In some areas, it wasn’t uncommon to walk into the local grocery store during the COVID-19 pandemic and see the shelves wiped out of frozen pizza. Consumers want quick and easy meals that also function as comfort food, and the same goes for easy-to-prepare frozen snacks like pizza rolls and pizza bagels, as well as ethnic appetizers like egg rolls.
According to IRI data for the 52 weeks ending on February 21, 2021, the frozen pizza category brought in $6.4 billion in sales, up a healthy 24.8 percent from the previous year. Nestlé USA brought in $2.5 billion in sales, and grew 20.4 percent from 2020. Schwan Food Co. accumulated $1.3 billion in sales, with a strong 33.8 percent increase. Private label brands combined for $793.2 million in sales, with a 20.2 percent increase.
Several pizza brands saw significant growth over the past year:
- DiGiorno, up 21.9 percent to $1.4 billion
- Red Baron, up 38.2 percent to $982.8 million
- Totino’s Party Pizza, up 18.6 percent to $442.0 million
- Jack’s, up 16.9 percent to $336.0 million
- Tombstone, up 7.3 percent to $225.5 million
- California Pizza Kitchen, up 31.7 percent to $238.6 million
- Freschetta, up 33.7 percent to $231.3 million
- Tony’s, up 4.5 percent to $110.8 million
- Newman’s Own, up 52.3 percent to $109.8 million
- DiGiorno Pizzeria, up 15.9 percent to $107.2 million
- Brew Pub Lotzza Motzza, up 30.3 percent to $106.1 million
- Home Run Inn, up 41.6 percent to $102.6 million
The frozen appetizers/snack rolls category likewise saw a very strong year, up 27.5 percent in sales from 2020, garnering $3.2 billion. The primary appetizers/snack rolls segment within the category grew 26.5 percent to $3.0 billion.
General Mills leads the pack, with a 29.1 percent increase and $792.6 million in sales, with $779.1 million of that total coming from its Totino’s Pizza Rolls brand, which grew 28.6 percent.
Private label brands had $318.6 million and a 35.2 percent increase.
Kraft Heinz Co. saw $550.7 million in sales, up 23.4 percent. Its top brand is Bagel Bites, which grew 23.8 percent to $213.8 million. Its Delimex brand of taquitos grew 23.2 percent to $184.4 million. And its TGI Friday’s brand of frozen appetizers grew 23.7 percent to $141.6 million.
Other top performers in the segment include:
- José Olé, up 44.2 percent to $91.8 million
- Tai Pei, up 45.9 percent to $79.6 million
- Foster Farms, up 42.9 percent to $57.0 million
- Pagoda, up 89.3 percent to $56.4 million
- State Fair, up 32.1 percent to $37.1 million
New products and trends
Frozen pizza fit into pandemic life. “COVID-19 has changed a lot in our consumers’ lives, and it’s been important for us to recognize those changes as we’ve thought about our product innovation strategy for Red Baron Pizza,” says Brian Thompson, associate marketing manager, Schwan’s Co., Marshall, MN. “We know that a reduction in out-of-home eating occasions and a desire for comfort food and indulgence during challenging times have added tailwinds to what was already a strong growth trend in the premium segment of frozen pizza. We also know that a large number of new consumers have been drawn to the frozen pizza aisle for the first time, or perhaps the first time in a while, seeking stress-free and family-pleasing options.”
Red Baron Pizza recently released a rectangular-shaped pizza with a stuffed crust, with mozzarella inside the edges, and a breadstick-like outer crust. “As Red Baron Pizza continues to be a major driver of category growth, we felt it was important to launch a product that provided the indulgence and restaurant-quality experience that consumers are looking for, and stuffed crust seemed like the right opportunity. In the past, consumers have had only one, maybe two brands of stuffed crust to choose from—so we decided to put our spin on what we know is a favorite crust type in the category. We developed a unique, rectangular pizza that consumers told us was fun and different,” says Thompson.
Ciera M. Womack, director of marketing, Rich Products Corp., Buffalo, NY, notes some consumers are looking for “better for you” product options. “Whether that be plant-based frozen pizza or high-protein, low-carb appetizers, consumers are interested in making ‘healthier’ choices,” she says. “The global pandemic has played a role in this overall trend.”
