• Customers want bolder, spicier pizza sauces

Kids and teens are easy to please when it comes to pizza. Pleasing adults is more difficult. Their exposure to different foods increases and drives a desire for more boldly seasoned foods. Problem is, standard pizza sauce is far removed from the potent tastes of foods such as Mexican, Thai and Japanese.

What's a pizza operator to do?

Consider a boldly seasoned pizza sauce, said Justin Uhl, director of quality assurance at Paradise Tomato Kitchens, a year-round tomato sauce remanufacturer in Louisville, Ky.

"Pizza places already have kids and teens buying their products, so when your goal is to drive new traffic through the door, you probably need to focus on adults and older customers," said Uhl. "Everything we hear is that consumers want bolder flavors, something new and really spicy to wake up their palates."

That can mean pizza sauces with more garlic or oregano, or ones that center on using fresh rather than dried herbs. Uhl said Paradise is experimenting with a tomatillo sauce and a peach-accented sauce.

"People just want fresher flavors," Uhl said. "Cilantro also is increasingly popular" in pizza sauce.

But increasingly, boldness implies the addition of heat, something regularly accomplished with dried pepper flakes or bottled hot sauce. Now, however, sauce makers and chefs are spiking pizza sauces with everything from vinegary pepper mashes to ground cayenne to jalapeno and chipotle peppers.

In May, Hungry Howie's Pizza introduced a Bold & Spicy pizza sauce the company had worked on for nearly two years. Jeff Rinke, vice president of marketing at the 485-unit Madison Heights, Mich., chain said a mix of test-kitchen experiments and product samplings told him they were on the right track with the sauce.

"One of our most popular flavored crusts is Cajun, so we knew people liked spicy foods," Rinke said. "Just reading trade publications and watching Emeril Lagasse adding 'the essence' proves there's a strong trend toward a little more kick."

Throughout the testing phase, Rinke said adults clearly liked the spicier sauce the most. "We also saw that the people who liked it best were predominantly male, though some of the women enjoyed it also."

Despite Hungry Howie's advertisements for the spicy sauce (which feature flames licking at a pizza crust's edge), the sauce isn't all that hot, just aggressively seasoned, Rinke said. "It's not painfully hot, and we didn't just add a lot of heat for the sake of heat. It's really flavorful and it's definitely got a peppery flavor that kind of sneaks up on you afterwards. It's a real lasting and subtle heat people enjoy."

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