Fishing for Toppings

March 27, 2002 | by James Bickers

Is the time-tested sausage crumble in danger of replacement by shrimp? Will the noble pepperoni slice find itself supplanted by flaked salmon or lump crab meat?

Probably not. Despite growing sales of seafood toppings, manufacturers of tried-and-true pizza meat toppings needn't fear the shrimp-and-lobster-segment just yet.

While seafood toppings aren't anything new -- upper East Coast restaurants have served clam, garlic and bacon pizzas for decades -- shrimp, scallops, crab meat, lobster and fish are appearing more regularly on pizza menus.

ZZ's Pizza Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, has been in business for 15 years, and according to owner Bill Enz, seafood toppings have been strong sellers from day one.

"They sell like wildfire," Enz said. "I would say 65 to 70 percent of our business is gourmet pizzas, and probably 20 percent of that is seafood."

The Seafood Pizza at ZZ's consists of lobster, shrimp, crabmeat, bacon, onions, pineapple and three cheeses. Shrimp also makes an appearance on ZZ's Cajun Pizza, alongside sausage, green pepper and onions.

On the West Coast, where the California cuisine movement gave rise to gourmet pizza, seafood toppings are easy to find. Leucadia Pizzeria, a four-restaurant chain in Encinitas, Calif., near San Diego, offers a Shrimp-Pesto pizza, topped with shrimp, tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes over a base of pesto sauce. Another offering blends roasted garlic and a mixture of shrimp, scallops and fish.

"We've had them around for a while," said owner Chip Conover. "They're just a good, steady seller." He said that Leucadia has featured seafood toppings on the menu for about 17 of Leucadia's 21 years. But unlike Enz, he estimates that pizzas with conventional toppings outsell seafood pies 10 to 1.

Auckland, New Zealand-based Restaurant Brands, which operates 135 Pizza Hut stores in New Zealand and Australia, offers a seafood pizza topped with shrimp, calamari, hoki (fish) and mussels on a seafood-marinara sauce. And in Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's Pizza's Taiwan market, the best seller is topped with squid, shrimp, crab and peas.

"We put a lot of product on our pizzas ... and we have no problem charging more. In fact, we just raised prices a dollar on each one. Customers understand."

Bill Enz
Owner, ZZ's Pizza Company

There's no denying that interest in seafood is growing, said Liz Hertz, marketing manager for Nevada, Iowa's Burke Corporation. But the interest has a long way to grow in order to put a dent in sales of meat toppings, which Burke manufactures.

"It's there, but it's still a niche market," said Hertz. "It's been interesting to see how well it goes on pizza, though."

Not a lot of Clams

Recent interest in seafood pizzas could become a good opportunity for pizzeria operators. According to Alfred Nasti, sales and marketing manager for food importer Atalanta Corporation, prices on seafood currently are very low and likely to stay that way.

"Seafood, last year and this year, has gone down, probably in the neighborhood of 30 to 35 percent," said Nasti, whose company is in Elizabeth, N.J. "Asia has gotten so advanced in the aquaculture business (and) countries that never did a lot of exports to the States have now become U.S. friendly."

Nasti added that those countries have recognized the profitability in seafood versus rice." Since the conversion of many once-lush rice paddies to aqua-farms cultivating shrimp, the seafood market is now flooded with inexpensive crustaceans called tiger prawns. Additionally, as the events of September 11 slowed restaurant sales in the U.S., prices dropped even further, according to Joe Bonura, manager at wholesaler Bluefin Seafood.

"When business slowed down so much after the attacks, people started dumping their fish on the market at cheap prices," said Bonura, whose company is in Louisville, Ky. "It's really not gone up much since."

Nasti agreed, and said a rebound isn't expected soon.

"It's going to take a long time before seafood prices escalate to where they were in the 1990s," he said. "Right now seafood is the most affordable it's ever been. Per piece, a jumbo shrimp (15 to 20 per pound) is costing a pizzeria owner no more than 35 cents. And that can be chopped up into four pieces."

Enz concurs that prices for seafood have been fairly consistent, with one exception. "The only thing that's volatile is the lobster -- in little 10-ounce cans. Those went up pretty high recently, about $1.50 an ounce, but they've dropped back down."

Nasti pointed out that frozen seafood works well on a pizza, too, but that chefs should avoid precooked toppings as they tend to dry out. To avoid the opposite, called watering out, frozen seafood should be thawed completely -- and always under refrigeration -- and drained well before cooking. "Also, anything out of fresh water doesn't do well under a boil," he added. Bonura agreed.

"The shrimp coming out of East Asia are very good, but you just can't throw them in the pot and walk away like you can with something from the Gulf" of Mexico, he said. "They take a little more watching."

Marginal Returns

Overall, seafood prices aren't particularly volatile, but they do rise and fall based on harvest times of each species and should be purchased with that in mind. Maintaining good margins, therefore, often becomes a matter of an operator's willingness to charge enough to make a profit without scaring off customers.

"We put a lot of product on our pizzas ... and we have no problem charging more," said Enz. "In fact, we just raised prices a dollar on each one. Customers understand."

Conover said Leucadia's seafood pizzas are just as profitable as those topped with the old favorites. "We charge more for the shrimp than any other topping. The margin is about the same."

While seafood pizza might still seem like a "West Coast thing" to many people, the idea is certainly spreading. Even in the largely landlocked Midwest, consumers are embracing alternatives to traditional meats and vegetables.

Seafood toppings "have sold very well here for the last 15 years, and this is a very conservative city," Enz said of Cincinnati. "It amazes me how much people took to them."

Topics: Independent Operation, Pizza Toppings

James Bickers
James Bickers is the former senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications. wwwView James Bickers's profile on LinkedIn

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