When it comes to pizza, crust is king. According to Technomic, Chicago, the most-popular crusts at limited-service restaurants (LSRs) are thin and crispy. According to the 2016 “Pizza Consumer Trend Report,” 81 percent of consumers say crust texture is important in creating a good pizza, and 77 percent crust flavor is important. Gluten-free pizza crusts have also been trending, with 37 percent of younger consumers looking for them on menus (it’s also the top “health” claim in pizza today).

Other top trends tapped by Technomic include bacon-filled pizza crusts, breakfast pizzas, pizza handheld products and dessert pizzas. Three up-and-coming pizza chains to watch: Pizza Rev, Pie Five Pizza Co. and Toppers Pizza, while Marco’s Pizza saw the most growth last year for pizza chains earning over $200 million (34 percent sales growth in 2015), and MOD Pizza took the top slot for chains under $200 million (220 percent sales growth).

In order to delve deeper into the trends driving pizza today, we reached out to a range of pizza pros:


Douglas J. Peckenpaugh: What are some of the top trends in pizza today?

Donette Beattie: More variety in all aspects of pizza making, including crusts, sauces, cheeses and toppings. Innovation around flavors and crossovers from other popular foods into pizza like mac-and-cheese or Buffalo chicken.

Scott Goodrich: Millennials, who will outspend baby boomers by 2020, are demanding freshly prepared foods and are driving the trend for premium toppings and taste that are difficult to re-create at home due to the cooking technique, equipment and expense. They want pizza that is affordable, healthier and made in front of you. Uncle Maddio’s Pizza has two unique LTOs that fit this trend: Peachy Keen Pizza and Salad and Thai Pizza and salad.

The Peachy Keen pizza is made with Uncle Maddio’s handmade crust, garlic olive oil, shredded mozzarella, caramelized onions, crispy Italian prosciutto ham, feta crumbles and fresh local peaches. It is then topped with basil and drizzled with a balsamic glaze. The Summer Peach salad features a bed of mixed greens and arugula, fresh peaches, crispy Italian prosciutto ham, feta crumbles and a red wine vinaigrette. It is drizzled with honey and topped with toasted pistachios.

The ThaiTastic Salad features fresh field greens topped with juicy grilled chicken, red onions, purple cabbage, peanuts and drizzled with a handmade Thai peanut sauce and sweet and spicy honey Sriracha dressing. For those craving the Thai flavors on a pizza, the Sriracha Chicken Pizza starts with Uncle Maddio’s homemade pizza dough and is topped with the same homemade sauces and fresh ingredients as the salad.

Justin Davis: Fast-casual operators are driving many of the trends. They are bringing personality to their pizzas with pizzazz beyond the typical offerings, like pepperoni and cheese, and substituting with new veggies and meats not typically offered. Additionally, operators are playing with flavors to meet the global and ethnic trends by using flavors for pizza like Buffalo, red curry or Thai.

Smaller, personal-size pizzas are becoming more popular, as pizza is a fun, party food and shareable dish that can be interactive. It allows each person to customize their pizza and share among their collective group, while at the same time, gives them the ability to try a variety of flavors.

Bill Heiler: Growth is coming from pizza’s more culturally diverse cousin, flatbreads, which are growing in menu penetration at about 5 percent a year. Consumers like the approachability of flatbread as a way to experience authentic ethnic flavors like high-end soft cheeses, super greens, pesto and white sauce, and sausages. The wood/coal-fired oven trend also speaks to the growing popularity of authentic, Neapolitan-style pizza that can only be achieved with special dough and high-heat ovens.

Allen Hendricks: Some of the top trends we are seeing are: healthier options, unique flavor profiles, unique cheese blends and customization.

As customers strive to eat healthier, we are seeing more requests for gluten-free pizza and flatbread pizzas, pizzas with lots of fresh vegetable toppings, and a decline in more indulgent pizzas like those with ranch or alfredo sauces. The average customer today is also more concerned with nutrition facts and clear labeling on menus showing where the ingredients come from. In fact, over the past two years, there has been a 64 percent increase in menu mentions of operators using Wisconsin-specific cheeses on their pizzas.

Just because customers are looking for healthy options doesn't mean they want less flavor. In fact, bold and upscale spicy and sweet flavors and toppings are increasing in demand. For example, savory herb crusts, sauces, and flavors like pesto, barbeque, buffalo, and even maple, as well as spicy cheeses with hints of jalapeño, herbs, garlic, and peppers are all on the rise.

