The pizza segment pushed the menu envelope quite a bit in 2014, mainstreaming unique flavor profiles that have traditionally only been found only at regionals and mom and pop shops.
No launch outlined this trend more significantly than Pizza Hut with its complete menu overhaul announced in November. The largest pizza chain in the US now offers 10 new crust flavors – from toasted asiago to Ginger Boom Boom – five new toppings, including Peruvian cherry peppers, and four new drizzles, such as honey Sriracha.
The brand's new menu also thrust specialty pizzas – typically reserved for LTOs or regionals/independents – into the permanent spotlight (similar to what Domino's did with 'artisan' in 2011), with 11 new recipes ranging from 7-Alarm Fire to Buffalo State of Mind to Cock-A-Doodle Bacon.
Pizza Hut didn't ignore its calorie-conscious guests either, with lower-calorie versions of the brand's hand-tossed signatures.
Pizza Hut wasn't the only concept to undergo a massive menu makeover this year. Sbarro, CiCi's, California Pizza Kitchen and Chuck E. Cheese's also all took a page from the "Domino's playbook."
California Pizza Kitchen came up with a "Next Chapter Menu," including 7-inch pizzas for lunch and pairings. Examples of pairings include the Original BBQ Chicken Pizza with a Caesar salad; and a Shaved Mushroom + Spinach pizza and the new Farmers Market Soup.
CiCi's Pizza also overhauled its recipes after a crowdsourcing initiative. According to a company release, the new recipes include better ingredients such as 100-percent real cheese, more meat toppings (including 18 more pepperoni slices per pizza) and garlic-buttered crust.
The chain has been developing and testing pizza upgrades to its buffet since earlier this year as part of an overall quality initiative. CiCi's also has increased the size of buffet and To Go pizzas to 14 inches.
"Everything we're doing is about improving our relationship with our guests, and their relationship with our food," said CEO Darin Harris. "This is just the beginning of our work to improve our food.'"
Sbarro introduced a new recipe in November with 20 percent more cheese. CEO David Karam said the company is "going back to the basics."
Finally, Chuck E. Cheese's just announced it is testing a menu specifically geared toward parents. It includes the Cali Alfredo, BBQ chicken pizza and pizza dogs.
Another big player also executed a big launch this year: Papa Murphy's new thin crust line came out in the fall, followed by a list of new "gourmet" toppings, such as Angus steak, spicy fennel sausage and roasted garlic.
Papa Murphy's also launched a pan pizza, gluten-free crust and cheesy bread this year, indicating a solid R&D investment following its IPO.
Gluten-free and crust innovation
Hungry Howie's also capitalized on specialty, with three new specialty chicken pizzas. The Michigan-based chain also added a gluten-free crust this year.
NYPD Pizza and Roma's Pizza were two other concepts jumping into the gluten-free space in '14.
More crust innovation came from Little Caesars, which came up with a pretzel version. The promotion was extended due to positive consumer response, the company said.
Meanwhile, Mazzio's (cheese and jalapeno), Pizza Hut (bacon) and Pizza Inn (cheese) stuffed their crusts.
Bringing the heat
Mazzio's added jalapenos to its stuffed crust lineup due to increasing customer demand for more heat, said CEO Sheri Miksa.
"I believe customer’s palates have become more refined and many people’s taste buds crave something a little more bold, so we are certainly on-trend with the addition of jalapeños in the crust," Miksa said. "In general, I believe guests are looking for more flavorful options when they eat out, get carry-out or have delivery – in many cases, things they can’t or don’t cook at home."
She expects menus to continue getting even hotter, as indicated by the increased use of ingredients such as Sriracha sauce and ghost peppers.
Some other concepts leveraged the trend this year, as well, including Marco's, with its Spicy Fresco Three Cheese and Spicy Double Pepperoni Fresco pizzas; Sbarro, with its 3 Pepper Chicken Pizza, and Papa John's rollout of sweet chili chicken and spicy pulled pork pizzas.
Papa John's has never shied away from the unconventional with its LTOs and this year was no different with its Fritos Chili Pizza launch. The chain also offered a cheeseburger pizza, Greek pizza and Ultimate Meats pizza.
The fledgling fast casual pizza concepts are also taking bold R&D actions as they continue their cross-country expansion. Pie Five, for example, came up with a jerk chicken pie, a meatball ricotta pie and a baked potato pizza this year.
Zpizza launched a buffalo bleu pizza, while PizzaRev figured out how to put vegan sausage on the menu.
PizzaRev also touched on another theme that emerged in '14 – Mexican – with its zesty taco pizza. Boston Pizza launched a pizza taco and Pizza Patron brought back its Mexican-inspired line, including La Toluqeña and La Choriquezo.
Mellow Mushroom Pizza promoted an entire menu, "Up in Smoke," inspired by Mexican cuisine. The offerings included a Fully Blazed Chicken Mole Pie and a Holy Mole Hoagie.
/ Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.