According to Technomic’s 2018 Pizza Consumer Trend Report, 83 percent of U.S. consumers eat pizza at least once per month, with 43 percent opting for pizza every week. And considering the growth evident in the current data from Chicago’s IRI, more of those pizza eating occasions are taking place at home.

According to IRI, sales of frozen pizza rose 3.2 percent to reach $5.1 billion in the 52 weeks ending December 29, 2019. Nestlé has a commanding lead in the category, with $2.0 billion in sales for the year, but didn’t see growth. Schwan’s Co. sits in the second slot and had more upward activity, with its Red Baron brand growing 11.5 percent to $700.6 million, Freschetta growing 2.0 percent to $166.2 million, and Tony’s growing 5.2 percent to $112.3 million, per IRI.

Frozen crusts and dough—where gluten-free now rules the roost—made significant gains over the past year, growing a whopping 50.0 percent to reach $39.1 million. Leading the pack is relative newcomer Caulipower, a gluten-free option that grew 100.8 percent to $18.4 million. The B&G Foods brand Green Giant followed its lead with its new cauliflower crust, which has quickly grown into a $6.0 million product.

On the refrigerated side, sales of pizza/pizza kits grew 7.5 percent to reach about $366.3 million. Private label is the name of the game here and saw sales grow 12.0 percent to $317.0 million, demonstrating a budget-driven consumer desire for affordable alternatives to pizza delivery. While this segment can prove challenging—many leading companies operating in the segment saw sales slip for the year—Palermo Villa has entered the fray with a Screamin’ Sicilian take-and-bake offering that brought in $1.4 million for the year, per IRI.

“The market for frozen and refrigerated pizza is strong and seeing more new and creative products hitting the market than in the past,” says Mike Philip, industrial sales manager, Naegele, Inc., Alsip, IL, the exclusive U.S. representative for Kaak Group. “As always in the frozen and refrigerated pizza market, convenience is a huge factor. Consumers are also more health-conscious and looking for higher-quality products.”


Topping trends

It should come as no surprise that the clean label and health-conscious trend is impacting the frozen and refrigerated pizza markets. “As more consumers are focusing on health, wellness and specific dietary needs, we’re seeing more facilities catering to a diverse population of specific buyers and their wants and needs,” says Chris Clemens, marketing manager, FoodTools, Santa Barbara, CA.

Hans Besems, executive product manager, AMF Bakery Systems, Richmond, VA, is noticing a demand for more artisanal products with recognizable toppings. “The trend is toward more healthy products,” he says. People want to know what they’re eating. If you put tomato or bell peppers on a pizza, consumers want to easily recognize the topping.

AMF equipment is designed to handle long-fermented doughs with high hydration, which will yield an authentic artisan-style pizza product. For purists, the AMF Den Boer Stone Tunnel Ovens yield a typical Italian-style pizza.

While pepperoni and sausage will likely retain their widespread popularity for many years to come, more consumers are trying to get their fix with crumbled and sliced meat alternatives, says Randy Medina, pizza application specialist, Grote Co., Columbus, OH.

Ethnic-inspired toppings are also on trend, with Asian-inspired and Italian/Japanese fusion flavors leading the way, says Guilley Guilfoyle, group manager, bakery, fats and oils, DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences, Wilmington, DE. His advice? “Make the ethnic topping very big and very bold, as that’s what consumers are craving.”

Also on trend, Guilfoyle adds, are regionally focused flavors like creole, hot southern flavors and craveable vegetable toppings. “We would not be surprised to see the vegan claim and plant-based proteins migrate to frozen pizzas. These are two top trends—especially plant-based proteins—that are in consumers’ minds but have not reached the frozen pizza category quite yet.”


Creative crusts

Pizza brands and manufacturers are finding creative ways to boost the clean label credibility of their crusts, and also bring this oft-overlooked component front and center.

