Predicting Pizza

What does the future look like for this beloved dish, and how can the convenience industry keep grabbing a slice of the action?

Predicting Pizza

January 2024   minute read

By: Sara Counihan

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, 1,400 slices of pizza will be sold in the U.S. (350 slices of pizza are sold every second, according to the National Association of Pizzeria Operators.) Three billion pizzas are sold in the U.S. each year, and 93% of Americans eat pizza at least once a month, according to the association.

It’s clear. Pizza is one of America’s favorite meals, and it seems like almost everyone is getting in on the pizza game, including convenience stores. Pennsylvania-based Wawa launched Wawa Pizza this summer in more than 900 of its locations. The Midwest c-store chain Casey’s sells over 28 million pizza pies each year. McLane recently unveiled Prendisimo, a proprietary pizza program made for c-stores. Robots are even making pizza now. (We’ll get to that later.)

So what’s in store for pizza, and how can the convenience industry continue to win in this crowded category?

Topping the Charts

Before talking about the future of pizza, let’s look at the present. Pizza sellers are constantly experimenting with the dish to keep up with consumers and their taste preferences. Dee Cleveland, director of marketing, Hunt Brothers Pizza, explains that pizza lets restaurants introduce new flavors to consumers in an approachable way.

She also believes that what’s happening in the chip aisle is a sign of what’s to come for pizza.

“What you see with chips has been extremely at the forefront, like how they’ve been combining flavors and co-branding. I think we’ll continue to see a lot more of that.”

Cleveland says spicy flavors are still widely popular, and crust is becoming just as important as the toppings. Hunt Brothers recently introduced an Italian spice-infused crust on its Italian trio pizza, which has been well-received by consumers.

“It used to be that crust was stuffed with just cheese. Now you can find cheese and pepperoni in your stuffed crust, and then there’s deep-dish, Detroit-style, there’s all sorts of crust coming out. You now can put the butter and garlic and everything else on your crust,” she said.

Dee Cleveland, director of marketing, Hunt Brothers Pizza believes that what’s happening in the chip aisle is a sign of what’s to come for pizza.

Michelle Weckstein, director of food and beverage brands, SunStop, says pizza wraps—pizza folded in half and pressed—are an emerging trend. She also sees nontraditional toppings gaining in popularity, like hot honey pepperoni and chicken bacon ranch. Flatbreads are also a consumer favorite, and SunStop is testing its own proprietary flatbread program in a few of its prototype stores.

“Our strategy is to differentiate ourselves with quality ingredients and unique toppings. We want to wow our customers’ tastebuds versus competing with the national pizza chain on cost,” Weckstein said.

The flatbreads come in four flavors: pepperoni, chicken pesto, chicken alfredo and hot Buffalo chicken. The pepperoni does “OK” at SunStop but the other flavors are “wildly successful,” according to Weckstein.

“We have found pizza with traditional red sauce and meats do well in our rural markets, whereas flatbreads with trendy toppings thrive in more populated areas,” she said.

Cooking speed is also a trend among pizza sellers, especially convenience stores and QSRs. Manufacturers are creating unique crusts that can bake in minutes. McLane’s Prendisimo pizza program allows c-stores to bake a pizza from frozen in as little as six minutes.

“The beauty of this brand is it goes from freezer to oven to the warmer in minutes and into the hands of the consumer,” said Farley Kaiser, senior director of culinary innovation, McLane. “We really did develop this with a convenience store in mind.”

Crushing the Competition

If convenience stores want to stay ahead of their competitors in the pizza arena, they need to “play to their strengths,” according to Cleveland.

“Convenience stores have to remember why people are coming in, and it’s really all about that convenience,” she said. “If you can have products sitting out ready in your warmer, ready to grab and go, I think you’ll stay a step ahead.”

According to Kaiser, because pizza is such a universally loved dish, it should be in different points of foodservice, including convenience. “From a convenience standpoint, it makes a lot of sense for it to be at your fingertips as you’re getting gas and then needing to head down the road,” she said.

SunStop includes a pizza club in its loyalty program. Whenever customers buy six individual pizzas, they get their seventh pizza free. “I feel when people think, ‘I’m going to feed my family with pizza,’ they’re going to go to a pizza chain or a QSR still,” said Weckstein. “I think that’s where convenience stores could step it up and meet that need, perhaps train their customers a little bit more.”

If you can have products sitting out ready in your warmer, ready to grab and go, I think you’ll stay a step ahead.”

Like Cleveland, Weckstein suggests that c-stores up their hot grab-and-go pizza offer because the dish holds well and maintains its quality longer than most other grab-and-go options.

However, for some rural c-stores, there isn’t much competition around. In this case, offering a convenient, affordable meal like pizza is even more important.

Brittany Jones, owner of Wilkerson’s Food Mart in Clio, Alabama, says her location has a wide range of customers because it’s the only locally owned business in a small town that has no other fast-food options available. Wilkerson’s offers Hunt Brothers Pizza and sells around 500 pizzas a week.

