When restaurant industry experts opined about what trends will be big in 2012, children's nutrition topped lists across the board, from the National Restaurant Association to market research firms such as Technomic and NPD Group.
And while many quick-service chains have embraced the demand shifts – adding apple slices to Happy Meals or grilled chicken nuggets to kids' menus – the pizza segment seems to be a bit out of place. Generally, pizza joints don't offer shiny toys, fun marketing campaigns or even separate meal choices geared toward the younger demographic.
Still, there are plenty of opportunities for pizza operators to take advantage of when it comes to this trend.
Zpizza, for example, signed up to be an inaugural participant in the NRA/Healthy Dining's new Kids LiveWell initiative, aimed at providing parents and children with healthier food and beverage selections when dining out. The company was the lone pizza concept on the original list, although Pizza Fusion, Red Brick Pizza and Ledo Pizza have since jumped on board.
"Kids love pizza and so we are thrilled to have more pizza concepts signing up for the kids LiveWell program. We look forward to having more pizza concepts apply their culinary creativity by offering choices that meet the criteria," said Anita Jones-Mueller, MPH, president, Healthy Dining/HealthyDining Finder.com.
She added that even the pickiest kids will try almost anything if it is considered a "pizza," and operators should embrace that.
Ed Zimmerman, a pizza industry veteran and president of The Food Connector, thinks other pizza concepts will sign on for Kids LiveWell, or will at least put forth similar efforts sooner than later.
"Anything pizzerias can do to make their offerings more attractive for the entire family is going to be beneficial, and right now that has to include what is perceived to be healthy," Zimmerman said. "This is what people are thinking about and wanting right now."
Hiding the vegetables
Even though Chuck E. Cheese's individual cheese option was named as one of the best pizzas in the country in the "Eat This, Not That! The Best (& Worst) Foods in America" series, the chain recently made some big changes to its recipe, adding fresh vegetables, fresh dough and fresh cheese.
Brenda Holloway, Chuck E. Cheese's marketing manager, said the upgrade was in response to the changing tastes of both parents and children.
Operators don't necessarily need a complete recipe overhaul to cater to this trend. Adam Goldberg, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Fresh Brothers, found another way to encourage healthier eating habits with his youngest guests. His six-unit chain sells a menu item called the "Fresh Kids Special," a pizza sauce mixed with a blend of five fresh vegetables that are ground into pieces as small as minced garlic. The company's idea was featured on The Doctors television show in January for its ingenuity.
"Pizza is such a family food, we needed to take that next step to make sure we had a product that differentiated us from other companies, and that was a healthier option, which is the approach we've taken since day one," Goldberg said. "Having this option for kids allows parents to enjoy it as well."
Fresh Brothers originally introduced the Fresh Kids Special as an entire pizza a few years ago. Sales jumped when the chain switched it to a topping choice. Goldberg said it works better as a topping because the veggie-laden sauce can be "hidden better."
"With kids, the appearance of their food is so important. That's why the Fresh Kids Special has gone over well with them, because it looks like a cheese pizza, or a pepperoni pizza. But what's between the dough and the cheese is a lot of vegetables," he said.
Going for 'perceived healthy,' marketing for the entire family
Sneaking veggies into the sauce is one way to offer healthier options; outwardly offering them as part of a combo meal is another. For example, Fresh Brothers includes salads in its family package deals, and Goldberg said it sells significantly more combos than individual pizzas.
"The combo is a great way to get people to not only think about pizza, but also about eating healthier. We heavily push our salads because it reminds our customers that they have that healthy choice, and many are going to make that choice," he said.
It's also important to remember that this trend goes beyond food. Zimmerman suggests adding a bold marketing plan highlighting "perceived healthy" buzzwords, such as "artisan," "organic" or "fresh."
Domino's hit this chord in the fall, when it launched a new artisan line of pizzas, including Spinach & Feta, Italian Sausage & Pepper Trio and Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggie.
"If you have at least one item on the menu that is more nutritious, or at least perceived to be healthy, that is going to help you, even with kids, who are finicky eaters," he said.
More than a trend
Of course, Zimmerman adds, having a picky audience makes this effort trickier. And since pizza has always been a kid favorite, changes are hard to implement from a business perspective.
Consequently, offering healthier alternatives has to come from a conscientious level, according to Robbie Vitrano, co-founder of Naked Pizza.
"It's unlikely for anyone to say that kids should not eat pizza, but that is one intellectually honest response. Kids are smart; they get that swapping out fries for apple sticks is trading down," he said. "If that's the best you can do, great, but make sure you do it with eyes wide open."
Vitrano added that the pizza segment lost some credibility by staying silent in the Congressional debate late last year, in which a bill was passed classifying pizza sauce as a vegetable to provide schools with more flexibility in meeting nutritional standards.
"If you care about kids' health, you can't cherry pick the facts. Childhood obesity and type-2 diabetes have exploded," he said. "If you can make a pizza that is healthy, you should. It's that simple."
"We need to be held socially accountable for keeping our kids healthy and feeling good," he said. "It's not a trend to feed kids vegetables, it's a way of life. It's a no-brainer."
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Photo provided by Frankly PM.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.