Flatbreads and deep dish and gluten-free were big this year, but so were top-your-own concepts, international development and mobile.
Here is a look at 10 of the top (non-menu) trends from 2013:
1. Fast casual pizza.
The fast casual segment experienced a 9 percent growth in visits year over year in 2013. The category, which was paved by Starbucks and Chipotle and better-burger brands such as Five Guys and Smashburger, welcomed chute-line pizza concepts in a big way this year.
Not only are there top-your-own concepts popping up all over the country with ambitious development plans in place, many are backed by big industry muscle. Pie Five Pizza Co. is a Pizza Inn Holdings subsidiary, while the founders of Smashburger opened Honest Pizza. Music industry veterans Irv Zuckerman and Rodney Eckerman introduced PizzaRev.
Blaze Fast-Fire'd Pizza was created by the founders of Wetzel's Pretzels, Elise and Rick Wetzel, and has the investment support of Maria Shriver, movie producer John Davis and Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner. Mod Pizza was conceived by the founders of Seattle Coffee Company, which was later acquired by Starbucks. Sbarro recently unveiled its Pizza Cucinova concept.
There's also Project Pie, Pie-ology, Your Pie, Top That!, Social Life Pizza, Uncle Maddio's, Pizza Studio, Live Basil, 800 Degrees, Fired Pie and so on. It's hard bet against the future of the fast casual pizza model when so many industry veterans are putting their chips on the table.
2. Digital commerce.
Sooner than later, a majority of customers will place their pizza orders without talking to anyone. With the support of sizeable technology budgets, the "big three" are leading the growth of digital ordering:
In 2013, Pizza Hut surpassed the $1 billion mark in digital sales. The company claims that 30 percent of all orders now come from digital channels, which include Android, iPhone and tablet platforms.
Domino's just released its Profiles feature, meant to speed up the digital ordering process. Domino's also offers an Android app, iPhone app, iPhone 8 app and a Windows Phone 8 app. The chain said 40 percent of sales now come from digital orders.
Papa John's claims that more than 45 percent of orders come from ecommerce, and that it has topped $5B in all-time systemwide sales.
3. International growth.
In 2012, Domino's international footprint surpassed its domestic store count for the first time ever. In January, CEO Patrick Doyle underscored the importance of having a global presence. "The restaurant business is a game of scale and those tapping into international markets are in the best position for the future," he said, adding that 95 percent of the world's population exists outside of the U.S.
Papa John's global net openings in 2013 were at a 10-year high as the company marked its 1,000th international milestone opening. Pizza Hut has its sights set on emerging markets and has called Pizza Hut Delivery the "brand of the future" in both China and India.
International development isn't just for the big boys, however. For starters, Chuck E. Cheese's made its debut in Peru this year, Russo's spread to Dubai, Round Table opened in Mongolia and Pizza Fusion and Sbarro added units in the Middle East.
4. Take 'N Bake and carry out.
Consumers undeniably want convenience and, for pizza, that means either buying a pre-made pizza and baking it at home when time permits, or picking up a cooked pizza en route home. The growth of the Take 'N Bake model has been a boon for Papa Murphy's, which marked its 1,400-unit opening this year and added about $30 million more in sales in 2012 compared to 2011, according to Technomic.
Noble Roman's is also taking advantage of the growing category. According to CEO Paul Mobley, the brand's first standalone Take 'N Bake franchise generated an operating profit margin of 26.5 percent within the first month.
A smaller Take 'N Bake concept, Mama Mimi's, expanded its footprint beyond its hometown of Columbus, Ohio, for the first time this year, planting a flag in Cincinnati.
To fit the carryout trend, CiCi's added a to-go option for its signature buffet. After years of contracting, Pizza Hut experienced new net unit growth for the second year in a row on the back of its Delco (delivery/carryout) model. And, a Pizza Inn franchisee announced expansion plans of the brand's Express model.
5. The economy.
Although the Recession recovery was in full swing this year, with falling unemployment rates and a historically bullish stock market, consumers remained value-conscious. Many pizza chains shifted promotions accordingly, with deals as low as $5 per pizza.
Pizza Hut even admitted its value messaging was 'less than compelling' this year, which affected the bottom line.
6. Government regulations.
Operators remained a bit stingy as well, unsure of the impact Obamacare regulations will have on their budgets, while keeping a watchful eye on the growing minimum wage protests across the country.
Two organizations have emerged to voice concerns about regulatory issues, among other topics, to representatives in Washington, D.C. — the American Pizza Community and the National Restaurant Association's Pizza Industry Council.
More restaurants are jumping into the revenue-generating channel of catering, as busier consumers drive a higher demand. For example, Flippers Pizzeria put some marketing weight behind its catering program this year, while Rosati's Pizza continues to onboard its new catering service through MonkeyMedia Software's Catering Institute.
"Pizza is pizza; it's not going to change. You either add another dimension or you don't grow. We're all looking for that next step to take and catering is probably it," said Rosati's president Marla Topliff.
8. Digital menu boards/digital signage.
As the menu labeling laws loom, more restaurants are deploying digital menu boards to ease the burden of manually changing menu information. Plus? Digital signage is pretty.
"Digital signage generates more revenue by increasing visit frequency, mostly because of the compelling imagery of food and beverages," said Lyle Bunn, principal and strategy architect at Bunn Co.
Digital menu boards are a focal point in Papa Murphy's new CREATE design, while Home Run Inn and Planet Pizza also added digital components this year.
Menu Systems is testing a digital window display, developed with the assistance of pizza marketing consultant Scott Anthony, a Fox's Pizza Den franchisee in Pennsylvania. Menu Systems will debut the technology at NAPICS in Columbus, Ohio, in February.
9. Mobile marketing.
Sure, more customers are ordering food via their smartphone, but they're also collecting rewards, receiving coupons and sharing photos with themselves and a mouse. Marketing budgets are shifting to mobile, and some brands have jumped into the space early, with impressive results:
A Papa Murphy's operator in Reno, Nev., reported that a recent mobile text messaging marketing campaign resulted in a 174-percent increase in normal business. The targeted offer, created by SMS Masterminds' affiliate MyNNV.com, brought in an extra 2 percent of the unit's database, or an extra 18 customers.
Pizza Hut just updated its mobile apps so they include deals based upon user location. GPS technologies locate nearby restaurants and provide access to local deals.
Chuck E. Cheese's embraced augmented reality with its award-winning mobile app that allows customers to take and share pictures with an animated version of the chain's mascot at various locations throughout the restaurants.
Competition for eating-out market share has never been more intense. Not only is the fledgling fast casual pizza segment experiencing staggering growth, but others are invading the pizza territory as well. This year for example, Chili's Grill & Bar jumped into the pizza space, while a Subway franchisee is preparing to open the company's first Subway Pizza Express concept. Meanwhile, Casey's continues to expand pizza delivery throughout its c-store system, and retail staple DiGiorno operates a standalone concept in Chicago.
In addition to mobile and online ordering growth trends, this year also provided a glimpse of what the future could hold for food ordering and delivery. Pizza Hut went after gamers with its new Xbox ordering app.
Domino's delivered a pizza via drone in the UK and went after the college crowd by adding self-service ordering kiosks in a California university dorm. You can also now get a Domino's Pizza by pushing iStrategyLabs' PiePal — an Internet-connected button. That's correct: You can now order a pizza simply by pushing a button.
Read more about trends and statistics.
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.