According to a 2003 Market Facts study, more than 75 percent of pizza eaters prefer at least two types of cheese on their pies. Among their favorites: mozzarella, Parmesan, white/yellow cheddar, provolone and Monterey Jack. Blends of those cheeses, sellers have found, are regionally specific.
Whole-milk mozzarella and white cheddar blends are common in the East and South, whereas a mozzarella-provolone blend is beloved in Ohio and nearby states.
In the Midwest and West Coast, mozzarella, colored cheddar and provolone, as well as mozzarella-Monterey Jack and mozzarella-Muenster blends are prevalent. In the nation's midsection, yellow cheddar is as high as 20 percent in some blends.
"When an operator is talking about the fact that he's using four different cheeses in his product, it shows customers the additional value they bring compared to others out there just competing on price," said Gohl. "People are looking for something that's going to be flavorful and unique; a good blend will do that."
Louis DeAngelo, founder and chief executive officer of DeAngelo's Pizzeria, said getting customers to enjoy cheese blends took some initiative on his part.
"We sort of create our own demand," said DeAngelo, whose 14-unit company is based on Baton Rouge, La. "They don't want it until we come up with it."
In addition to mozzarella, DeAngelo adds feta and ricotta cheeses to his pies, plus a signature cheese touch called "spicy Asiago."
"It's our own blend of shredded Asiago and Pecorino-Romano, herbs and crushed pepper flakes," he said. "We sprinkle that on a lot of things just to give it a cool flavor."
When Brad Randall started Aver's Pizza six years ago, he and co-owner Kris Kiser developed a signature pizza lineup to draw the "beyond mozzarella" crowd. The pair's award-winning Cream and Crimson pizza fetched that target audience with its mix of gorgonzola and cheddar cheeses. Another award winner, The Parthenon, uses feta, while Aver's Beckon Desire uses ricotta.
"It's something that sets us apart," said Randall.
The preblended cheese business has risen steadily over the last several years because operators want that heightened taste profile, plus the marketing and flavor benefits.
"We're able to take that labor step out of the store and provide a customized blend customers can work with," said Gohl, adding that preblended cheese costs about 10 cents to 18 cents more per pound.
"If you look at the labor of doing it in-house, plus the potential (waste) factor and the equipment maintenance costs, the expenses balance out."
Uniformity is important when introducing new cheese flavors, said Chris Moore, vice president of foodservice channel development for Dairy Management Inc.
"Overall, it's about balance," said Moore, whose company does product research for large chains. "You've got a litany of other ingredients on a pizza that brings in their own flavors and attributes. Adding a strong cheese to that can complicate things."