Some specific trends that Rich’s is seeing across the frozen pizza and appetizer categories include:
- Quality, authenticity and taste remain an expectation
- Many consumers are eating less meat
- Product claims should highlight sources of protein
Rich’s recently released a new line of plant-based products called Garden Inspirations by Farm Rich. “This new plant-based product line includes appetizers, snacks, and meal solutions made with plant-based meats and other wholesome ingredients, making it a great option for vegetarians, flexitarians, and anyone looking to reduce meat consumption in their daily diet,” says Womack. The new products include Meatless Meatballs, Plant Based BBQ Sliders, Breaded Cauliflower Bites, and Breaded Zucchini Sticks.
Nick Fallucca, chief product and innovation officer, Palermo Villa, Milwaukee, WI, says that with more people working from home and kids participating in remote learning, consumers are seeking quick and convenient meal solutions that can be easily prepared for lunch and dinner. “While multi-serve pizza has always been a popular and convenient meal option for dinner, we’ve seen sales and consumer demand for single-serve pizza increase dramatically, as consumers are seeking easy-to-prepare meals for lunch. Along with single-serve pizzas, handheld snacks such as stromboli have also experienced tremendous growth.” Palermo Villa has leveraged the success of its Screamin’ Sicilian frozen pizza brand to introduce a line of premium frozen Stromboli sandwiches under the brand. “This line has experienced significant growth, as it provides a more filling, and premium offering than what was currently available in the market,” he says.
Fallucca notes a rise in restaurant brand/inspired frozen pizzas hitting the shelves. “With consumers eating home more frequently during the pandemic, consumers are seeking frozen pizza offerings that provide a high level of quality that is on-par with their pizzeria counterparts. These offerings often replicate what is available at the restaurant and provide very approachable varieties that cater to the needs of the family.”
Palermo’s is tapping into this trend through its Connie’s and Palermo’s Neighborhood Pizzeria brands, says Fallucca. The Connie’s brand, which Palermo Villa acquired in 2017, has expanded to include four varieties of deep-dish pizza, which has been a trademark of its Chicago-area pizzerias, and its new Palermo’s Neighborhood Pizzeria line provides a nod to the company’s heritage, which started as a restaurant and pizzeria in Milwaukee. “The line originally launched with the four most-popular varieties, cheese, sausage, pepperoni, and supreme, but has recently added four additional varieties, including a 4 Meat, Sausage and Pepperoni Combination, Chicken Alfredo, and Sausage, Mushroom & Onion.”
Palermo Villa has also introduced new varieties of its Screamin’ Sicilian brand: Thin & Crispy and Za Brewski, with the latter featuring a specialty crust baked with Leinenkugel’s beer. The compnay also recently updated its Palermo’s Rising Crust pizza brand, says Fallucca, with a thicker, pizzeria-style crust that rises as it bakes.
Doug Hall, director of marketing, Raybern’s, San Ramon, CA, says that the global COVID-19 pandemic has changed consumer behavior beyond what anyone could have predicted. “Historically, Americans have spent about 50 percent of their food budget on groceries and 50 percent on meals away from home. With fewer away-from-home options available, consumers started buying larger quantities of shelf-stable products and longer-shelf-life items like frozen foods.” This catalyzed a significant increase in demand for Raybern’s microwavable frozen sandwiches.
While working and/or going to school remotely from home, consumers are looking for convenience, quality, and great taste, says Joe Bybel, senior vice president marketing, Ruiz Food Products, Inc., Dinuba, CA. “When we dial down specifically to the frozen Mexican food category, growth has been particularly strong, as consumers gravitate toward burritos, quesadillas, taquitos, and more—because of their versatility, in addition to convenience, quality, and great taste.”
Ruiz Foods introduced several new products to its El Monterey line within the past year, includinf El Monterey Extra Crunchy Diablo Chicken Tacos, El Monterey Nacho Cheese Taquitos, and El Monterey Signature Loaded Nacho Chimichangas. “Consumers continue to look for ‘new,’ in terms of flavors, heat levels, formats, etc.,” says Bybel. “Our strategy for category growth is to continue to introduce the unexpected—offering consumers something new—while keeping true to our commitment to high quality and great taste.”
Michael Bierbach, senior associate brand manager, Totino’s, General Mills, Minneapolis, says that while already showing consistent year-over-year growth, the hot snacks category has been a go-to category among consumers during the COVID-19 crisis and lockdown period.
