Frozen pizza war heats up grocers' coolers

March 25, 2002

Want proof that the cold war is still on? Just glance at your grocer's freezer case.

The frozen pizza market, long dominated by Red Baron, Tony's and Tombstone, is growing more crowded by the year with higher-end, restaurant-style offerings.

Ken Crouse plans to get his share of it with the market's only stone-fired, organic pie, Stillwell Stone Fired Pizzas.

His company, Stillwell Pizza, in Stillwell, Kan., sells its product in 26 regional supermarkets. And if Crouse's hunch is right, his gourmet pizza could have a national presence next year. He's currently in negotiations with 2,200-store Kroger to distribute his thin-crust pies.

"When we were at the (Private Label Manufacturers Association tradeshow in Chicago), people just kept saying over and over, 'When are you going to come to my area?' " said Crouse, who believes grocery sales of frozen pizza total nearly $3 billion annually. "They taste it and they like it because it's not like other frozen pizzas."

Crouse, a former chef, found inspiration for the pizza during a trip to France. He said the French typically bake thin-crust pizzas in ovens so hot the crust edges blacken. The crust, however, is so pliable that it's rolled and eaten like a burrito.

What's also unique about French pizza is that it's topped with crème fraiche, a white sauce made from naturally fermented cream. The final product tastes much like sour cream with lemon. Crouse wanted to capture that flavor, while avoiding the mess.

"Once you roll that up, it's running down your sleeve and dripping everywhere," he said. "It tastes good, but it's a mess. We use a sauce that tastes like that, but it's not super runny." Red sauces aren't offered on Stillwell pizzas, however, one of the four varieties in the line incorporates a red pepper puree into the sauce.

Crouse also wanted to capture the singed flavor of a wood-fired oven, but without the charring common to French pizzas (called tarte flambé). Using a custom-built electric-heated stone hearth, the pizzas are parbaked at a hellish 750 F until browned lightly. Then they're blast-frozen at minus 30 F and wrapped. At home, they bake in eight to 10 minutes.

While Crouse declined to say how much he's spent to start his business, which officially opened its doors in May, he said that like a lot of other new firms, he's "got debt service, too, so we're not getting rich quick." Volume he expects will come very soon, he added, will balance the books quickly.

Beyond Mozzarella

Not wanting to court the pepperoni crowd, nor willing to battle the giant companies that feed it, Crouse's pizzas, produced by nearby Custom Foods, are topped with fun flavors like smoked bacon and salmon, and lesser-used cheeses like havarti.

Such unique offerings put Stillwell indirectly in competition with restaurant pizzas, but mostly with high-end frozen pizza makers like Wolfgang Puck, California Pizza Kitchen and Amy's, another organic brand. He believes that customers ages 30-50, who want convenience, quality and a unique taste will buy his product most often.

Additionally, his marketing and packaging is aimed at the growing ranks of organic and natural foods customers, a market that, according to Natural Food Merchandiser, is growing nearly 20 percent a year.

"Though my pizzas cost from $5-$7, depending on where you live, I'm not trying to compete with pizza places that sell their pizzas for that," said Crouse. "That's not my customer."

Crouse said he's passionate about cooking, and that he'd not hesitate to put his pie in front of any of his former culinary peers because he believes the market has nothing to compare to his pizza.

"I'm a damn good cook, and I'd say that, even as a chef, you can't tell that this product has ever been frozen," he said.

Topics: Dough

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