Incorporating a unique combination of several cheeses on a pizza is another trend elevating flavor profiles on pizza. For example, WMMB’s custom cheese blend calculator is a free online tool for chefs and foodservice operators to help them create that perfect unique blend, while taking into account cheese fat content and acidity, melt characteristics, browning ability, stretch, age and texture and following the general rule that blended cheeses with similar melt characteristics perform better than those with less similar characteristics.

Finally, creating customizable pizzas is another trend on the rise among pizza operators. According to Technomic, 76 percent of customers prefer to build their own pizza. The desire for customization is especially driven by millennials who enjoy interacting with their food and putting a personalized touch on most everything.

Daniel Marciani: In terms of doughs and crusts, the biggest trends I see are Italian style flours like 00. I also see Organic Heirloom Wheats, as well as different versions of gluten free formulations. I see the up-and-coming heritage wheats like spelt, farro, and red fife emerging in pizza applications. Beyond the grains, I’ve seen dough ingredients include additions like herbs, butter, buttermilk, sour cream, milk, or even baking powder for a softer richer flavor. These dough styles are not quite widespread, but innovating with the ingredients in dough and fine-tuning them for a fuller experience is certainly an emerging trend.

Another trend is how people are more interested in knowing the details of all the ingredients they eat - from local heirloom tomatoes to grains. There’s a big push for pre-industrial foods that come with interesting back stories. So now, “multi grain crust” is not detailed enough for a menu description. Instead, people want to see an ingredient list with each individual grain described. Tell a bit about each grain’s origins - the region where it was grown, who grew the grain, how it was milled, etc. People love the story behind great tasting food.


DJP: How has the pizza industry changed over the past few years?

DB: The Pizza itself has evolved to be more creative and “what’s allowed and accepted” by pizza aficionados is more broad in scope. Also the whole technology side of the business is evolving quickly. It allows for faster service, ease of ordering and easy customization. Order your pizza from anywhere and have it delivered where you are.

BH: Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a broadening of menu parts, from breakfast pizza in the early 2000s to appetizers and dessert pizzas, and more recently with the growth of fast casual and food trucks, growth in high quality, custom pizzas served fast for lunch made possible by high-heat ovens. Consumers’ increasing focus on health and wellness is driving growing demand for nutritional transparency and local sourcing of fresh pizza ingredients.

SG: Fast casual pizza has changed the pizza category for good. Fast casuals like Uncle Maddio’s Pizza offer an open kitchen where pizzas and salads are made in front of the guest. Nothing is pre-packaged or held for hours. Fresh and fast is the name of the game.

JD: Operators are targeting a more food-educated consumer that wants an experience. It’s not the big players, but the smaller retailers that are able to cater to these new consumers by focusing on quality, real ingredients and the experience factor.

However, larger operators are interacting with consumers through value and technology. Consumers can go to a website or even an app on their phone that allows them to order, customize and deliver a pizza.

AH: The customization trend has really taken over the industry and we are constantly learning about new quick service operators (Pyro Fire, Blaze, MOD, etc.) embracing that trend. Another change is a shift away from traditional toppings and breads. For example, we are seeing a growth in unique and healthy toppings like roasted cauliflower, chickpeas, arugula, and broccoli to name a few. Pizza crusts are also changing, again with operators offering more options for customization, like pizzas made with focaccia, flat bread or naan.

DM: Gluten-free demands have entered the picture, which has certainly changed dough offerings, and most operators need to offer a gluten free option. Formulating gluten free pizza dough is very challenging, which generally results in most operators using pre-made options—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Avoiding cross contamination in a small pizzeria is close to impossible as it can get, with staff members tossing dough in the air and using a lot of flour. We encourage chefs and professionals in the R&D Culinology arena who want to commit to gluten-free to experiment with as many options as possible. Not all gluten free formulations include healthful whole grains.

