Americans continue to choose pepperoni as their favorite pizza topping, but what may be surprising to some is that more consumers are basing their decisions on the crust. According to a new report from Dataessential, the crust has become a major differentiator in the ubiquitous pizza space.
Thanks to the likes of Pizza Hut (eight new crusts, including honey Sriracha and toasted parmesan) and Little Caesars (pretzel), among other smaller chains, crust experimentation was mainstreamed this year.
"While Americans love meat, what separates a great pizza from the rest is the crust," said Brian Darr, Datassential managing director, in a news release. "Forty-six percent of the consumers we surveyed cited the crust as the most crucial ingredient in an outstanding pizza. The sauce and toppings were cited by 20 percent and the cheese by 14 percent."
Crusts are getting an update, with everything from skinny versions to pretzel crusts, and stuffed crusts to gluten-free. According to the report, 30 percent of consumers are also interested in wood-fired or coal-fired pizzas.
Flatbreads are also shaking up the pizza category, moving the dish into new menu parts and utilizing more unusual ingredients. In just the past few months, major chains have released seasonal flatbread limited-time-offerings, innovative appetizers and even desserts, like the Sangria Flatbread at Bonefish Grill, which tops a brioche flatbread with berry sangria preserves, mascarpone cheese, candied pecans, and creamy wine custard sauce.
Flatbreads have markedly different ingredient and flavor profiles. According to the report, premium toppings like beef tenderloin, havarti cheese, and tomato aioli are 10 times more common on flatbread pizzas. Generally, high-end proteins, like ahi tuna, filet mignon, and duck confit, are far more likely to show up on flatbreads, as are globally-inspired sauces like chimichurri and harissa.
Pepperoni pizza was the number No. 1 among consumers who had eaten a pizza within the past two weeks. Forty percent chose a pepperoni pizza, with the sausage and meat lovers’ varieties each chosen by 16 percent of consumers. Supreme and cheese rounded out the top five.
Though pepperoni is likely to remain the most popular topping for quite some time, cotto ham, pepper bacon and pancetta are among the fastest growing options, the report said. Quick-service restaurants are taking inspiration from other trends and dishes, adding pulled proteins like pork or chicken or Philly steak to pizzas, while independents are incorporating unique flavor profiles like confited proteins, reflecting the importance of "premium" toppings in differentiating pizzas.