One way to up the health ante of a frozen or refrigerated pizza crust is to cut the sodium content, says Janice Johnson, food science lead, Cargill Salt, Minneapolis. “Pizza alone is one of the top three leading contributors of sodium in the American diet. In response, we’ve seen more and more companies seeking ways to lower the sodium levels of their frozen pizza products.” For example, she says, one solution is to reformulate with the healthy salt substitute potassium chloride, an ingredient increasingly used in frozen pizzas because it can not only lower sodium levels but also increase potassium levels.

Specialty crusts are also helping brands increase the health profiles of their offerings. Cauliflower pizza remains the most-common iteration, says Guilfoyle, especially as vegan dishes are increasingly demanded in restaurants.

“Some of the top trends are gluten-free, vegetable-based pizza crusts using cauliflower or broccoli instead of flour,” says Philip. Not only are consumers drawn to these options because of their health profile, but they also flock to veggie-based crusts due to a rise in gluten-free demand. “We have seen that if someone in a household needs to eat a gluten-free diet due to an allergy, in many cases, the entire household tends to eat more of a gluten-free diet,” he says. “This is probably due to convenience as well as reducing the risk of cross-contamination.”

Traditional, grain-based pizza crusts could see a boost by going with a sourdough approach, or possibly thorough the use of ancient grains, adds Guilfoyle.

Crusts can also benefit from using a flavor-booster. “For a very long time, pizza has been about the toppings,” says John A. Giacoio, vice president of sales, Rheon USA, Irvine, CA. “In fact, the crust represents the majority volume of the product.” Now interest in better-quality crusts with a better bite and mouthfeel is rising. To feed this trend, he recommends a stress-free sheeting line, which he says allows manufacturers to gently handle the dough and allow it to rest after mixing to develop a more-refined flavor and cell structure, and yield a superior end product.

As consumers focus on crust taste and quality, brands must “keep up with the Joneses,” says Nick Magistrelli, vice president of sales, Rademaker USA, Hudson, OH. “Therefore, equipment solutions should be designed to be flexible enough to get into new product categories down the road.” This includes newly developed fermentation systems in the beginning of the process, as well as sheeting line technologies coupled with flexible make-up tables and topping units.

Indeed, flexibility is key, especially as pizza manufacturers are tasked with creating more products and more varieties of products faster than ever, says Medina. However, brands needn’t turn away from automation when an artisanal feel is top-of-mind. “Equipment brings consistency, accuracy, and quality to end products while providing a safer and more-sanitary environment—not to mention the ability to scale up production and reduce downtime. Equipment flexibility also continues to be more important as manufacturers run more SKUs and need quick change-outs.”

Clemens notes that a lot of equipment today is even designed to give the end product an artisanal look and feel while controlling costs and scaling the business. Plus, a fully automated line takes human handling out of the production process, replacing it with automated conveyors to transport the product from station to station. “At FoodTools, we’ve embraced this move in the market, and our commercial pizza-cutting equipment incorporates conveyors and can be fitted into a line with automatic onload, indexing and offload to streamline the portioning process.”


Ongoing advancements

Looking ahead, Besems predicts that targeted oil depositing will be an equipment trend impacting the pizza industry, as it can add additional flavor to the product’s base before baking. Plus, next-generation equipment trends already making their way to the pizza market include the ability for equipment washdown for allergen changeovers, extremely automated lines with just a few people running an entire bakery, or stronger and lighter equipment thanks to new 3D stainless steel printing capabilities, adds Philip.

In an effort to increase efficiency, production, and safety, manufacturers are also seeking equipment connected with performance data to optimize production and reduce downtime, says Medina. Grote Co. has already launched high-care robotics to replace manual tasks with its sandwich assembly equipment, and is currently looking into applications for its slicing and pizza topping equipment to meet demand.

“The right equipment can allow product manufacturers to deliver a very consistent, high-quality product at lower costs through reducing labor costs and automating lines,” says Philip. “It’s important for customers to know when they buy these products that they can expect the same level of quality every time with very little variation.”