May 2012/Prepared Foods -- Pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, sausage and green peppers: Consumers certainly love these pizza toppings, and they are staples on any pizza menu. But, they’re hardly the only toppings people are willing to try.

During the two short years since Technomic last polled consumers, they have become much more adventurous in their pizza selections. In 2010, Technomic asked consumers about their willingness to try pizzas with “very innovative toppings.” At the time, just 13% of respondents expressed a strong interest in doing so. Today, that percentage has almost tripled to 33%.

Further, at the time of the prior study, just 19% of consumers strongly agreed with the statement: “I usually try new regional or themed pizzas at least once.” Two years later, that percentage is up to 30%. Clearly, consumers now expect to see pizzas with some truly “out there” toppings—as well as regional pizzas, with varieties such as Philly Cheesesteak; and themed pizzas, such as Buffalo Chicken. 

Restaurant operators also are responding by offering toppings that are anything but mainstream. For example, Blackjack Pizza offers an Idaho Pizza featuring tater tots alongside garlic ranch, bacon, broccoli and Cheddar. Happy Joe’s Pizza & Ice Cream Parlor serves a New York Reuben pizza topped with sauerkraut and corned beef. In some cases, multiple chains offer their own takes on the same innovative pizza topping. Cru-A Wine Bar, CPK and Brixx Wood Fired Pizza have all gone beyond the expected fruit toppings of pineapples and tomatoes to offer pies topped with pears. Snappy Tomato, