's top stories of 2011

Dec. 28, 2011 | by Alicia Kelso's top stories of 2011

The year in pizza featured big profits from big names, an acceleration of online and mobile ordering, ramped up growth, rising commodity prices, top-your-own models and continued product innovation. takes a look at some of the most intriguing stories from the past year, in no particular order:

Sizzlin' Stocks ... Between Domino's, Papa John's and Yum! Brands' Pizza Hut, the pizza industry showed some stock market muscle this year despite financial uncertainty in Europe and a volatile commodities market. Domino's specifically is up 110 percent from this time last year.

... But not for all. Meanwhile, other big-name brands continued to feel the effects of a down economy and were forced to navigate through Chapter 11 protections. Sbarro, Giordano's, Round Table and Uno's are now in rebound mode.

Top it yourself.Pizza concepts have embraced the fast casual segment with "top your own" concepts. Gatti's, Pizza Inn's Pie Five Pizza Co., Top That!, Mod, Pie-ology, Uncle Maddio's and Uno's Uno Due Go are a few examples of this trend's emergence.

Golden sale.After experiencing some profit declines, California Pizza Kitchen was sold to private equity firm Golden Gate Capital for $470 million.

Cyberspace and beyond. Pizzerias that didn't embrace some sort of online component this year were left in the dust. Domino's estimates that about 30 percent of its orders now come from the click of a mouse. From Nov. 28 through Dec. 4, the company processed more than 1 million orders in the U.S. from online and mobile devices. Pizza Hut claims it was the first in the segment to launch an iPhone app, and also offers video-on-demand as you order. Meanwhile, Papa John's claimed it was the first chain to reach the $2 billion mark for online ordering and has long since surpassed that mark. But online ordering isn't a trend fit just for the big boys as even small chains are pushing their online efforts with early success. Less than a year after its implementation, Minnesota's Pizza Luce's online orders made up more than 20 percent of the business.

As the online component grows, so too does the demand for mobile and tablet ordering capabilities. This year featured numerous Android and iPhone apps launches, as well as features for iPad users.

Deep discounts. Big offers are nothing new for an industry that created the "$10 pizza wars," and this year included even more low-price promotions. Pizza Hut's Cyber Monday featured 20 percent markdown on everything. Domino's celebrated its 51st anniversary with 50-percent off any menu item for customers in 19 countries. A Pizza Fusion restaurant in New Jersey offered pizzas for $3 in honor of its third anniversary.

Focus on the family. Children's nutrition was the topic du jour in the restaurant industry this year, with a number of chains offering healthier menu options and kids' meals. The NRA and Healthy Dining teamed up to launch the Kids LiveWell initiative, with zpizza signing on as an inaugural participant. Chuck E. Cheese's revamped its pizza recipe to include fresh dough and vegetables. On the other hand, and sparking plenty of controversy, Congress declared that pizza sauce is a vegetable.

Going big with innovation.Domino's didn't rest on its new-pizza-recipe laurels that ignited the company's turnaround last year. The chain spent 2011 revamping its chicken and cheesy bread offerings. Pizza Hut stuffed its crust with bacon, pepperoni and sausage, and launched a Big Dinner Box promotion for group gatherings. Papa John's loaded its Sensation Pizza with three types of sausage, and added a double layered premium pepperoni pizza to the mix. Little Caesars launched five new varieties of wings, including oven roasted, buffalo, barbecue, spicy barbecue, teriyaki and lemon pepper.

Growing again. Post-recession expansion plans were ramped up with numerous deals inked by companies such as Pizza Inn, CiCi's, Mellow Mushroom, Pizza Patron, Grimaldi's, Shakey's Pizza, Toppers Pizza, Marco's Pizza, Pizza Ranch and more.

International markets also were a target. Areas for expansion included Bulgaria, Germany, the Philippines, Ukraine, Northern Ireland and Malaysia (Domino's); Russia and the U.K. (Papa John's); India (Pizza Hut); the Middle East (Pizza Fusion); Vietnam (Round Table Pizza); Mexico (California Pizza Kitchen and Chuck E. Cheese's); and China (Pizza Inn).

Not going anywhere.Gluten-free has proved to be more than just a passing fad, with chains such as California Pizza Kitchen, Pizza Ranch, Mark's Pizzeria and Mellow Mushroom adding gluten-free options. The global gluten-free market is set to grow by $1.2 billion throughout the next five years, reaching $4.3 billion by 2015.

Surprise moves of the year. Papa John's dropped Coca-Cola for Pepsi for the first time in company history. Pizza Hut backed out of the Super Bowl commercial juggernaut after committing for the first time ever. Domino's Japan announced ambitious (and currently impossible) plans to open a branch on the moon.

Buzz words of the year. "Artisan" got a boost from Domino's new line of pizzas, as well as Papa John's new spinach alfredo pizza, and Uno's signature deep dish pizzas with new artisan toppings. Also, "Neapolitan" is on a roll, whether the pizzeria is legitimately certified through VPN standards, or simply presenting the Italian staple's characteristics – tomato, cheese, basil.

Google search of the year.The top three searched U.S. restaurants on Google in 2011 were Pizza Hut, Domino's and Papa John's, respectively, proving the timeless popularity of pizza.

Pizza person of the year.Herman Cain's short-lived presidential campaign courted both loyalists and loathers. It also boosted Godfather's Pizza's search engine presence, as the former CEO often referenced the brand while touting his leadership abilities.

Read more about pizza trends

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, California Pizza Kitchen, Cheese, Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza, CiCi's Pizza, Domino's Pizza, Food & Beverage, Franchising & Growth, Health & Nutrition, Little Caesars, Marketing / Branding / Promotion, Online / Mobile / Social, Online Ordering, Operations Management, Papa John's, Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn, Pizza Toppings, Restaurant Design / Layout, Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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