to ensure that her offerings reflect local consumers’ tastes.
“Every time they come out with an LTO for a couple of months we do real well with it,” Dreher said. “We do it every year in the spring. It doesn’t seem to cut into our regular pizza sales. Whenever they bring it out, sales are over and above what we would normally sell.”
At presstime, JD’s had yet to introduce the Philly Cheesesteak product, but Dreher was looking forward to its arrival. In all, pizza accounts for approximately 8% of the three-year-old store’s total sales.
In addition to pizza, JD’s features a small deli area where staffers make proprietary breakfast burritos, freshly made sandwiches and wraps, a chef salads, chicken wings and fresh-baked cookies. Merchandising efforts are limited to a few posters and marketing outside the stores has been minimal, but the foodservice program is trumpeted in a host of local radio commercials.
Pricing for all pizzas is $10 per 12-inch pie and includes any or all toppings. “We are strongly committed to quality and value,” said Dreher. “If somebody orders a supreme pizza they’re going to get a little pinch of everything. If they order simply pepperoni, they’re going to get it smothered with pepperoni.”
Being in a rural area, JD’s customers prefer the old favorites when it comes to pizza.
“Our most popular pizzas are the traditional pepperoni and cheese—nothing exotic” said Dreher. “But we operate in a small town. I would imagine that in bigger college towns you might run into a greater demand for a gourmet product, but for us the old standbys are what we sell the most of and what are most often requested.”
Did You Know…
Today’s pizza consumers are much more likely to order pizza online. According to a Technomic survey of pizza customers 16% said they always or almost always order pizza online and only 47% reported that they never utilize the Internet to order pizza for delivery. Additionally, 20% of those polled indicated that they would like more pizza chains to offer dine-in eating areas, and 38% said they would like these locations to offer drive-through service for pickup and carryout orders.