Nearly four years after the economic downturn, many Americans are still keeping a tight rein on their expenditures, monitoring how much they spend on essentials, including groceries, and nonessentials, such as eating out. Not surprisingly, many food manufacturers and restaurants have been impacted by this new-found consumer frugality, prompting the former to trim unprofitable items from their product lines and the latter to add more specials to their menus.

For pizza purveyors, however, these tough times have been a birdie. According to Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a fact-based consulting and research firm serving the food industry, 41% of the consumers who participated in its recently released Pizza Consumer Trend Report said they eat pizza once a week, compared to 26% two years ago. Factors such as innovative specialty pizzas, gourmet ingredients,
new non-pizza menu items, special offers and coupons have helped drive traffic
to both full-service and limited- service pizza restaurants.

People who regularly eat at home, meanwhile, are turning to less expensive take-and-bake and frozen pizzas for quick and affordable meal options. Technomic’s report reveals that 49% of consumers polled said they purchase pizza from a grocery store once a month, making grocery stores the second leading foodservice source for pizza. Limited-service pizza restaurants came in first, at 71%.

But cost isn’t the only factor prompting more consumers to give frozen pizzas a mulligan. Frozen pizza manufacturers are introducing new flavors in line with those offered by dine-in pizza restaurants and carryout chains, using premium ingredients and often employing restaurant-like preparation methods, such as making their pizza crusts by hand and baking them in brick ovens.

Nestle USA, Glendale, Calif., for instance, recently introduced a line of premium frozen pizzas inspired by Italy to its DiGiorno brand. DiGiorno Italian Style Favorites offers three flavors: Meatball Marinara Pizza, with Italian-style meatballs, zesty marinara sauce and mozzarella; Meat Trio Pizza, with Genoa salami, Italian sausage, pepperoni and mozzarella; and Chicken Parmesan Pizza, a combination of white meat chicken, tomatoes and zesty marinara. Each pizza features DiGiorno’s signature rising crust, which is brushed with a touch of olive oil and herbs. Sizes range from 27.5 oz. to 28.7 oz., with a suggested retail price of $7.39 for each variety.

Chicken run

California Pizza Kitchen, another Nestle brand, recently introduced a new frozen pizza flavor that dovetails nicely with another current consumer trend: Chicken. Technomic’s pizza trend report reveals that chicken is the most requested protein topping in the full-service restaurant segment, and the third most frequently listed protein in the limited-service segment.

California Pizza Kitchen Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara Pizza features a crispy, thin crust topped with garlic crème fraiche sauce, rosemary, grilled white meat chicken, applewood smoked bacon, onions, parmesan, asiago, romano and mozzarella cheeses. The 14.1-oz. pizza retails for $6.69.

Another new California Pizza Kitchen introduction, Limited Edition Chipotle Roasted Vegetables, is sure to appeal to consumers looking for a meatless meal that’s still big on flavor. The thin-crust pizza is topped with roasted red and yellow peppers, poblano peppers, roasted corn, black beans, chipotle lime sauce, parmesan, Asiago, Romano and mozzarella cheeses. The 14.3-oz. pie sells also sells for $6.69.

Those who prefer a toppings-laden pizza—and Technomic’s report reveals that many people do, given the growth in sales of combo-meat pizza varieties in limited-service restaurants—will appreciate Tombstone’s recently launched Tombstone Double Top Pizza. 

Consumers can choose from Pepperoni, with twice the total meat toppings as the Nestle brand’s Original Pepperoni; Supreme, with twice the meat and vegetable toppings as the Original Supreme Pizza; and 4 Meat, with twice the amount of sausage, pepperoni, hamburger and Canadian bacon as the Original 4 Meat pizza. The varieties range in weight from 23.71 oz. to 26.9 oz., with a retail price of $5.99.

Gallery pleasers

As for all baked goods categories, frozen pizza is not exempt from scrutiny by consumers with dietary issues or interested in healthier eating in general. A growing number of gluten-free products, including pizzas and pizza crusts, now enable these shoppers to reduce their handicap when it comes to enjoying a quick bite.

“Gluten-free was a $6-billion industry last year,” says Aaron Greenwald, president of Bold Organics, Yonkers, N.Y., who recently introduced a line of gluten-free, dairy-free frozen pizza. “And the gluten-free market is expanding rapidly.”

