In the United States, where meat is as plentiful as meat eaters, it's not likely vegetables will ever supplant pepperoni or sausage as the most-requested pizza toppings. But even Liz Hertz, marketing manager for Nevada, Iowa-based Burke Corporation, a producer of meat toppings, believes the numbers of those who prefer broccoli to beef are growing.
"There's no doubt that people -- and especially women -- like vegetable toppings," said Hertz. "I'm not sure what percentage of pizza toppings (sales) come from vegetables, but you can tell it's growing."
While mushrooms (Pizza Hut alone uses more than 20 million pounds of the favored fungi every year), olives, onions and bell peppers are familiar pizza toppings, eggplant, roasted potatoes and zucchini are now coming into their own.
And as pizza makers have experimented with cheeses beyond mozzarella, they've found a broad and complementary flavor range in vegetables.
Consequently, vegetable offerings have broadened to include legumes and lettuces, giving birth to Mexican pizzas (refried beans), Cuban pizzas (black beans) and the BLT pie.
A Growing Market
The Maryland-based Vegetarian Resource Group found in its 1999 survey that 57 percent of Americans "sometimes, often or always" order vegetarian items when dining out. The study also found that women are twice as likely to be vegetarians as men.
Pizza customer preferences bear this out, say pizzeria operators.
"If you bought a Panago pizza and nobody told you it was veggie pepperoni, you wouldn't know."
David Yudkin, co-owner of three-store Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, Ore., said females are his most common consumers of vegetable toppings, while "the hard-core meat eaters are men," he said.
Nestor Ojedamoya, owner of Mama's Pasta Café in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the veggie-lover's camps are almost equally split between males and females. Where they differ are in the vegetables they choose.
"A lot of guys go for the eggplant subs and spinach pizza," said Ojedamoya, whose vegetarian offerings account for half of his sales. "Women tend to just skip the cheese and go for pizzas with broccoli, spinach and green peppers."
Much of the growth in sales of veggie-topped pies at Hot Lips can be attributed to the company's focus on such offerings. Yudkin only uses organically grown produce and advertises that fact. Plus, he's well known in Portland for his energy conservation initiatives, and that leads him to work with nearby farmers.
"Most of our pizzas have some type of vegetable on them -- mushrooms or spinach are popular," he said. "Vegan pizzas are very, very popular here."
In business for two years, Ojedamoya also is passionate about freshness when it comes to his vegetables; he buys them fresh every morning at a local farmers market.
Yudkin said that he and some of his customers also choose vegetable toppings because of the sometimes controversial nature of American beef production.
"In the larger processing companies, there are a lot of ethical, environmental problems," Yudkin said. "So we've been trying to steer people toward vegetable toppings. We also carry meats that come from better sources, but we still have to carry conventional meats."
Pizzeria operators, a group accustomed to dealing with price fluctuations in cheese and meat, know vegetable prices can be fair-weather friends, too. Depending on where the crop is coming from, good weather will stabilize prices, while bad weather can erode generous margins gained on items with vegetables.
"Winter's my roughest time when I pay more for vegetables," Ojedamoya said. "When they have freeze-outs in California, prices go up really bad. But I still buy it for the simple reason that people like it."
Still, while Ojedamoya's costs rise, he doesn't raise his prices. To build a buffer against cost spikes, he sets aside money throughout the year to ease the pain during winter months.
"I keep loyalty with my customers," he said, "I have money to cover it."
Yudkin's solution to higher prices is to rotate menu offerings that utilize "in season" produce.
"I'm selling more tomatoes in August and less in December," he said. "A case of tomatoes in December can be two or three or four times as expensive as the tomatoes that you get in August. So by buying seasonally, we save money."
Those looking for a green piece at Hot Lips during winter also will find pesto-topped pies, as well as some using tubers and root vegetables. Yudkin said he got a good response from pizza he offered with yams last year.
"If you're paying attention to seasons, you avoid the hardest fluctuations," he added. "Because I'm working with small farmers, I come to a set price that generally is the price I'll pay throughout that season."
Dealing with farmers rather than distributors sometimes requires a delicate touch, Yudkin pointed out. "I try not to 'work' them (on price), because if you screw the farmer, he's not going to be there. It's a negotiation."
"A lot of guys go for the eggplant subs and spinach pizza. Women tend to just skip the cheese and go for pizzas with broccoli, spinach and green peppers."
Given the creative strides made by food scientists in the past decade, the notion of "vegetarian pepperoni" surprises few customers. Vancouver, British Columbian company Yves Veggie Cuisine produces this seeming oxymoronic topping, and has made inroads with pizzerias in North America.
The company makes a variety of soy-based meat substitutes, such as Veggie Pepperoni Slices and Ground Round. The products, which are all low-fat or no-fat, are available in the United States through Sysco. In Canada, they're on the menu at Panago, a 150-store chain in Vancouver.
"Historically, we've focused our efforts primarily into the retail market," said Roy Kingsmith, director of marketing for Yves. "In the last year, we started our efforts toward foodservice. It's starting to gain in popularity, as more and more people try it."
While foodservice sales only comprise 10 percent of Yves' business, Kingsmith said it is the company's fastest-growing area. He said the firm is preparing to pitch its product to "a couple of the biggest (pizza chains) in North America."
So how does the flavor of this faux-flesh stack up? According to Kingsmith, its cooked texture is comparable to lean meat, and its taste would fool the meat-loving masses -- when tucked below a cloak of cheese, anyway.
"If you bought a Panago pizza and nobody told you it was veggie pepperoni, you wouldn't know," Kingsmith said. "The only trick to the whole thing is that it needs to sit under the cheese when you bake it, because it will dry out if it's on top. But it performs very nicely when covered with cheese."
Topics: 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.