Most formulations I’ve seen use a combination of refined rice, potato, or tapioca starch, maybe some whole grains, yeast, salt, sugar and gums. But we can do better. With gluten-free grains, you still need a refined starch base, but including our Certified Gluten Free ancient grain portfolio of amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff at the right amount and with the right formulation, can work well in dough applications. This approach boosts whole grain nutrition and provides a great backdrop for unique toppings. Even better, our ancient grains are available in custom multigrain blends and mixes that provide a balanced blend of whole grains. I recommend trying out our gluten-free all-purpose 51 percent whole multigrain flour blend. Our customers like the flexibility we have in providing custom multigrain or gluten-free blends.


DJP: Which factors contribute to a superior pizza dough/crust?

DB: The flour and ingredients used to make it. The mixer, temperature, handling and dough management throughout the process. Then having the right pans, oven, time and temperature all will contribute to the perfect crust.

SG: Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Founder Matt Andrew toured the world looking for the perfect pizza dough and found it in Brooklyn, NY. He bought the recipes for both the original crust and the whole wheat crust We take great care in taking care of the yeast and make our crusts is daily in house And of course our crusts are never frozen. Our guests like it light and crispy and that’s what they get.

DM: When chefs are really passionate about their dough, they are willing to play around with the ratios of whole grain and white flour, sugar, yeast and oil (keep the salt standard) to attain what they want. Finding the perfect balance of extensibility and elasticity are a great place to start, but there’s a lot beyond the basics. The dough age, scheduling, amount of yeast, sugar and oil are going to greatly affect the flavor and finished crust characteristics. Put simply: Your scheduling, patience, process and dedication are most important. Cooking and topping pizzas is pretty easy for most experienced chefs. Reaching into the trough and getting a dependable pizza dough that you know is going to bake the way you’d like, day in and day out, takes a lot of due diligence.


DJP: How important are pizza ovens in determining the quality of a pizza?

BH: Ovens are a huge determining factor on the quality of pizza that comes out of them. There is a vast difference on how ovens cook pertaining to temperature, type of airflow, type of heat source or even the presence of microwave energy. These are all determining factors on how your pizza will bake, so you need to understand how your oven works and what it can do before you determine what kind of pizza you may want develop.

SG: When we started developing the Uncle Maddio’s concept, we knew that the type of oven selected would be one of the most-important choices in building a successful brand. Our proprietary, high-speed ovens provide a consistent and perfectly cooked pizza every time. There is no sogginess, overcooked or undercooked spots, or burnt crusts that some brick ovens have. This results in happy, repeat customers and fewer expenses due to remaking pies. Better taste, less waste!

Uncle Maddio’s also has the most throughput in the fast-casual pizza industry. We’re talking more pies every hour than anyone else. That means we’re more efficient—and more profitable—than our competitors. An Uncle Maddio’s Pizza, we can produce 200 pizzas per hour. That’s an important pace to keep since our busy lunchtime and dinner crowds keep things popping.

Uncle Maddio’s operational process is more efficient, too. One Uncle Maddio’s “pizza artist” can collaborate with a guest to prep a unique pizza in 18 to 30 seconds! Then the pie goes in our unique high-speed oven—which requires less labor and doesn’t call for a more-expensive and trained operator cook like some of our competitors require. By the time guests get their drinks and sit, the pizza is served right at their table.

JD: Pizza is based upon what each operator strives for in their finished product, including flavor call-outs, authenticity, crust style, etc. The oven is the vehicle that delivers the pizza from the operator to the consumer, so it is core to the quality and taste.

The industry is developing new technologies from wood burning ovens to conveyers. Plus, the type of oven can add to the flavor, authenticity and workmanship, all of which drive quality factors up.

Additionally, larger fast casual chains don’t have the time or money to train someone on more specific types of ovens, as workers back-of-house have mixed levels of experience. These operators need an oven that provides the same consistency and meets their needs.


DJP: How can a national pizza business overcome regional pizza preferences?

JD: There are a few ways to cater to the region. Large chains can have one to three slots on the menu open for the local franchisee to add regional, custom menu items. Or, retailers can become engrained in the community through fundraising and giving back.

DB: If you understand your guest, you can still have offerings that resonate in certain regions as preferred, but can be introduced as ‘new’ and ‘exciting’ in regions where they are lesser known.

LTOs are a great opportunity to try regional flavors across a national platform and see what has the most appeal across the chain.

SG: Many of our 50+ restaurants are locally owned and operated with strong ties to the communities they’re in. Some of our restaurants offer regional specials, such as the North Dakota Rough Rider Pizza, which has ranch dressing, mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses, ground beef and jalapeño peppers.


