Web Exclusive | November 2015 | By Emily Byrd

Can Flatbreads Save Pizza?

As pizza joints compete for consumers, flatbreads provide a lighter, on-trend alternative.

We’re in the roaring ‘20s of flavor-blasted, stuffed crust extravagance within the pizza segment, but economic indicators show that it may be time to start rethinking this extreme approach to pizza before consumers get burned out.

While industry analysts agree that fast-casual pizza presents promising growth opportunities, growth within that pizza segment as a whole has been decreasing for the past four years, according to Datassential reports.

Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a consultancy focused on helping manufacturers and operators understand and implement trends, says the company may have pinpointed a solution: flatbreads.

“While pizzas have focused on size, indulgence, and creating new experiences with familiar ingredients, flatbreads tend to appeal more to mature patrons and are adventurous in a different way,” she says.

Flatbreads, taken at face value, seem to be nothing but a doppelgänger of traditional pizza, its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. While Webster says pizzas have become increasingly marketed toward a niche group who seem to be comprised primarily of “16-year-old boys,” flatbreads present an opportunity for brands to touch on a multitude of trending consumer interests, namely lighter fare, globally inspired flavors, and artisan toppings.

“Pizzas have focused on size, indulgence, and creating new experiences with familiar ingredients, flatbreads tend to appeal more to mature patrons and are adventurous in a different way.”

While this move would be one away from extremism, it doesn’t necessarily represent a simplification. In fact, Webster says that flatbreads win out not based on simplicity, but on versatility. Starting with the base, flatbreads can incorporate a number of different breads from non-American cuisine: from naan and chapati (India) to lavash (Armenia) and piadina (Italy), just to name a few.

Since 2011, pizza has experienced a negative 6.8 percent growth rate, whereas flatbreads have grown on the menu by about 34 percent in the same time period.

The perception of flatbreads as a less indulgent pizza alternative with a more “mature” set of ingredients may be the item’s saving grace. In addition, while pizza is generally viewed only as a shareable entrée, flatbreads have the flexibility to act across multiple menu sections, from a table-wide appetizer, to a side item, to the main course.

Many operators are using flatbreads to showcase global flavor profiles to catch consumer attention with authenticity and creative twists on cultural classics, but the biggest way Webster says quick serves can leverage flatbreads is by emphasizing the item’s healthy, lighter connotation—something that brands like Subway and Panera have already been getting on board with for some time now, with items like Subway’s Black Forest Ham Flatbread and Panera’s entire lower calorie, health-oriented flatbread line.

Overall, Webster says that flatbreads come with the increasingly important ability to tell a story through food—be it through mindful ingredient sourcing, foreign flavor profiles, or the communication of health and wellness goals—which may create just enough positive differentiation from indulgent pizza items to bring bread and cheese back in line with consumer preferences.

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