Last year, gluten-free was the top story in the pizza segment. While smaller chains and independents picked up the diet earlier, big brands such as Domino's and Chuck E. Cheese's pushed it into the mainstream.
Gluten-free continues to grow at a staggering pace, but customers are starting to expect it. This shift has been driven in part to another emerging trend in the pizza space — top-your-own concepts, most of which prominently feature gluten-free as one of many choices.
These fast casual pizza brands are growing their footprints exponentially, including Pizza Inn's sister chain Pie Five Pizza Co., as well as Blaze Pizza, Uncle Maddio's, PizzaRev, Your Pie, Mazzio's, Top That, Pizza Pizzeria and more.
"We predict fast casual pizza will be a $5 billion a year category in 10 years, approximately 10 percent of U.S. pizza sales," said Matt Andrew, chief pizza maker at Uncle Maddio's.
Accordingly, pizza's top culinary trend in 2013 thus far is individual-sized, customizable pizzas, typically made in 3 minutes or less.
"We're starting to see a 'better pizza' category. These pizzas are made to order and this is really an area pizza hasn't seen before, but it's what consumers want," Darren Tristano, EVP of Technomic, said in February.
Other pizza trends emerging (or carrying over from last year) include:
While flatbread has long been an indie favorite, it 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.
According to Technomic, "fresh pizza toppings" requests are up 6 percent since 2010. Consumers are looking for what Tristano calls "health-halo" descriptors; for example, "all-natural," "locally-sourced," "wheat crusts," "organic" and "artisan."
Sbarro introduced its "Skinny Pizza" to kick off the New Year. The trademarked, 270-calorie Skinny Slice features roasted red and green bell peppers, Portobello mushrooms and caramelized onions, and is topped with mozzarella and pecorino Romano cheeses. 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 the spring.
In May, Pizza Patrón introduced a new campaign called "¡Es Calidad! (It's quality)," touting the company's new "fresh ingredients menu strategy."
Cody Pierce, vice president of Marketing at Pizza Ranch, told PizzaMarketplace in May that international flavors are big on the map this year, including spicy and Asian. His brand launched a sweet chili pizza in the winter, and more recently introduced the Meaty Tahiti.
Mazzio's launched The Cowboy, made with spicy red sauce, four types of 100-percent cheese, marinated steak, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers and jalapenos. Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers introduced a new limited-time menu, "High on Thai," featuring the bold, spicy and sweet flavors of Thai cuisine.
Pie Five Pizza Co. added a new Chicken Awesome-Cado pie with all-natural chicken breast, Hass avocados, diced Roma tomatoes and sliced onions atop hand-grated mozzarella and provolone cheeses and drizzled with crème fraiche. Earlier this year, it added the Cuban Pie, with pulled pork, ham, mozzarella and provolone cheeses, special mustard sauce and diced pickles.
And, Hunt Brothers launched its first-ever Hawaiian pizza, with smoked bacon, pineapple tidbits and Hunt Brothers Pizza's JustRiteSpice topping, while SPIN! Neapolitan pizza added roasted pineapple to its new BBQ di Pollo e Pineapple Pizza.
Domino's took a page from its rival Pizza Hut's playbook in the fall with its new handmade pan pizza, which marked the company's biggest product launch in three years. The chain put a lot of marketing weight behind this launch during the early part of this year.
Many chains also followed suit, including fellow Michigan brands Hungry Howie's deep dish pizza introduction in April, and Little Caesars Detroit-style deep dish pizza, also in April.
Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen also added a new signature pan pizza in the spring.
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.
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.
Another trend carrying over from last year is premium/specialty offerings. 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.
Because of their versatility and high profit margins, QSRs have been stepping up their beverage options throughout the past few years. Pizza concepts are also starting to follow this strategy. For example, 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.
In the spring, Pi Pizzeria hosted a contest for home brewers to see who can make the best High Alpha Ale for the brand's menu. Shakey's Pizza Parlor announced on its Facebook page that it is testing strawberry/banana and mango smoothies. And, finally, Minsky's Pizza launched a Burlesque Lager to mark its 37th birthday.
Other stories worth mentioning
Chuck E. Cheese's extended its brand offerings with squeezable yogurt products, now available in four flavors at more than 2,200 U.S. Supercenter stores.
Pizza Hut introduced what it called one of it's most anticipated new products ever — Crazy Cheesy Crust. The crust includes 16 dough pockets as the outer edge, each filled with a blend of five Italian cheeses.
Read more about pizza 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.