Over the past century, Americans have developed a special craving for certain foods, both at home and in restaurants—items like burgers and fries, sandwiches and fried chicken.
And then there’s pizza. One of the nation’s most beloved meals, pizza is the sum of varied parts: crust, sauce, cheese, meat or other proteins, vegetables, and the baking style. All are important, but the toppings are the real ingredient that gives customers and operators alike room to play around with new flavors.
“Toppings are where people can have fun and interact with the concept,” says Anthony Carron, chef and creator of Los Angeles–based 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria. “Toppings are beautiful, they’re colorful, and the ‘wow’ point for guests.”
Operators today are opting for more high-quality topping options, especially as a result of the soaring growth of new fast-casual pizza concepts that let customers choose from dozens of ingredients to build their own pies.
“Consumers really do still like the traditional options in terms of pizza toppings, but they also want something different,” says Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager for market research and consulting firm Technomic Inc.
Pizza has always been a build-your-own meal, and that has expanded with new, upscale ingredients, she adds. At the same time, diners look to restaurants to help them experience new flavors.
“That’s why we see interest in theme pizzas, like Hawaiian, or with various meat combinations, or even ones with regional or ethnic flavors,” Weikel says. “Pizza is such an established platform that we are continually looking for something new.”
Many restaurants are also catering to smaller customer segments, like with gluten-free crusts or milk-free cheese that gives vegans a fuller pizza experience.
The most popular toppings are no surprise. A Culinary Visions Panel survey this year found that 79 percent of Americans wanted Mozzarella on their “dream pizza,” with pepperoni (55 percent) and mushrooms (50 percent) as the top meat and vegetable, respectively. Parmesan cheese was also popular, at 57 percent, followed by sausage (48 percent), onions and bacon (both 46 percent), green peppers (43 percent), and tomatoes (42 percent).
“One interesting thing we saw is that some of the different cheese types are becoming top of mind with consumers,” says Rachel Tracy, managing director of the Chicago-based panel, which explores culinary topics with food industry professionals and consumers.
More than 70 percent of those surveyed said they would definitely or probably order a four-cheese pizza with Mozzarella, Parmesan, Gorgonzola, and goat cheese. Only a four-meat specialty pizza scored higher.
The survey also found some growth in those who might choose breakfast or dessert pizzas. A breakfast pizza usually adds eggs to traditional pizzeria toppings like bacon, ham, and sausage. Dessert pizzas typically include chocolate, caramel, or fruit.
The Culinary Visions survey found that some topping choices differ widely among demographic groups. Mushrooms and sausage were popular with more than half of people ages 55 and over, but with fewer than 40 percent of Millennials.
Large pizza chains controlled about 52 percent of the quick-service pizza market last year, an increase from 47 percent in 2009, according to consumer market research firm NPD Group. These concepts include Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Domino’s. For the most part, these players have a couple dozen toppings, with most being familiar to customers: meats such as pepperoni, sausage, and bacon; vegetables like mushrooms, onions, and green peppers; a couple of sauces; and a few cheese choices.
But with the creation and growth of fast-casual pizzerias that feature high-quality toppings and creative signature pizzas, the major chains have looked to limited-time offers to feature new or different topping options.
Technomic found that consumers want to see more variety and additional toppings on pizza menus. They are also looking for quality and freshness, another reason for the success of fast-casual pizza places that so far account for only a small fraction of the industry.
Artisan pizzerias boast toppings that are fresh, sometimes organic or imported, and often cooked in the store. Several make their own meat items, while others get them from providers using the company’s proprietary recipes.
Many bake their thin-crust pizzas quickly in ovens at temperatures of around 800 degrees.
“It’s not so much that we’re seeing growth of pizza’s market share, but instead, it’s the quality moving to the forefront,” Weikel says. “It’s similar to others showing growth in fast casual—sandwiches, burgers, Mexican—upping the quality and the experience.”
Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint, one of the oldest and largest of the fast-casual pizza enterprises, offers three crusts and 48 ingredient selections: six homemade sauces, 27 vegetables, and 15 meats. That means there are about 50 million possible
“That fits into our strategy of gourmet pizza for the masses,” says Matt Andrew, founder of the 19-unit-and-growing chain. “You can be a foodie and want chicken apple sausage and more gourmet toppings, or someone looking for our meat-lovers pizza, the Big Max.”
Uncle Maddio’s cooks its chicken and steak toppings twice a day on a flattop in the restaurants. The jerk chicken is made with a proprietary seasoning.
“We set the bar fairly high,” Andrew says. “We are a made-from-scratch, fast-casual pizza joint, and we are not compromising. We are making homemade food.”
Pizza Cucinova, a high-end, two-unit concept from New York–style pizza chain Sbarro, cooks a number of its ingredients in the stores. This includes roasting chicken and beets and caramelizing onions and eggplant.
“We have plenty of protein choices, and tons of veggies. We use a balsamic glaze on our Bruschetta” pizza, along with pesto, Mozzarella, grape tomatoes, Romano, and arugula, says Gerard Lewis, chief concept officer of the Columbus, Ohio–based company.