Like fried chicken, pizza is a traditional food-service item that has made the successful transition into the supermarket meals setting. Indeed, it is considered by many retailers to be a cornerstone of their deli/fresh-meals program, and for good reason.
According to the most recent industry overview provided by the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., pizza is still a "burgeoning" category, a $30 billion-a-year juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing.
Retailers contacted by SN say that the ingredients that go into pizza -- crust, sauce, cheese and toppings -- make it easy for them to implement a pizza program on some level, whether hot-from-the-oven, ready-to-heat or by component.
"Pizza is a very important component of our HMR program," said Carol Moore, retail food-service manager of Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, a one-store independent in Akron, Ohio, which began offering pizza about a year ago and is planning a "major focus" on the category when it opens its second store, which is to be completed about late summer. "No one wants to eat the same food every day, and pizza allows us to offer our customers one more option," said Moore, who said she believes that today's busy lifestyles are behind much of the category's growing popularity.
Another factor fueling growth, according to Moore and other retailers, is the changing perception of pizza from a high-fat, high-calorie junk food, into a nutritious meal option. Supermarkets are finding success in this area by developing recipes that reflect this healthy profile.
"Pizzas are very popular with adults, as well as children, because they're freshly prepared and one piece can supply all of the food groups," according to Liz Little, co-owner and president of V. Richard's, an upscale, one-store independent in Brookfield, Wis.
"A slice of pizza, accompanied by soup and salad, is becoming an acceptable meal," she added.
Josh Tully, a deli employee at the North Valparaiso location of Wise Way Food Stores of Merrillville, Ind., also said he believes that customers are very responsive to healthy, as well as low-fat, low-calorie pizza options.
He's seen proof in the way customers responded to a vegetable primavera pizza he created as an "experiment" several months ago, as well as a fajita pizza he offered for the first time about a week ago.
"Customers returned to tell me how much they enjoyed both pizzas, and we've gotten orders for the vegetable primavera, even though it's not listed on our menu," he said.
"Parents on-the-go are looking for more than just fast and easy food -- they're looking for something that's fast, easy and nutritious," said Moore of Mustard Seed. She added that the store's pizzas -- made of all-natural ingredients, like all the items in its prepared-foods department -- meet that bill.
"When customers buy a pizza here, they know they're getting good stuff -- nothing synthetic, only all-natural ingredients of the highest quality," she said.
In addition to offering a variety of pizza toppings, retailers are also offering a variety of choices in the way in which they make pizzas available to customers. For example, it's not unusual for a supermarket to offer ready-to-eat slices, ready-to-eat pies and oven-ready pies, as well as pizza crusts -- which are sometimes sold alongside various toppings -- for true at-home assembly.
At Mustard Seed, customers can purchase 8- or 12-inch, oven-ready pies or individual crusts. The store offers about three varieties of pizza at any given time, usually selecting its topping choices by what vegetables are in season and what ingredients can be used to help reduce shrink, said Moore.
The store's most popular toppings are a marinara sauce with mozzarella, a pesto sauce with cheese, and a Mediterranean herb blend with feta cheese and roasted organic cherry tomatoes and black olives, according to Moore.
The pizzas, none of which are sold hot, are merchandised in a 4-foot section of a refrigerated, self-service case. Focaccia, a pizza-like Italian bread, is sold whole, or by the piece out of the bakery department, in an oven-ready format.
At Wise Way in North Valparaiso, Ind., pizza is sold in 12- and 16-inch, ready-to-eat and oven-ready pies, as well as in ready-to-eat slices. About 60% of the pizzas -- merchandised from a "pizzeria" located near the store's entrance -- are ready-to-eat, with the remaining 40% sold oven-ready, according to Tully.
Tully noted that the pizzeria's location near the entrance of the store makes ordering ready-to-eat pies convenient for shoppers, who can place their orders upon entering the store and pick them up upon leaving. The location also attracts street traffic, since the store has a regular lunch crowd that includes a number of area businesses that order pizzas a few times a week, he said.
One of the components of a successful pizza program is how it's put together -- the pizzas, that is. Some stores make their own crusts for use in pizza assembly, while others, sometimes due to lack of space, order their crusts from outside sources.
Mustard Seed, which lacks the space to make its own pizza crusts, started out using a premade pizza from a manufacturer, but eventually dropped the line for a number of reasons, including the lower-than-average profit margins that the product generated.
"We try to keep our food cost at 25% to 30% of the retail price, but if we did that with those pizzas, nobody would have purchased them because they would have been over-priced," said Moore, adding that the store had to sell the pizzas for a lower-than-average margin.
Eventually, however, the retailer found a local bakery that made a very "authentic-tasting" crust, which -- once adapted to the store's specs by using unbleached flour -- became an integral part of what is now a store-assembled pizza program.
While Moore said that the new program places the food cost within the 25% to 30% range, she believes that the cost of food will drop even lower, to about 20%, at the new store, which will have the capacity to make its own crusts.
The new unit, which will be located in Solon, Ohio, about 45 minutes northeast of Akron, will focus solely on pizzas in one of its four "theater centers," according to Dan Remark, the company's vice president of food service.
These open-style areas -- designed to showcase the pizza-making process for customers -- will be equipped with a dough press, proofer, special oven and refrigerated storage area.
In addition, there will be a 12-foot, heated service case to merchandise ready-to-eat pizza pies and slices, and an attached refrigerated case running in front of it for merchandising oven-ready pizzas, crusts and various sauces and toppings for at-home assembly, according to Remark.
V. Richard's has also faced the problem of having too little space to create its own pizza crusts. The retailer, which purchased parbaked pesto crusts from a local supplier for about five years, suspended its pizza program last fall when the supplier closed shop.
According to Little, a high-quality crust is an important factor in remaining competitive in the pizza wars, and the retailer hasn't yet found a crust as good as the one it was using.
Stew Leonard Jr., president of Stew Leonard's, Norwalk, Conn., said that even though high labor and other overhead costs cut into the profit margins of the pizza program at the company's Danbury, Conn., location, the program generates a lot of fun and excitement and offers the retailer one more way to differentiate itself.
The store, which introduced the program about four years ago, attributes about 90% of its total fresh-pizza sales to the oven-ready pizzas that it prepares fresh in its "theater-style" pizza-preparation area, with the other 10% of sales generated with ready-to-eat pies and slices.
A lot of customers, according to Leonard, are being sold on the frozen pizzas, before even reaching the fresh-pizza department.
As popular as they are, retailers' in-store pizza programs are facing threats from national manufacturers in other departments. One company has just introduced sliced pepperoni into packages of its shredded mozzarella cheese. These bags, sold in the dairy aisle, can be used in conjunction with a prepared crust base and sauce to make a meal "in less than 20 minutes."