Count a pizza's sales potential before counting its carbs and calories

Feb. 10, 2004

You've heard the talk about the Atkins Diet for years, but now its effects are being felt throughout the pizza industry.

Donatos Pizzeria recently rolled out its NoDough pizza (Donatos Pizzeria rolling out 'NoDough' low-carb pizza chain-wide on Jan. 20), while Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza will introduce a reduced-carbohydrate line of Thin Crust deLITE (see story Papa Murphy's to launch lower-cal, lower-carb line of pizzas) pies on Feb. 1. Owners of Cleveland independent Pizzaroni's say their low-carb wheat crust pizza is selling exceptionally well, and Pizza Hut is moving full-speed ahead with its Fit 'N Delicious line (see story Pizza Hut trimming fat with new Fit 'N Delicious pizzas).

I suppose we all knew the changes were coming, but like me, you're probably surprised they happened so soon. Thank the lawyers (and the other Fraidy Fats, Calorie Curmudgeons and Lipid Loonies) for that. Threats of lawsuits surely hastened Pizza Hut's menu shuffle, and where the biggest dog in the pack runs, others are bound to follow.

Not that the change is necessarily a bad thing; any attempt to address the needs of the calorie conscious is both shrewd and sensitive.

But how good a thing is it for the pizza industry?

Despite regional pizza preferences, even the broad differences between pies eaten in New York (thin and foldable) and Chicago (deep and requiring a fork and knife), pizza in America—despite what some Italians claim—is simple: dough, sauce, cheese and toppings. Pretty basic, right?

Depends on whom you ask.


Steve Coomes, Editor

Donatos' NoDough offering. Toppings, sauce and cheese ... placed atop a layer of soy crumbles (could we call that FauxDough?)

Whether it's good is a matter of taste (and I'll find out for myself next week, when I visit a Donatos in Columbus, Ohio), but whether it's pizza ... NoDough might be a casserole, but it's not a pizza.

Reality v. Profits

Some operations, such as Domino's Pizza, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the whole Diet-of-the-Moment situation. According to spokesperson Holly Ryan, no slim-and-trim pizza is in the lab in Ann Arbor, but in the meantime, it's recommending its operators keep an ear to the rail to gauge whether demand for low-cal/low-carb pizza is real. It doesn't make sense yet, Ryan added, to add a product Domino's isn't confident is necessary.

Until such time, the company is telling its operators to suggest Atkins/South Beach Diet-friendly items, such as its chicken wings and thin-crust pizza.

That's a good plan, in my view, as is Pizza Hut's Fit 'N Delicious response, because both companies are working with products already on hand. Pizza Hut's leaner lineup merely uses lower-carb, lower-cal items—and less of them—plus it reduces the amount of cheese on those pizzas. Makes sense and cents, as those pizzas ultimately run a lower food cost than their meat-and-cheese-mounded counterparts.

Plus, it's still pizza; the core product is altered but unadulterated.

As Ryan implied, no one really knows how long the low-carb craze will last, and that makes it fairly risky—read "costly" for big chains especially—to rush new products to market. Sure, such products might spike sales in the initial trial phase, but will they drive same-store sales northward over the long term?

Share your Strengths

Pizza companies simply don't have many opportunities to reshape their core product to fit the demands of every diet devotee. Menus at companies like T.G.I. Friday's require such massive food inventories that chefs can roll out low-carb, low-cal specials ad nauseam. By comparison, most pizzerias' menus are too limited.

The answer, therefore, is for pizzerias to give customers what they've got, and then some.

* Operators are wise to familiarize themselves with the demands of the most popular diets and then market menu items that meet them. Hawking wings, as Domino's Ryan pointed out, is one approach.

* A la Pizza Hut, create a "Diet Lover's" pizza on a thin crust, reduce the cheese and add veggie-only toppings. If you don't have a thin-crust pizza recipe, consider buying preformed shells until you develop one.

* Promote the inherent benefits of pizza. Despite the belief of lawyers' poised to sue your company for others' obesity problems, no one believes pizza is health food.

Few understand, however, that it is wholesome food.

Pizza sauce is high in lycopene, an agent strongly believed to aid in the prevention of prostate cancer. Cheese is high in calcium, which helps prevent osteoporosis and is good for kids' bones as well. Whole-wheat crusts are tasty options and they generate customer interest.

* Develop a "cheat sheet" for your phone/counter workers/servers that contains answers to basic diet-related questions. Everyone knows someone in the Weight Watchers program who could calculate (perhaps in trade for free food) the point totals of all your products. Do the same for total carbohydrates with an Atkins or South Beach diet follower. (It might be wise to ask a dietitian for this information. Also, consider adding a disclaimer that says, "Since all our products are freshly prepared by our staff, the risk for slight variances exists. This nutritional information, though very reliable, is our best estimate.")

* Consider posting this information in your store or on your Web site. Nothing elaborate, just the basics. As lawyers preparing to defend the restaurant industry in upcoming obesity lawsuits will tell you, customers rarely read detailed nutritional information provided them by food producers. However, they do understand the basics of "points" and "carbs" and "fat grams" and "calories."

The bottom line is this: If you perceive a need for these items, find a way to meet those customers' needs. Your company is in business to make money, and pizza just happens to be its product. So if a few twists to a core menu item attract a few more customers, then more power to it. Sure, pizza traditionalists might wrinkle their noses at Donatos' NoDough, but it won't turn customers away. New choices never do.

Topics: Commentary , Domino's Pizza , Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza , Pizza Hut

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