After experiencing a 114-percent growth rate on menus throughout the past three years, the gluten-free diet broke into the mainstream this year, thanks in large part to the pizza segment.
Domino's launched its gluten-free crust in May — albeit with a bit of controversy — while Chuck E. Cheese's expanded its gluten-free line nationally in November.
Other brands that launched gluten-free offerings this year include Gatti's Pizza, Pie Five Pizza Co., Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint, Detroit Style Pizza Co., Russo's New York Pizzeria and Russo's Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen, Canada's Pizza 73, NYPD Pizza and Mazzio's.
Additionally, Naked Pizza sponsored the inaugural Foggy Awards, honoring leaders in the celiac disease and gluten-free communities.
The specialized diet is hardly the only culinary trend from 2012. Others include:
This year, operators shifted their focus on chicken items as beef prices continued to spike.According to Mintel Menu Insights, the number of U.S. menu items with poultry as an ingredient has climbed an average of 12 percent in the past three years. The pizza segment specifically has experienced a 26-percent increase of chicken as a topping.
Papa John's rolled out a Buffalo chicken pizza in March, while Jet's Pizza, Hunt Brothers, Snappy Tomato Pizza and Pizza 73 also introduced the offering this year.
Papa John's also featured a new chicken parmesan pizza in the summer, and Mazzio's launched a Sweet and Spicy BBQ chicken pizza in the fall.
Domino's, The Loop and Papa Gino's added chicken options to their artisan/specialty lines. And the Pie Five Pizza Co. introduced a new Sweet Thai Pie, featuring diced chicken.
Consumers are snacking significantly more now than they were two years ago. Almost half (48 percent) of consumers say they're snacking at least twice a day, compared to 25 percent in 2010, according to market research firm Technomic. Restaurants now claim 22 percent of consumers' snacking occasions, from 17 percent in 2010.
Papa John's just introduced Chicken Poppers, bite-sized pieces of all-white chicken breast that are breaded and oven baked.
CiCi's Pizza introduced Garlic Parmesan Knots this year, while Mazzio's launched Garlic Knots and Fresh Brothers gave us Fresh Knots in February.
Domino's added some incremental sales from its Parmesan Bites launch in July. The permanent item is the brainchild of a longtime operator from Findlay, Ohio.
Pizza Hut brought back its Cheesy Bites Pizza in April. It features 28 cheese-filled morsels that can be pulled off and dipped in a marinara sauce.
Mellow Mushroom promoted its Drunken Fun-Guys, bite-sized pieces of Mellow's signature dough, served with three beer-infused sauces.
Hunt brothers launched new breaded, boneless Wingbites in buffalo and home-style flavors in March.
"Chicken and snack foods continue to be hot sellers in the food industry, so it only made sense to expand the popularity of Hunt Brothers Pizza's Wings with our new boneless WingBites," said Keith Solsvig, vice president of marketing for Hunt Brothers. "WingBites did extremely well in our test markets, particularly among women and kids looking for an easy, flavorful snack option."
In June, Pizza Hut jumped back into the sandwich space with the launch of its P'Zolo, which comes in three varieties — Meat Trio, Italian Steak and Buffalo Chicken. The P'Zolos are baked in a crust and sprinkled with Asiago cheese.
Shortly thereafter, Domino's began marketing its sandwich line heavily. In a July earnings call, CEO Patrick Doyle said sandwiches continue to do very well, even without advertising support, and it was "just time to come back and hit them again."
Boston Pizza introduced a Chipotle Chicken Club sandwich and a Meatball Grinder, while Flippers added a brick-fired Roasted Tomato Flat sandwich, and Pizza Rustica pushed its Panini line. The Loop spotlighted its Spicy BBQ Burger and the Spicy BBQ Chicken Sandwich through February.
"Spicy items" was listed as No. 7 on the National Restaurant Association's 2012 trend forecast list. Plenty of pizza chains have embraced this trend, including Pizza Inn, which added two Spicy Sicilian Pizzas. to its menu, and its sister chain, Pie Five Pizza Co., which introduced a Hatch Chile Pie.
Papa John's has unveiled a Five Sausage Pizza, featuring the chain's new Chorizo sausage topping. Snappy Tomato Pizza hosted a "Fiery Four" promotion during March Madness, featuring hot wings, a Buffalo chicken pizza, a Buffalo chicken hoagie and a spicy chicken ranch pizza.
Pizza Ranch gave us a Brushfire pizza, made with peppery sausage, Cajun seasoning and Tabasco sauce, as well as The Outlaw Pizza, with hot banana peppers, smoked pepperoni, Italian sausage, mini sweet peppers, green Anaheim peppers, and Pizza Ranch's original sauce and cheese blend.
Pizza Patrón embraced its Latin roots with the new Choriquezo Pizza, featuring smoky chorizo sausage, sliced onions and the brand's original spicy ranch. Top That! Pizza introduced a new El Pollo Chorizo Mexican Pizza, with housemade salsa cream sauce, quesadilla cheese, Adobo chicken, locally-made Siegi's spicy chorizo sausage, red onions, jalapeños, zesty banana peppers and pepper jack cheese.
Hungry Howie's Pizza spiced up its crust, rolling out a spicy sesame crust for the first time.
A handful of chains pushed the envelope of creativity this year, led by Pizza Hut's international divisions introducing hot dog- and cheeseburger-stuffed crusts. Stateside, the chain came up with a Red Planet Pizza in celebration of the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity, with diced tomatoes, pepperoni and red onions.
In February, Papa Murphy's launched a Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza, inspired by backyard barbeques. The offering is topped with "Burger Sauce" – a blend of ketchup and mustard –mozzarella cheese, beef, bacon, onions, Roma tomatoes, dill pickle chips and grated cheddar.
Papa Murphy's also introduced a calzone-like pizza this year, as did Pizza Hut.
In May, Rosati's Pizza teamed up with longtime partner Vienna Beef to create a Chili Cheese Dog Pizza, available in regular and spicy, or "Some Like It Hot" versions.
BoomBozz Pizza & Taphouse introduced an Italian Fried Pizza, while Buddy's Pizza introduced a full line of Great Lakes-themed pizzas.
Many chains expanded their non-pizza menus in 2012. For example, Old Chicago refreshed its bar menu in July, with nine new libations.
California Pizza Kitchen's "New Adventures" menu made its debut in November, featuring five globally-inspired options such as Quinoa + Arugula Salad, Fire-Roasted Chile Relleno and Grilled Chicken Chimichurri.
BoomBozz launched a variety of new items, including Balsamic Tomato Bruschetta, Hummus & Flatbread, Mediterranean Platter and soft pretzels.
Canada's Boston Pizza International Inc. introduced a renewed menu featuring 26 new dishes, including a Pulled Pork Pizza, Calamari appetizer, Pizza Spring Rolls, S'mores Pizza and more. Boston Pizza also announced a partnership with Starbucks. Participating restaurants will offer Starbucks Blonde Roast, as well as decaffeinated medium roast coffee and Tazo premium teas.
Pizza Ranch also introduced a new coffee program and partnership with Ethiopia Reads and the Tesfa Foundation.
Biggest launches of the year
Domino's new pan pizza, rolled out in September, is the chain's largest product launch in three years.
As part of its turnaround initiative, Sbarro introduced a new Neapolitan-style pizza in October. The Italian-inspired pizza replaces the chain's longstanding recipe. Sbarro has also unveiled made-to-order pasta stations, complete with sauté pans and open-flame ovens. Initial sales at the company's prototype restaurants jumped more than 10 percent since the launches.
Up next: PizzaMarketplace.com's top non-food stories of the year.
Read more about food 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.