Executive round table: Pizza industry leaders make their 2015 predictions
Now, we're asking those who are deep in the trenches – the ones who actually run the businesses that make up the vast restaurant industry – for their insights.
The top menu and non-menu stories from 2014 and the biggest expectations for 2015, according to pizza executives include:
Biggest culinary trend from 2014
"There is a clear and growing demand for healthier options in the pizza category as well as the food industry as a whole. Customers desire flavorful yet lighter options and creating a great tasting thin crust pizza is a task that has been difficult for many brands," said Papa Murphy's CEO Ken Calwell. He adds that the brand's Gourmet Delite pizzas have experienced strong support from customers due in large part to the trend toward healthier menu items.
Creative customization hit the radar for Mazzio's CEO Sheri Miksa.
"Customers seem to want to put anything and everything on or in their pizza," she said. Mazzio's stuffed crust pizza was rolled out earlier this year in response, as was its create-your-own lasagna offering.
David Ragosa, co-founder of Kona Pizza USA, said portability is big right now, to fit consumers' active lifestyles. "We are in a go, go, go society," he said.
Randy Gier, CEO of Pie Five Pizza, said seasonal items have been very popular this year. His concept, for example, rolled out pumpkin spice treats in the fall and peppermint offerings for the holidays.
"The proliferation of Neapolitan style pizza has been huge, along with the introduction quick-service, under 3 minute pizzas," said a spokesperson from Nancy's Pizza.
Sid Fanarof, founder of zpizza, agreed that Neapolitan brands are accelerating around the country.
"They changed pizza into a fast casual concept for many and provided new competition for the traditional pizza delivery operations," he said.
Drew French, founder of Your Pie, has experienced an increase in craft beer demand. His company has even started adding craft beer and pizza pairings.
Uncle Maddio's CEO Matt Andrew said there has been spicier, bolder flavors on pizza menus, as well as "earth-to-plate food with integrity."
All of these experiences can be summed up succinctly by Toppers VP of Marketing Scott Iversen: "The biggest trend this year has been toward consumers expecting more out of their pizza experience," he said. This includes variety and customization options.
Culinary trend predictions for 2015
Freshness and variety seem to be emerging as the big themes for 2015.
Calwell expects a higher demand for fresh ingredients, driven by consumers becoming more conscious of what goes into their food. He also predicts the customization trend to continue.
"Customization is a trend that can be seen in the pizza industry as other large chains are now offering additional toppings and flavors," he said.
Miksa and Ragosa agree, and said customization, made-to-order, variety and freshness will be the key characteristics for the New Year.
Gier believes there will be a continued "Americanization of international cuisines, or American fusion."
"We will see more and more American twists being put on these traditional cuisines as they make their way to the US," he said.
Pie Five is one of a handful of brands leading the quickly growing, top-your-own fast casual subsegment. Executives from Nancy's Pizza believe this space will continue to "get a lot of play and be excellently received by the public."
Just as the National Restaurant Association's Culinary Forecast predicted, French believes we will see more restaurants working with local businesses and food providers in '15. Fanarof also said food sourcing will be very important in the New Year, while Andrew predicts more authenticity and all-natural options.
Iversen said consumers will also demand more on the experience side of the business.
"They'll want to feel they got a great value for their buck, both in taste and presentation. They don't want to settle for a boring, bland pizza thrown at them by a delivery driver who doesn't seem to care anymore," he said.
Biggest non-menu trend predictions for 2015
When it comes to initiatives for the months ahead, technology is firmly in the front seat. Papa Murphy's plans to roll out its online ordering platform to more markets in 2015. Ragosa adds that he expects a rise in the use of mobile devices and tablets to simplify and speed up ordering.
When it comes to mobile, many brands are taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to keep up with their digital savvy consumers. Nancy's pizza expects mobile payment to be big, as does French.
"There will be growing interest in electronic payment methods. The restaurants that have held off on having payment apps will begin jumping on the bandwagon," he said.
Fanarof said mobile in general is now a vital part of the restaurant industry. In addition to ordering and payments, Andrew predicts an increase in geotargeted marketing through mobile devices.
"It's still going to be all about who can create the best tasting and most rewarding experience ... but being more convenient is becoming more and more important," Iversen adds.
Mazzio's is also focused on online ordering, as well as mobile apps. Miksa adds that catering will be big, as well, and her company recently rolled out a new catering menu.
"I have a saying: 'Make it easy for people to spend their money,'" she said. "Guests are saying they want the convenience of 'how I want it, when I want it.'"
Photo provided by Flickr user Mai Le.
Alicia Kelso / 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.