The Growth of American Pizza Overseas

March 17, 2002

The pizza business's ability to continue growing never ceases to amaze me. Just as I think the U.S. market is maxed out, a new shop pops up -- but no other shop nearby closes. It seems to expand to accommodate new players all the time.

The frozen pizza market is just as perplexing. Just as soon as it shows signs of weakening, it'll completely reverse itself and rebound to even greater heights.

Tom Lehmann

In my job as director of bakery assistance at the American Institute of Baking, I travel to foreign countries regularly to consult on pizza. And what I'm also finding is that American pizza -- its flavors, textures, toppings and the companies that sell it all -- and its influence is spilling over to foreign shores more than most of us realize.

Outside of the U.K., where Pizza Hut, Domino's and Papa John's have established several hundred stores between them, the type of pizza typically found throughout Europe is something I refer to as a Neapolitan-style, a somewhat bare-bones pie built on a rather crispy crust. But that's changing quickly as customers there crave more variety in crusts and toppings. Rather than having a plain cheese pie, orders increasingly are for multiple toppings, including meats, vegetables and an assortment of cheeses.

And just like in the U.S., frozen pizza's popularity is rising in the U.K., Germany and France, where pizzas topped with beef, chicken, pepperoni, sausage, vegetables, etc., are showing up in stores everywhere.


This same growth is occurring in the Far East, especially in Korea, Japan and the Philippines. I've seen many independent shops open up, and watched some of them become pizza chains. In Turkey, for example, there is a chain called Pizza Days, which sells pizza as you'd find it in the U.S., and served on the customer's choice of thin crust or Chicago-style deep-dish crust.

In India, there is a domestic, full-service chain called Pizza Corner, with 22 stores Delhi, Chennai and some smaller cities. Not only does it serve American-style pizza, it also has capitalized on the "theme restaurant" concept. Décor at Pizza Corner's restaurants center on sports, and each store's look and feel is devoted to a single sport, such as boxing, cycling, soccer, baseball, etc. While patrons eat their pizzas, they watch videotaped highlights of historic moments in that sport and its great athletes in action.

But aside from the atmosphere at those stores, what really opened my eyes was the pizza itself. I found myself thinking, "Here I am at a pizza restaurant in Delhi, India, and the pizza in front of me looks as though it came from any U.S. pizza restaurant -- and tastes like it, too."

What's important for U.S. operators to note is how difficult it has been for these foreign operators to achieve such high product standards. In India, for instance, a steady supply of good mozzarella cheese and high-quality tomato sauce has become available only recently. The first tomato sauce I saw used there two years ago looked like a blend of red and green salsa. Once applied to the dough, it would separate into water and floating solids in a heartbeat.

Now, after years of persistence and research and experimentation, Indian pizzeria operators have established relationships with reliable suppliers who are selling them products that are every bit as good as those found in the U.S.

As I've said so many times before, pizza is a true vagabond. It knows no cultural boundaries, and you can find it almost anywhere in the world. To make it appropriate for sale in essentially any country on Earth, all one need do is modify the toppings to fit regional tastes.

So if you ever find yourself wondering where pizza is growing, just look abroad. It's almost like stepping back in time and seeing where the U.S. pizza market was 30 years, poised to change the whole foodservice industry with one product, and with a wide-open market before it.

Topics: Cheese , Commentary , Dough , Pizza Sauce , Pizza Toppings

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