Pizza is not fast-food ... yet

April 4, 2006

Despite the claims of restaurant analysts who lump pizza into the fast-food category, pizza is not even close to fast-food or even quick-service food.

Think about it: Outside of getting pizza at a slice joint, there's really nothing quick or fast about buying a pie. On average, any customer who walks up to your counter and orders a pizza will have to wait about 10 minutes or less, and delivery takes about three times as long. By comparison, McDonald's goal is to complete every drive-thru transaction in about 2 minutes. That's fast, and that kind of turnover isn't happening in the vast majority of pizza businesses (though I'll touch on some exceptions later).

So why is it considered fast-food?

Maybe it's the simplicity of it.

Maybe it's the check average.

It could be the debatable nutritional value of pizza. Since white flour is high in carbohydrates, mozzarella cheese is fatty, and pepperoni and sausage are the most common toppings chosen, you don't hear pizza being called "health food." And if any negative connotation — fair or not — is regularly wed to fast-food, it's "junk food."

Or perhaps it's pizza's image. Chain domination of the industry results in highly standardized operations and products, and that mirrors other truly fast-food chains. But just because your food and systems are consistent, does that make your product fast-food?

I say not, and here are some other reasons why.

Other than Little Caesars, which executes its Hot and Ready pre-baked pizza program during the dinner rush, most pizza companies make every pizza to order. Some may sauce and cheese some pies in advance, but they're not baking and holding fully cooked pizzas.

This runs counter to how it's done at fast-food burger, chicken and fish chains, where batches of food are cooked in anticipation of a predicted number of customers filing through the doors at certain times. Ideally, customers order, the food's ready for packaging, customers pay and off they go. If it's not fully ready, microwave ovens hasten the process.

This is not the way it's done in pizza.

Splitting hairs?

I've gotten sort of hung up on this "fast-food" label since PizzaMarketplace's parent company, Networld Alliance, purchased two Web-zines, and, in 2005. (It has since developed the print publication Fast Casual magazine.) That caused me to read more about the quick-service segment and led me to realize how pizza is commonly — and wrongly — compared to other quick-service concepts.

That led me to conclude this: Pizza is a category in and of itself, neither fast-food nor quick-service food.

Sure, there's some menu and service-model overlap with other segments, but that's about it. A pizza kitchen is not run like a burger or chicken kitchen. Burger folks don't manage dough, and pizza folks don't have Henny Penny fryers everywhere.

What's to gain by being considered apart from other fast-food/quick-service vendors? Perhaps a better understanding of the pizza industry overall, its customers' purchasing habits, how and why they decide to purchase pizza as opposed to something else.

A curveball

I'm not saying fast-food is bad. I'm merely saying American pizza shouldn't be grouped with other fast-feeders ... for now. For if you take a look west, and I mean waaaaay west, to Australia, you'll see the world's one-and-only pizza chain that's truly a high-quality fast-food operation: 160-unit Eagle Boys Pizza. It earns that distinction with its 2-minute drive-thru pizza system.

The 2-minute system works like this: Drive-thru and carryout customers choose from a menu of four popular pizzas that are continuously baked between 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily. If customers don't receive a pizza within 2 minutes after placing their order, their next pizza is free.

Central to the system's success is the use of temperature-controlled warming cabinets that hold baked pizzas. Lighted timers on each shelf of the cabinet let staffers know when pies are approaching their 30 minute maximum shelf life. Ideally, said Eagle Boys owner and managing director Tom Potter, they are never held longer than 10 minutes.

Potter hit on the idea after watching cars flow through drive-thru lines at fast-food restaurants. After years of wondering how Eagle Boys could capture some of that business, he developed a drive-thru system that wasn't a mere 10-minute pick-up window. Two years later the company began rolling the system out in franchise stores. About 15 percent of the Eagle Boys system offers the service, and those stores post sales some 35 percent higher than traditional models.

Potter told me several months ago he believes this innovation will launch his "business out of the sand pit and into the main arena. There's no doubt about it: The closer we can get to performing like KFC and McDonald's, the better for our industry."

And when that happens, I'll call pizza fast-food.

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