“Not only are we the only option for fast food with our hard-working, blue-collar customers, but we are also only one of two convenience stores within about 10 miles,” she said, adding that Wilkerson’s offers promotions in conjunction with its pizza, such as a chips-and-a-drink deal and a free two-liter of soda with the purchase of two one-topping pizzas.

With the promotions, “It feels like more of a fast-food option in a town where that isn’t available,” she said. “We also have a large demographic of customers that we can serve with having different payment methods available, such as EBT. There are rules and regulations that we have to follow to be able to serve those customers, but it is worth it for us to do that so that it is available for all of our customers.”

Pizza-Making Machines

Pizza vending machines and robot-made pizza may seem sci-fi, but they already exist. Pizza Forno is an automated pizza kiosk that serves warm pizza in under three minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The machine takes up 65 square feet and holds 70 12-inch pizzas. Once customers place their order through a digital screen, a robotic arm takes their pizza from the refrigerated section of the kiosk and places it into a convection oven where it’s baked. Once it’s ready, the pizza emerges from a slot at the front of the machine.

Pizza Forno was co-founded by Les Tomlin, who saw an 85-year-old woman purchase pizza from a similar device in France.

“I had this total ‘aha’ marketing moment,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, if we could bring this technology to North America, attach a brand to it, we could really disrupt the pizza market.’”

Expect to see whole grains, more gluten-free and plant-based crusts, and more veggie-based sauces like hummus.”

Pizza Forno is available in several Petro Canada locations, as well as other locations in the country. There are also kiosks in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan and Texas. One of its Canadian locations is in an area where there are limited foodservice options, and it’s one of the company’s top-performing licensees.

“We’re bringing pizza as an automated hot food solution to markets that wouldn’t really be able to sustain a traditional QSR or brick-and-mortar restaurant,” he said.

If vending machine pizza doesn’t tickle your taste buds, how about a pizza made by a robot? Pizza Jukebox, located inside a Walmart in Frisco, Texas, features a proprietary robot model that makes pizza right before customers’ eyes. The robot arm takes pizza dough from a holding rack and places it in a “pizza bot.” The pizza bot spins the dough, adds sauce, cheese and toppings, and places it in a TurboChef conveyor oven, which “gives you a fantastic pizza product because the oven is perfectly calibrated and timed to cook the pizza to our exact recipe specification,” said Kimberly Otte, vice president, franchise support services, BRIX Holdings.

Pizza for Breakfast?

Yes, it is happening, and no, it’s not cold, leftover pizza from the night before.

Casey’s has been in the breakfast pizza game for decades. In 2001, the Ankeny, Iowa-based c-store chain introduced “bizza,” and it’s one of its best-selling pizzas with more than 2.5 million orders each year.

Michelle Weckstein, director of food and beverage brands, SunStop, said after multiple customer requests, the retailer is creating a breakfast flatbread.

“It’s just like a breakfast pizza only we’ll switch it up with the base and the different toppings that we have. I think it’s a trend,” she said.

Pizza Forno, a self-serving pizza kiosk company, has also heard the demand for a breakfast option from its consumers. “[A breakfast pizza] creates a whole new daypart for breakfast in the pizza category because no pizza chains are really open for breakfast,” said Les Tomlin, co-founder, Pizza Forno.

“The idea behind it is not to replace a team member but to have consistency and execution,” she said. “[The robot] is calibrated to dispense the exact amount of sauce that we require, the exact amount of cheese, the exact amount of meats consistently every time.”

Customers can order their pizza through a digital screen for the robot to make, or they can speak to an employee to place their order. Once the order is ready, an employee cuts the pizza, boxes it and calls out the customer’s name.

“[Customers] can get a meal and have an experience—something that is going to be memorable, and that’s fun,” she said. “It’s not just someone delivering a pizza to me. I think that lends to opportunities for growth in the pizza sector.”

What’s Next

There’s no question about it: Pizza isn’t going anywhere. However, there is always the question of where it’s going next.

According to Weckstein, the future of pizza includes healthier options for crusts, bases and toppings.

“Expect to see whole grains, more gluten-free and plant-based crusts, and more veggie-based sauces like hummus,” she said. “We will see meat alternatives and more vegetables and fruit toppings. There will still be consumers who will want meat on their pizza, but meat may be more of a special treat versus an everyday choice.”

Cleveland believes internationally inspired flavors, including Asian and Middle Eastern, are next for the dish, as well as co-branding, such as drizzling Mike’s Hot Honey over the pie.

“We’re just beginning to touch the importance of what’s going to happen with pizza over the next 10-15 years. I think it’s going to continue to grow exponentially ... and we’re going to continue to find different ways to serve and excite guests,” said Cleveland.

However, don’t expect pizza to turn its back on tradition. “We’re not going to lose our bread and butter. Chances are pepperoni is still going to be strong 10 years from now,” Cleveland said.

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