 Created by St. Louis chef Eric Brenner for Bold Organics, the Bold Organics line features four varieties: Vegan Cheese Pizza; Veggie Lovers Pizza; Meat Lovers Pizza; and Deluxe. And 85% of the pizzas’ ingredients are certified organic and include such items as organic shitake mushrooms, organic roasted red peppers, organic roasted yellow onions and organic spinach. An alternative mixture of organic baking ingredients enables the all-natural rice flour crust to deliver a satisfying crunch.

In addition to being gluten- and dairy-free, Bold Organics pizzas also are labeled as casein-free, egg-free, peanut-free and tree-nut-free, and contain no Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), preservatives, nitrites, nitrates or trans-fats. An 18-month shelf life enables consumers to store the products in their freezer for future meals. Sizes range from 11 oz. to13.5 oz. Consumers can purchase current Bold Organics varieties at stores nationwide and online, at suggested retail prices ranging from $6.99 to $8.99.

According to Greenwald, Bold Organics will debut four more vegan and meat varieties featuring “interesting and exotic gourmet combos” in January 2013.

American Flatbread, whose brand license was acquired by Rustic Crust, Pittsfield, N.H., in 2010, offers consumers a choice of all-natural and organic frozen topped pizzas with intriguing names and sophisticated flavors: Revolution, with caramelized onions, domestic mushrooms and a blend of fine cheeses and herbs; Ionian Awakening, with homemade tomato sauce, four cheeses, Kalamata olives, garlic and fresh rosemary; Vegan Harvest, made with dairy-free cheese and containing no preservatives, GMOs or casein; Sundried Tomato and Mushroom, with house-cured tomatoes, caramelized onions, domestic mushrooms, cheeses and herbs; Tomato Sauce and Three Cheese, with organic tomato sauce, three cheeses and herbs; and Cheese and Herb, with three cheeses and herbs.

Each pizza is handmade “from scratch,” and par-baked in wood-fired ovens.

Sizes and weights range from 10 in. to 12 in. and 9.1 oz. to 16 oz., respectively. American Flatbread pizzas are available frozen in supermarkets, healthfood stores and gourmet stores throughout the U.S., as well as online.

Championship crusts

Regardless of how innovative today’s frozen pizza manufacturers are when it comes to developing pizzas that meet consumers’ varied purchase requirements, some people still prefer to make their own pizza … but not necessarily the crust.

A number of baked goods manufacturers are producing flavorful pizza crusts that address specific dietary restrictions, as well as allow anyone to quickly and easily create an affordable meal or snack.

Kinnikinnick Foods, an Edmonton, Alb., Canada-based manufacturer of gluten-free baked goods and snacks, introduced Kinnikinnick Thin Pizza Crusts-Gluten Free in July 2011. Made with potato starch, pea starch and white rice flour, the pre-baked crusts are packaged two per 5.3-oz. package, with a package retailing at $3.

According to Jerry Bigam, president and CEO, steady growth in the gluten-free market in 2011 contributed to steady growth in both regular and thin crust pizza items last year. Improved variety (regular and thin crust), alternative sizes (personal and family) and increased interest by the foodservice category in prebaked pizza crusts for restaurant use also helped spur sales.

Pittsfield, N.H.-based Rustic Crust offers a gluten-free crust made with all-natural ingredients. The Gluten Free Napoli Herb crust is made with white rice flour and tapioca flour. Each package holds two 7-in., 9-oz. crusts and retails for approximately $6.

The company uses “Old World” baking methods to create its Ready-Made All Natural Old World Pizza Crusts. Each crust is formed by hand for a distinctive texture and double-proofed for flavor. All-natural unbleached and whole grain flours and select herbs and spices contribute to the product’s fresh taste, as does the lack of GMOs, trans-fats and artificial ingredients.

The line comprises four 12-in. crusts ranging from 14 to 16 oz.—Ultimate Whole Grain, with ultra grain hard whole white wheat; Tuscan Six Grain, with rye, barley, linseed, millet, sesame seed and flaxseed; Cheesy Herb, with mozzarella, garlic, basil and parsley; and Classic Sourdough. A 7-in., 9-oz. Italian Herb crust made with basil, parsley and other spices is also available in a two-pack. All varieties retail for approximately $5.

Rustic Crust also offers two 12-in., 13-oz. organic crusts: Organic Pizza Originale and Organic Great Grains, both of which retail for around $6. The newest addition to the company’s product line is a 12-in., 10-oz. Crispy Italian Thin Crust that weighs 10 oz. and retails for around $5.

Whether they’re amateurs or pros, pizza lovers looking for a quick, affordable and flavorful meal will find that today’s frozen pies are their ace in the hole.