DJP: How has the millennial generation influenced the pizza industry?

DB: They have given the innovators of the category freedom to stretch the limits of what can be used to make pizzas. They are willing to try new flavors and also demand a fresh element. Their use of technology has forced the industry to up its game on all things digital as it relates to ordering and interacting with their pizza company of choice.

JD: The biggest way is technology. Millennials don’t know a world without technology and are always connected. Millennials want to go online, customize their order and have it delivered, and large chains are delivering on this. Although, it’s not just about having a technology presence, but a quality platform that is easy for all consumers to go to, understand and ultimately make a purchase on.

Millennials are driving the trends, and everyone else is following them because other generations also reap the benefits from these conveniences and improvements. You have to cater to the millennials, because they will bring the other generations on board.

SG: Millennials want trend-forward food that is fresher and offers more customization. They want to choose the size, the toppings—healthy or more indulgent—and they don’t want to wait long for it. Uncle Maddio’s offers not one, but four different sizes of pizza, from a 6-inch perfect for a child to an extra-large that will feed a crowd. Millennials no longer see pizza as only junk food, but as a meal that can be made healthier based on the ingredients and pizza size.

At Uncle Maddio’s, guests can choose whole wheat crust or even gluten-free. We also offer vegan cheese and 48 different toppings, all of which are fresh. At Uncle Maddio’s there are no freezers in the restaurants.


DJP: How are foodservice pizza trends influencing retail products?

SG: Like fast-casual pizza, retail food is becoming more exotic and gourmet. For example, you may see shitake mushrooms not just button mushrooms more readily available in your standard super market.

For more special ingredients, places like Eataly are also becoming desirable for retailers. These food emporiums are destination spots for diners and home cooks of all ages, where shoppers can go to buy quality ingredients that may be hard to find at their local grocer. Many of them, like Eataly, also offer on-site restaurants. Guests can dine out at the retail location, and when they’re done eating they can pick up gourmet foods to make at home the next day.

BH: To meet increasing demand for higher quality, brands like Screamin’ Sicilian, Amy’s and American Flatbread are offering and pizzas made with organic ingredients and baked in wood-fired ovens.

AH: Retailers, whether in the frozen case or part of a take-and-bake in-store pizza program, are also capitalizing on the pizza industry’s trend in customization. We are seeing a wider selection of toppings at retail, as well as the use or more unique cheese blends. Brew Pub’s Lotzza Mozza from Bernatello Foods is one such example, offering five unique frozen varieties that each use a half pound of Wisconsin cheese.


DJP: What do you see as the “next big thing” in pizza?

JD: More-simplistic pizza that features fresh ingredients is on the rise. Something like a simple margarita is not overly indulgent, as it features just fresh buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomatoes and a thinner crust.

New players from unexpected places are playing major roles in this category. For example, Casey’s General Store, a convenience store where consumers regularly purchase gas, has become a contender and wants a piece of the pizza pie. Convenience is going stride for stride with the large players and standard pizza chains.

BH: With a growing number of consumers experimenting with special diets such as vegetarian and vegan, the next big thing could be pizza innovation that meets the needs of this growing consumer base without compromising the pizza experience of their youth.

SG: For fast-casual pizza, the next big thing is third-party delivery. We are testing it in restaurants right now. The biggest challenge in third-party delivery is to maintain the quality of the pizza so that it arrives tasting just as good as it would in the restaurant. Restaurant companies do not want to lose control of their food, and that can be hard to do when using a delivery service. But companies like Uber, with its GPS and traffic-pattern technology, allow guests to know when to expect their meal, and diners like that. Delivery services manage all of the logistics, which restaurants like so they can concentrate on the food.

AH: A continued focus on clean, fresh and natural ingredients, expansion of ethnic styles like Mediterranean, Cajun and chipotle, and an overall migration to bolder flavors. This is specifically true for cheese as we anticipate growth in fuller flavored cheeses like aged Provolone, Cheddar and Parmesan, as well as operators using a combination of cheeses to create a strong flavor profile.

DB: The boundaries will continue to blur for what can go on a pizza. Toppings will continue to be innovative to surprise and delight. Toppings, sauces and cheeses will continue to be combined in new ways to create cravable flavors in the future.

Related: The age of innovative, better for you, premium pizza