Bierbach points toward some key trends in this space:
- Expandable consumption—brands are shifting to larger sizes and seeing growth
- Craveable flavors—international cuisine influences, restaurant inspirations, and other craveable flavors are a focus of recent category innovation
- Health—consumers are seeking options (plant-based eating, high protein, etc.) that they perceive as healthier as they seek to counteract indulgence cravings
In summer 2020, General Mills launched Totino’s Takis Fuego Mini Snack Bites. “We wanted to make a spicy snack, since we didn’t see a lot of spicy options in the frozen aisle,” says Bierback. “We were already big fans of Takis chips and saw a ton of buzz and love for Takis Fuego and its signature chili lime flavor. So why not combine two snacks that people love—Totino’s pizza rolls and Takis?”
Danny Jenniges, marketing manager, Schwan’s Co., says that the landscape of snacking saw a lot of changes in 2020 due to COVID-19, including frozen egg rolls. “This included more consumers avoiding restaurants and eating at home, as well as consumers seeking out more ‘comfort’ foods. Our data shows consumers ate 33 percent more snack foods in 2020. Our Pagoda brand saw dollar volume growth of 95 percent compared to 2019. Another trend we are seeing is more consumers seeking meatless snacking options, both for health and sustainability.” To help meet such demand, Pagoda launched its 8-pack of Vegetable Egg Rolls in May 2020.
Products like frozen pizzas and appetizers require specific ingredient and formulation strategies, both in terms of taste and functionality.
Chris Thomas, project leader, innovation and technical service, Ingredion Incorporated, Westchester, IL, says that starches, functional flours, and gums can provide stability during production, shipping, and frozen storage to ensure good eating quality to meet consumer expectations. “Some starches and gums can be used to reduce filling boil-out in filled dough products. There are many ingredient options to help make an ingredient statement look more appealing, either by simplifying to more-recognizable ingredients or making it cleaner label—for example, modified starch replaced with functional flour.”
In terms of making a product healthier, there is a lot of industry experience in fortifying yeast-leavened baked goods with fiber, Thomas says. “Typically, it’s more straightforward to fortify a product like a pizza crust with insoluble fiber, though water absorption and the fiber’s impact on dough viscoelasticity must be considered. Plant-based proteins are being used more and more often for protein fortification, especially in gluten-free products. There may be opportunities to reduce sugar in certain frozen food applications, too, through the use of rare sugars, like allulose, and soluble fibers.”
Brock Lundberg, Ph.D., division president of R&D and applications, Fiberstar, Inc., River Falls, WI, says that one of the attributes of heat-stable functional ingredients such as Citri-Fi citrus fiber is that they maintain product quality throughout processing and reheating, which is important in having an appealing pizza and appetizer product. “Reheating and microwaving can be challenging on pizza and appetizer products because of the difficulty in managing moisture and fat, which quickly separates and migrates with changing temperatures. However, because Citri-Fi contains native intact pectin content and naturally occurring cell wall material, not only does the product hold large amounts of water and oil, but it’s also thermally stable to maintain product quality through thermal processing and reheating.”
Another challenge is freeze/thaw conditions during shelf life, where ice crystals can grow and cause a loss of product quality, says Lundberg. “Having ingredients such as Citri-Fi that manage moisture and ice crystal growth is another way functional ingredients can improve product quality.”
Shiva Elayedath, senior technical services manager, Cargill, Minneapolis, says that it’s important for developers to keep the fundamentals in mind as they formulate frozen pizzas, appetizers. and snacks. “They need a clear understanding of what the product will go through, encompassing everything from processing, shipping, and storage, until the consumer reheats and consumes the meal. These insights will help developers create formulas that consistently deliver a final texture and eating experience consumers will enjoy.”
Frozen foods typically endure multiple rounds of freeze/thaw cycles. As they go through these phase changes, water in the system can separate out of the food matrix, transforming a sauce into a weepy mess, Elayedath says. “To prevent this from happening, we rely on the water-holding capacity of starches. The right starch solution will hold onto the water, preventing it from escaping the matrix.” She notes Cargill’s line of label-friendly SimPure starches work well, especially the new tapioca starches. “These starches offer outstanding syneresis control, with high process tolerance and excellent freeze/thaw stability,” he says. “They can even withstand the challenge of moving from freezer to microwave.”
