To the pizza purist, topping a pie with a non-dairy soybean-based product is anathema.
But health-conscious consumers are on the lookout for ways to reduce intake of dietary fat and cholesterol, and some pizzerias are meeting that desire -- plus realizing they can make money offering alternatives to conventional mozzarella.
Galaxy Nutritional Foods, an Orlando, Fla.-based firm, is taking dead aim at the pizza market with its soy-based cheese. In business since 1972, Galaxy initially made dairy products alone, until turning its focus to producing soy-based products a few years ago. According to marketing coordinator Janet Kafka, about 95 percent of the company's product line consists of cheese products.
"The majority of the cheese we make is alternative cheese -- alternatives to dairy cheese," said Kafka. "The majority of that is our soy-based cheese. When you make a soy-based cheese, it's automatically going to be less fat, less cholesterol than your dairy cheese."
At present the company's flagship brand is Veggie Mozzarella, just one member of the company's extensive Veggie line.
"There are numerous benefits to it. In addition to being low fat and lower in cholesterol, it's also lactose free," Kafka said. "A lot of different people eat this product for various reasons."
Just how well does this non-cheese cheese work on a pizza? How does it melt, pull, feel and taste?
"It melts just like regular cheese," said Kafka, who added that the pull is comparable to whole-milk mozzarella. "It tastes good. It proves everyone's perception wrong, because people think, 'Oh, soy cheese, it's going to taste bad, it'll melt bad.' But nine times out of 10 you can't taste the difference."
Taking it to the Streets
Taste tests and marketing studies are fine, but how will consumers respond to a non-dairy cheese on their pizza?
The Sbarro chain apparently is impressed. It currently is rolling out the Veggie cheese systemwide at its 800 stores.
Pizza Huts of Ft. Wayne, which operates 44 stores in Indiana and Ohio, is in the sixth month of an extended test of the cheese. According to PHFW's director of operations, Ralph Wilson, the decision was prompted by a desire to reach new customers, folks who normally wouldn't think to eat at Pizza Hut.
"We've been in the business for a long time, and some of the stuff that we've looked at from a business point of view is who are the customers we have, and who aren't we reaching," said Wilson, who added that the PHFW's were the first stores in the Pizza Hut system to try the cheese. "We did several market studies, and decided that the world seems to be getting older, a lot of diets are changing."
Wilson says the company learned about Galaxy through a local representative. After much investigation, the stores began testing the soy-based cheese in June of 2001. The stores charge a buck extra on a large pizza for the low-fat cheese, 75 cents on a medium, and 50 cents on a small.
Wilson said response has been positive, largely because people trying the new cheese weren't expecting it to taste so much like regular mozzarella.
"For the most part, they've all been really positive," he said. "Again, we targeted people with more of a health conscious attitude. We went to hospitals and doctors to market the product, so the comments that we got were that people were really glad to be able to walk into our restaurants and get this."
Still, Wilson adds, the soy cheese lacks some of the taste of real mozzarella. "It doesn't quite have the taste that real mozzarella has. But we don't have what you would call switchers on this product. A lot of the people buying this are people that don't normally come into our restaurants."
That's the customer Galaxy is looking for, not the typical pizza devotee.
"If you don't want to change, and you eat this pizza expecting it to taste exactly like mozzarella, you're going to be disappointed," Kafka said. "But if you've acknowledged that you need to cut out some fat in your diet, and are looking for an alternative, you'll be very happy with this."
In addition to the Pizza Hut chain, Subway stores in southern Florida are testing Galaxy's cheese. In this case, a sliced product is being used for Subway's "7 sandwiches with 7 grams of fat or less" products.
From Low-Fat to No-Fat
Other pizzerias are trying alternative cheeses, and not all of them are based on soy. The Louisville, Ky.-based Bearno's Pizza chain offers a fat-free dairy cheese on its menu. According to store manager Tony Searcy, the restaurants are currently using the Polly-O brand, made by Kraft Foods.
"A lot of people try it out of curiosity, and if they're used to eating regular cheese, they usually go back to regular," he said. "The people that are used to fat-free cheese and know what it tastes like, they love it. We're the only people (in the area) that have fat-free. Lots of people have low-fat."
Searcy said that different brands of fat-free cheeses have different consistencies; some have been too rubbery, or didn't melt well. Fat-free cheeses especially have poor melting qualities since they lack the oil to provide proper viscosity and protection from the oven's heat.
The solution for some operators has been to blend the fat-free with a low-fat mozzarella to save at least a few calories.
"It is great that we have (fat-free) as an option," he said. "But people that are trying it that have never tried fat-free cheese usually don't like the taste."
James Bickers is the senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications.