For a while there in March 2020, Donatos Pizza president and CEO Tom Krouse wondered how his 58-year-old, family-owned business might survive. A global health pandemic unlike anything seen in modern times, mandated stay-at-home orders, and rampant uncertainty has a way of escalating anxiety.
“It was not business as usual,” Krouse says of the COVID-19 pandemic’s earliest days.
READ MORE: How the biggest pizza chains in America stacked up in 2020, by sales and more
But within a month, business began to take off for the 250-location chain headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. Delivery and carryout orders poured into Donatos restaurants and systemwide sales jumped 17 percent over the previous April. That momentum continued throughout 2020 as Donatos gained more than 2 million new customers, added 300,000 members to its loyalty program, and saw overall sales finish 12 percent higher than 2019.
“Financially and performance wise, it was a great year, but it was stressful,” Krouse says of 2020.
The year of pizza
In the nation’s $44 billion pizza marketplace, Donatos is far from alone in reporting impressive 2020 results.
Wisconsin-based Toppers, a 70-unit chain with a heavy presence in the upper Midwest, saw its comp sales jump 20 percent in 2020, pushing AUV toward $1.1 million.
Domino’s U.S. same-store sales grew 11.5 percent in 2020, while Papa John’s reported a 13.5 gain in North American comp sales. Notably, Domino’s and Papa John’s, two public companies, also saw their share prices rise 21 and 71 percent, respectively, from March 13, 2020—two days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global health pandemic—to December 31, 2020.
In labeling pizza the “restaurant hero of 2020,” The New York Times beamed: “Its ease and affordability made it a pandemic staple for many families and a rare bright spot in an industry that has been decimated.”
Pizza’s stability—or rather, its ability to shine—shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise given the nation’s long-standing love-affair with pizza, the category’s operational grounding in carryout and delivery, and its appealing value proposition. For as low as $4 per person, a family could get pizza at their doorstep with various toppings. At a time in which consumers were tasked to figure out new patterns and wrestle with uncertainty in their own lives, pizza’s access, availability, and familiarity spurred success.
“During the pandemic, Americans’ craving for comfort and convenience skyrocketed,” Blaze Pizza president and CEO Mandy Shaw says. “Pizza is the epitome of that … [and] an inexpensive food item that could easily feed families that were in quarantine together and going through a time of financial uncertainty.”
How pizza brands won
Yet, nothing was handed to pizza during the pandemic. While holding some inherent advantages—pizza, after all, is a product that carries well and a universally beloved comfort food—other foodservice categories from burgers to barbecue to Mexican cuisine chipped away at pizza’s convenience and value plays by developing delivery and curbside pickup options as well as family bundle deals and special offers.
Pizza, however, withstood the onslaught, fueled by the category’s rather widespread and consistent investment in technology that empowered ease and convenience at a time when so many needed exactly that.
On the heels of mandated store closures in March 2020, Blaze expedited initiatives already underway targeting digital innovations and off-premises capabilities. In just three weeks, Blaze launched a new curbside carryout process and developed a unique QR code to deliver contactless menus to guests, while it also expanded its third-party delivery partners. As a result, digital sales at Blaze soared 155 percent.
Toppers similarly saw digital sales climb as it completed the rollout of its proprietary e-commerce solution systemwide in 2020’s third quarter. Pairing digital ordering with curbside pickup and contactless delivery, digital sales jumped to represent 72 percent of all Toppers orders, Toppers founder and president Scott Gittrich says.
After decades of relying on its carryout business, Little Caesars, one of pizza’s big four alongside Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Pizza Hut, was already evolving its operations at the start of 2020 with its ballyhooed introduction of delivery. It was, however, the chain’s 2017 launch of Pizza Portals—heated, self-service mobile pick-up stations that allow for quick carryout of pies ordered through the chain’s mobile app and website—that helped drive its pandemic-era performance.
“That allowed for more custom options and increased ticket size,” Little Caesars chief marketing officer Jeff Klein says.
Beyond leveraging its existing technology, Little Caesars was also very thoughtful in its messaging to consumers.
At the onset of the pandemic, the Detroit-based chain led with safety and shared information around things like oven temperatures and contactless service. Later, as consumers sought control amid uncertainty and a we’re-all-in-this-together mindset took hold, Little Caesars unveiled its Pie It Forward program providing complimentary pizzas to healthcare workers and first responders. The chain donated a million pizzas itself while its customers donated an additional 250,000 more via the chain’s mobile app and website.
Finally, as consumers seemed increasingly willing to hear about offers and menu innovations, Little Caesars reignited its lighthearted and quirky advertising. As the calendar turned to 2021, the chain rolled out its “Big Pizza” campaign emphasizing its value proposition over “fancy” pizza brands.
While many other industry players scaled back hours or menu options during the pandemic, pizza largely charged ahead, especially on the culinary front to generate buzz and attention. Domino’s, for example, introduced new specialty pizzas, such as the cheeseburger pizza and the chicken taco pizza, while Blaze rolled out new culinary innovations like the White Claw Pizza and the Blazin’ Hot Chicken Pizza.
And while the pandemic forced many restaurants to permanently close their doors—and surely pizzerias were not immune to such carnage—Datassential reports that 11,000 restaurants opened during the pandemic. Of those, nearly 2,000 were pizzerias, including 19 Blaze units and 11 Donatos locations.
“We are fortunate to participate in a category that has been resilient and thrived,” Little Caesars’ Klein says.