Every industry insider is looking for the next big thing in pizza, but perhaps they should look outside the iconic box; maybe it looks more like a cone.
The past five or six years have brought a flurry of activity for pizza “cones,” a sort of pizza prototype built on the premise of pizza in a cone of baked dough. Most of its popularity has been overseas in Europe, up to now. The trend is materializing more in America, with one example being the “Pizza In a Cone” shop which opened in Midtown Manhattan this February.
Now a new player has entered the space that could take the prototype mainstream. Cono Italiano Inc. is the manufacturer of an on-the-go pizza cone known as Pizza Cono, a pizza cone concept that originated in Milan circa 2001. American foodservice veteran Mitchell Brown bought the rights for American distribution in 2008, and has by now set up shop in New York to manufacture his goods mass-scale across the nation.
Brown has a good track record with successful food products, having been part of the team that launched the battery-operated Spin Pop. His latest product is designed to be a drip-free, spill-free cone-shaped pizza made of proprietary dough and filled with selected ingredients. The distribution strategy is two-prong: The Pizza Cone will be distributed to quick-service restaurants and other takeaway locations as a grab ‘n’ go solution, as well as at supermarkets as a frozen food item. The par-baked cones will be available pre-filled, or not.
Grab ‘n’ go potential
On the go eating habits are primarily what Pizza Cono is targeting, according to Brown.
“This is also something fast food chains are (increasingly) targeting," he said. "There are studies done on how (little) time consumers want to spend eating, from purchase to mouth.”
Data agrees. Technomic released a report in March revealing that half of people polled claim to snack, and one-fifth of them claim to snack more now than two years ago. Factors driving increased snacking include convenience, portability and price. Almost half of self-proclaimed snackers are in it to replace a meal. Interestingly, snack items are scarce in the limited service pizza industry, especially in comparison to other QSR segments.
He might not be at the capacity yet, but Brown hopes to help fill this void by supplying to fast food chains in the future. Some pizza chain developers, not ready to go public, are looking into the product.
Currently, Brown supplies clients that include caterers and small chain café owners around the nation. Ramona Fantini, a small retail distributor, is one of those clients. Fantini owns and licenses about six gelato shops in the Midwest that have started using the pizza cones to fill with everything from pizza to Caesar salad to breakfast items, which Fantini calls “omelets in a cone.”
She sees exceptional potential for the versatile Pizza Cono product. Recently she made it the center of a $5 meal deal to compete with Subway, offering a pizza cone, gelato and soda at that price point.
“I would love it if this could be 50 percent of my sales,” said Fantini. “It’s not yet, but I have clients who manage malls that are looking at pizza cones. It’s grab-and-go – and that’s the kind of society we are.”
A frozen market
Supermarkets are another market for Pizza Cono, and for seemingly good reason. Sales of frozen pizza in 2009 were $4.4 billion, making it one of the fastest growing categories in supermarkets and convenience stores. The frozen and take ‘n’ bake segments have been increasingly important for pizza within the last year; DiGiorno successfully defined the space as a cheaper alternative to delivery pizza in 2009, resulting in a 20 percent sales gain for them in the second and third quarters, while pizza chains lost market share. The trend has spurred brands like Donatos and Uno Chicago Grill to really focus on their off-premise retail sales.
Pizza Cono could be the latest player in the grocery pizza market if Brown’s strategy comes to fruition. He’s targeting grocers of all sizes across the country, as well as wholesale clubs like Sam’s and Costco. Though many of his cones are sold to caterers and cafes as shells, he has a variety of flavor fillings for his supermarket distribution end, having recently bought a machine that will fill 1600 cones an hour with pre-made fillings, which include pizza varieties including “plain,” pizza with sausage and pizza with meatballs, along with taco, Philly cheese steak and breakfast cone (egg and cheese or egg white and cheese) options. Prices have not been disclosed.
Brown is marketing the product as a healthier pizza alternative in the supermarket space. For one, it has a built-in serving size. The dough is not all white flour, but blended with wheat; an all-wheat product will come out soon. These factors could draw not only people who need convenient meal solutions, but also target the biggest segment of grocery shoppers – women, who often look to buy healthier foods for their families.
Brown compares the item to a wrap, which is often perceived as healthy. But his comparison, ironically, signifies a potential barrier to adoption – recognition. Fantini says the only challenge of working with the product is that people sometimes misunderstand what it’s made of.
“People sometimes think it’s a waffle cone,” she said.
But esteemed consultant and Saint Joseph’s University Department of Food Marketing professor Dr. Richard George can already hear pizza clerks asking: “Slice or cone?” He believes the perception problem is a small one that can be easily overcome with steady trial. What’s more important, he said, is the central problem Pizza Cono solves.
“We’re a mobile society, but it’s hard to eat pizza in the car. We can already eat our hot dog, bagel, etc. Now we can eat our pizza too.”