Hog Wild

March 17, 2002

To understand why pork toppings are such big sellers, all one need do is look at Pizza Hut's toppings tallies.

It takes more than 2.5 million hogs to supply the annual pork needs of the company, and it uses more than 700 million pounds of pepperoni annually. According to the company's Web site, if those slices of pepperoni were placed side by side, they would circumnavigate world twice and stretch to the moon.

So why are pork toppings so popular with consumers? Finding hard data to answer that is hard to come by, but pizzeria operators typically rank pepperoni first, Italian sausage next and Canadian bacon in fourth, just behind ground beef.

"Pork items are seen as flavorful and traditional in the United States. That's why people love them," said Liz Hertz, marketing manager for the Nevada, Iowa-based Burke Corporation. The company sells a wide selection of fully cooked beef and pork pizza toppings, Italian sausage, pepperoni, Canadian-style bacon and ham. "Pepperoni remains the most popular topping, but Italian sausage is also extremely popular in this country."

Dominic Tedesco believes pork toppings also are popular because they're familiar.

"Pork toppings, including sausages, are very common to America and the reason is simple: they taste good," said Tedesco, who owns shops in Indiana and Kentucky.

Tedesco, who speaks with pride about making his own sausage toppings, said while pepperoni generally dominates pizzeria sales, his best seller, hands down, is his homemade sausage.

"It outsells the others by a 4-1 margin because it has a unique and spicy taste and consumers are always looking for something with more bite and flavor to it," he said. "Fifty-five percent of all the pizza we sell is made with sausage, so it has to be done right."

"New options are driven by customer demands. The only thing that is certain is diners are always looking for the something new, the next great flavor combination."

Liz Hertz
Burke Corporation

Pepperoni reigns supreme at 710-store Papa Murphy's Take 'N' Bake Pizza according to the Vancouver, Wash., company's founder, Bob Graham. "It's very traditional. People associate pizza with pepperoni and visa versa. Why else do you buy pepperoni in the supermarket, if not to put it on a pizza."

He Eats, She Eats

Pinpointing exactly who eats what when it comes to pork toppings is difficult business. Again, little data exists to lean on, but there's always ample opinion.

"Pork toppings are especially popular with men," said Tedesco. "It's a meat-and-potatoes kind of food, so men like them."

Hertz said she believes love of pepperoni and sausage is "pretty universal and popular with most demographic groups, although kids may not care for the spices. My gut feeling is that women are more likely to go for lighter fare, like vegetable and chicken toppings."

Graham says regional preferences are fairly clear, with sausage doing best in the Midwest, and with pepperoni predictably enjoying widespread appeal.

Prepared With Precooked

Though cases of pork-related food poisoning have largely disappeared, customers' and operators remain wary of the danger. Hertz believes such concerns are driving demand for precooked pizza toppings, along with the labor reduction such toppings offer.

"Consumers ... demand a safe product, a flavorful product and a consistent product," said Hertz. "Throughout the (production) process, we check the product for a safe internal temperature and cooking conditions. There are continual checks by our microbiology and chemical labs. We have strictly regulated sanitation, humidity and plant temperatures requirement."

Tedesco said high sanitation standards are practiced at his shop when the staff makes the sausage.

"We buy high quality ingredients in an effort to address any health risk," he said. "Our bacon is bought fresh and pre-cooked. In fact, to take away the risk, everything is precooked. There is nearly no labor at all, and where employees are involved, I oversee them, because of the health issue."

Worth the Cost

The price of pork also influences its use, according to Graham, who noted that as recently as three years ago, "Prices were very cheap," and added, "today the pricing is in balance. A lot of it is dictated by the export policies."

One reason for recent spikes in the price of pork was the outbreak of "mad cow" disease across Europe. The illness forced inspectors to kill millions of heads of cattle, causing a beef shortage and a run on the pork market.

Tedesco sees seasonal swings in pork prices.

"Once a year, generally in the fall, prices seem to go up," he said. "But for the most part they tend to be pretty constant. Even when they fluctuate, people are willing to pay the higher amount, because pepperoni, sausage and other pork toppings are popular. It's a cost that can be passed on."

According to Tedesco, with the exception of Canadian bacon, pork prices currently are not out of line. He now pays $2 per pound for ham, $1.75 for sausage and $1.55 for beef items. Graham, who buys Papa Murphy's Canadian bacon from a Quebec supplier get says the ultra-lean ham is 98 percent fat-free and costs $3 per pound.

Most pork-buying decisions, said Hertz center on quality, while others give price greater weight. Either way, she added, "there is no reason pork toppings can't be profitable."

Pork Premiers

Heating up both sales trends and pizza eaters' palates is chorizo sausage, a spicy Mexican favorite, and andouille, a smoked Cajun sausage strong on tripe and chitterlings. Compared to the sale of traditional pork toppings, they, well, can't compare. But the acceptance and use of both is growing in gourmet and ethnic restaurants, which virtually ensures they'll spill over to pizza with increasing speed.

"We do sell chorizo. It's a nicely flavored pork topping and is a signature item on Mexican pizza," said Hertz. "People are always looking for something new, and Mexican is a hot trend right now."

"We use andouille in our seafood pizza," said Tedesco. "It has a mild pork flavor and tends to be popular with women."

For Graham's customers, "andouille is very high end. It accounts for no more than 5 percent of our sales. I don't think it will ever have a national application. Right now its appeal is largely regional."

Hertz agrees that regional appeal plays large role in what sells, but time, she added, typically blurs those differences.

"New options are driven by customer demands," said Hertz, who added that shredded pork is growing in popularity on barbecue pizzas. "The only thing that is certain is diners are always looking for the something new, the next great flavor combination."

Topics: Pizza Toppings

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