Hydrocolloids like xanthan gum are also often used in frozen foods, contributing to freeze/thaw stability, providing viscosity and creating the consistent, smooth textures consumers expect, Elayedath notes.
Alissa Weidman, commercialization strategy manager, Cargill, says pea protein is also an option to add viscosity to sauces, and in cheese sauces, it can help stabilize the emulsion.
“One of the biggest shifts in this category has been the move toward label-friendly formulation,” says Weidman. “While legacy products may maintain their value-focused positioning, the newer entries to the marketplace are placing a heightened emphasis on clean labels. Consumers increasingly reach for frozen foods they view as healthier alternatives, a reality reflected in the growing selection of organic, gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based options,” she says. “As consumers embrace these premium choices, brands have responded with a focus on chef-inspired frozen foods that strive to emulate restaurant quality. Bolder flavors and international cuisines reflect trends happening outside the freezer aisle, rewarding consumers with convenient, gourmet-styled offerings.”
The plant-based frozen-food segment is exploding, says Melissa Machen, senior technical services manager, Cargill. “Take frozen pizza, a stalwart of the category. You’ll find pizzas topped with sliced peperoni meat alternatives and plant-based Italian sausage crumbles. Developers are even closing in on creating really good plant-based cheeses, opening the door for vegan pizzas,” she notes.
Machen says pea protein and textured pea protein can be used to create a range of plant-based pizza toppings, including meat-alternative Italian sausage crumbles and plant-based pepperoni. “Tapping into pea protein’s versatility, we’ve created a variety of pizza toppings, from small, minced formats to larger meatballs. When using PURIS pea protein, which has a neutral taste profile, that versatility extends to flavor pairings. We’ve successfully used PURIS pea protein with traditional pizza flavors like beef, Italian sausage, and pepperoni,” she says.
Nutritionally, pea protein delivers a high amount of protein, enabling product developers to offer plant-based options with nutritional benefits that are similar to conventional, animal-based products, Machon adds. “Pea protein also appeals to label-conscious shoppers—it’s familiar, gluten-free, and non-GMO. PURIS pea protein is even USDA certified organic. To round out the plant-based pizza topping formulation, we rely on hydrocolloids and plant-based vegetable fat sources to provide the functionality necessary for an optimum texture and flavor.”
In addition, Elayedath notes consumers are looking for increased fiber, lower net carbs, and overall lower calories in the foods they eat. “One way to achieve this is by replacing some of the carbohydrates with fiber. An excellent solution for frozen pizza and snacks is to use resistant starch. Cargill’s ActiStar RT 75330 is a modified tapioca starch that is an RS4-type resistant starch. ActiStar RT 75330 contains over 85 percent total dietary fiber. Formulators can replace flour used in the pizza crust or on the crusts of frozen snacks with ActiStar RT75330 to reduce net carbs and increase fiber content in their products. The tapioca starch has no competing flavors and does not detract from the taste, texture, or appearance of the finished product,” he says.
Strategies for growth
Jenniges says Schwan’s Pagoda brand is launching a “Put the Egg Rolls In!” campaign that will help it reach a new consumer target and drive awareness of the category. “To support the campaign and drive consumers to shelf, we are significantly investing in national media.”
Schwan’s is also in the process of launching our Asian Destination at retailers across the country. Asian Destination is a merchandising model that brings all frozen Asian food products and brands to a central location in freezer aisle,” says Jenniges. “This central location provides consumers with an easy shopping experience where they can put together a complete meal with appetizers, sides, and entrées.”
Womack says that Rich’s is focused on three key areas for category growth:
- Packaging—ideating ways to bring unique innovation to the category that meets the ease of use consumers know and love
- Post-COVID vision—in the wake of unprecedented demand in the frozen category, going forward, Rich’s will continue to supply customers with its base product portfolio, while identifying new, innovative products to bring to market
- Higher protein—in one example, Rich’s flagship product, Mozzarella Cheese Sticks, is made with 100 percent real mozzarella, and contains 12 grams of protein per serving
Bierbach says that Totino’s will move with category trends, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “More at-home eating will drive more expandable consumption, and the recessionary impact will increase the important of low-risk entry prices and merchandising,” he predicts. “There will be an acceleration of long-term e-commerce growth, and innovation will remain a focus, as consumers seek craveable flavors they can replicate at home and convenient options that fit their specific health needs.”