In a year full of lengthy pipelines, Domino's Pizza, the 16th largest restaurant chain in the country according to Technomic, finished 2013 without any new product news. The company's CFO Michael Lawton said "you need something new to communicate to your customer." Domino's just happened to communicate its technology features instead of its menu this year.
Still, the company's late 2012 pan pizza launch continues to snowball market share. Domino's foray into pan pizza has even affected Pizza Hut's bottom line a bit this year, CEO Scott Bergren admitted during Yum! Brands' recent Analyst Day. The pan/deep platform has historically belonged to Pizza Hut and now, in addition to Domino's, it also includes Little Caesars, which launched a Detroit-style deep dish pizza in April.
Shortly thereafter, fellow Michigan-based brand Hungry Howie's added a deep dish offering, and Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen added a new signature pan pizza in the spring, signifying one of this year's menu trends in the pizza space.
Conversely, however, the demand for "health-halo" descriptors is skyrocketing. For example, according to Technomic, "fresh pizza toppings" requests are up 6 percent since 2010. Consumers are looking for what Technomic EVP Darren Tristano calls "health-halo" descriptors; for example, "all-natural," "locally sourced," "wheat crusts," "organic" and "artisan."
Accordingly, Sbarro introduced its "Skinny Pizza" to kick off the New Year, with 270 calories. LaRosa's rolled out a lower-calorie menu in March, called "B Good 2 U," while Mazzio's added an "Ultra Thin Crust" to its lineup.
In May, Pizza Patrón introduced a new campaign called "¡Es Calidad! (It's quality)," touting the company's new "fresh ingredients menu strategy."
Other notable pizza menu trends from 2013 include:
Requests for gluten-free menu offerings have reached a new high and pizza brands continue to answer the call. This year alone, Donatos, Top That!, California Pizza Kitchen and Uncle Maddio's have added gluten-free offerings to their menus.
Flatbread hit the mainstream in June when Pizza Hut introduced its Firebaked Style Flatbread Pizzas, with a "wood-fired style" crust. Rosati's Pizza has been testing a flatbread offering with Italian sausage, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and mozzarella cheese for its new catering menu.
According to GuestMetrics, the pizza segment turned in strong sales in Q1 2013, driven in large part by expanded flatbread offerings. GuestMetrics' data showed more than $8 billion in sales in 2012 and 8.8 percent growth in Q1.
"To put the importance of this in perspective, while non-flatbread pizzas were 83 percent of total pizza sales in Q1 '13, about 60 percent of the incremental growth for pizza was due to strength in flatbread pizzas," said Peter Reidhead, vice president of strategy and insights at GuestMetrics.
Fewer crusts are being tossed in the trash with the empty pizza box, as this year crusts were just as part of the innovation process as the toppings. Pizza Hut's 3 Cheese Stuffed Crust is the brand's first permanent menu addition in nearly 20 years and features a crust stuffed with white cheddar, mozzarella and provolone cheeses. Pizza Hut also reduced the size of the crust by introducing pizza sliders to the market.
Hungry Howie's marked its 40th anniversary in 2013 by spotlighting a different flavored crust each month, from onion parmesan to garlic sesame and cheese puff.
Globally inspired and seasonal
Cody Pierce, vice president of Marketing at Pizza Ranch, told PizzaMarketplace.com in May that international flavors and seasonality are big menu trends. His brand launched a sweet chili pizza in the winter, and more recently introduced the Meaty Tahiti.
Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers introduced the "High on Thai" menu featuring the spicy and sweet flavors of Thai cuisine. Hunt Brothers launched its first-ever Hawaiian pizza, while SPIN! Neapolitan pizza added roasted pineapple to its new BBQ di Pollo e Pineapple Pizza.
California Pizza Kitchen launched two seasonal menu items in the winter — the Brussels + Bacon Pizza and Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese Salad small plate.
Topping last year's list and returning as a top trend this year is chicken. Mintel Menu Insights reported that the number of U.S. menu items with poultry as a main ingredient has climbed an average of 12 percent in the past three years, driven by higher beef prices. The pizza segment has experienced nearly double that growth.
In 2013, Papa John's and Hunt Brothers brought back their Buffalo Chicken offerings, while Jet's Pizza promoted its BBQ chicken pizza, Mazzio's introduced a sweet garlic chicken and Pie Five's Awesome-Cado spotlighted chicken.
The protein has also been a non-pizza focus, led by CiCi's revamped crisp-baked chicken wings. Pizza Patrón launched its new Pollito chicken offering, breaded premium chicken tenders featuring 100-percent breast meat. Papa John's also introduced Chicken Poppers in July, and Pizza Hut announced plans to shine a brighter light on its WingStreet menu, including the addition of national advertising for the first time ever in 2014.
Plenty of other brands also stepped up their non-pizza focus this year. Fresh Brothers, for example, rolled out King's Hawaiian meatball sliders in the fall to such fanfare, it is now a permanent offering.
Desserts seemed to be a priority, with Papa John's launching a new family-sized chocolate chip cookie, cut into eight slices and served warm. Pie Five added a Pumpkin Patch Pie in the fall, and a peppermint brownie earlier this month.
The Detroit Style Pizza Co. recently unveiled its new "Sweet Temptations" dessert breadsticks, available in original and cinnamon.
In addition to higher beef prices leading to more chicken use, pork has also been on the rise. Mellow Mushroom's recently released Bootleg Bacon Fest menu tapped into this trend, featuring Bubba's Bacon Bonanza, with bacon, ham and pulled pork; The BLT Buckle, a BLT-style pizza; and the Doublewide Cuban-style sandwich.
Pizza Inn's LTO Cuban Pie included pulled pork, deli sliced ham, a blend of mozzarella and provolone and a special mustard sauce, and is topped with diced pickles. Toppers Pizza just added the Three Little Pigs, topped with smoky BBQ sauce, pulled pork, bacon, Canadian bacon and mozzarella cheese, covered with green onions and French fried onions, as well as the El Cubano, a twist on the Cuban sandwich that includes bacon honey mustard sauce, mozzarella cheese, pulled pork, Canadian bacon, French fried onions and diced dill pickles.
According to Mintel Menu Insights, "premium" menu mentions has risen from 69 in 2007 to 138 in 2012. Papa Murphy's introduced a premium pizza line earlier this year, featuring ingredients such as fennel sausage, goat cheese, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and arugula.
Round Table's Pepperoni 4.0 features four kinds of pepperoni: original, "primo," mini and the new "super mini." And Papa John's came up with a new steak and cheese pizza, with specially blended pizza and creamy garlic parmesan sauces and layered marinated steak slices. Papa John's also brought back its double layered premium pepperoni pizza with deli-style pepperoni and a layer of traditional pepperoni.
Finally, because of their versatility and high-profit margins, restaurants have been stepping up their beverage options throughout the past few years. Shakey's Pizza Parlor added smoothies this year. Old Chicago Pizza and TapRoom just unveiled a rebranding campaign, including a commitment to local craft beers, with each restaurant featuring 36 rotating craft beers on tap.
In February, California Pizza Kitchen added Colby Red, a California red wine whose proceeds supported charities that promote heart health. The brand also launched a new beverage series that includes wine flights, new craft beer offerings and the introduction of a Diet Pepsi Mixology program.
Rosati's introduced its Reserve branded red wine. And, Minsky's Pizza launched a Burlesque Lager to mark its 37th birthday.
Read more about menu trends.
Alicia Kelso has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.