The hottest new trend in the pizza biz threatens to shake up the very foundation of all things pizza.
With health concerns like obesity and Type 2 Diabetes reaching epidemic proportions, operators are looking for healthier alternatives to the standard white flour-based pizza crust. Today, pizza chefs are making crusts from esoteric ingredients such as white whole wheat, spelt (a type of wheat), soy, rice, buckwheat, cornmeal and garbanzo flours.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Pizza Fusion is building its business on the alternative-crust trend. Nearly all of Pizza Fusion's pizzas are available in gluten-free form.
The company also serves gluten-free brownies and Redbridge, a new gluten-free beer brewed by Anheuser-Busch.
"We're very proud to offer gluten-free selections on our menu," said Pizza Fusion co-owner Vaughan Lazar. "We have a loyal following from the gluten-free community who frequent our stores."
An untapped market
Why are so many operators jumping on the healthy pizza crust bandwagon? According to the Studio City, Calif.-based Celiac Disease Foundation, about 1 in 133 people are affected with celiac disease, a genetic disorder marked by a toxic reaction to the protein gluten, which is found in wheat and grains
The only treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet.
"I've personally met a number of people afflicted with celiac disease who haven't eaten pizza in years and some who've never even had pizza before," Lazar said. "I always enjoy seeing the look on their face when they discover they can enjoy fresh-cooked pizza again."
The hardest pizza to produce properly is gluten free, because it can be easily contaminated by wheat flours if they are produced too closely together, says Carol Jean Roberts, who was diagnosed with Celiac disease more than 20 years ago.
Roberts started baking products — such as pizza crust and cookies — she and others like her could enjoy. Roberts' cottage bakery business has since blossomed into a full-fledged commercial line known as Grandma Whimsey's Cupboard. And the company is about to go into national production within the next couple of months.
Millions of others are allergic to wheat. Unlike celiac disease, which is hereditary, wheat allergies can affect anyone. Other operators began experimenting with alternative crusts during the low-carb diet craze.
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Tomanetti Food Products, Inc. Tomanetti Foods is a manufacturer and distributor of quality pizza crusts. We offer a wide variety of par-baked crusts that meet the highest standards.
Spokane, Wash.-based A.C. LaRocco Co. is a manufacturer of par-baked organic whole wheat crusts. After a decade of developing frozen pizza for retail, LaRocco has been specializing in producing what CEO Clarence Scott calls "The best tasting healthiest pizza in America."
LaRocca's organic whole grain crusts are available in regular and thin and are being marketed to schools, colleges, hospitals and to independent pizzerias that are looking for a viable healthy alternative.
Viva Herbal Pizzeria owner Peter Joe has been producing three types of specialty crusts in his New York pizzeria for more than 10 years. Joe's thin-crusted pizzas are available with organic whole wheat, cornmeal or spelt crusts.
Shaping up the bottom line
Pizza crust spinoffs
Bread sticks: Garlic Butter, Parmesan, Mixed Seed and Sesame Bread
Provolone or Cheese Bread
Cinnamon sticks or dots
At the other end of the specialty crust spectrum, operators are tinkering with different shapes, such as heart-shaped or rectangular pizza crusts.
Richmond, British Columbia-based Boston Pizza offers a heart-shaped crust on Valentine's Day, as do dozens of other pizza chains.
Dayton, Ohio-based Cassano's Pizza King recently launched a 12 inch by 14 inch "High Definition Pizza." Cassano's compares the experience of eating the pizza with the heightened experience of high definition television and radio.
"For many years our primary product was thin crust pizza, so we decided to offer something new that could compete with other markets," said Cassano's proprietor Vic Cassano III.
The "High Definition" pizza has broadened the company's market and increased sales at the 28-unit chain, Cassano said.
For Ted Rowe, owner of the three-unit Mulberry Street Pizza chain in Beverly Hills, Calif., it's all about the flavor and texture. Rowe has had whole wheat crust off and on the menu since 1987.
"But the crust really picked up in popularity," Rowe said. "Ever since we won Best Pizza in America at the 2005 Food Network Pizza Challenge with our For The Love of Mushroom Pizza on whole wheat crust, we've had to make it a regular offering to keep up with the demand."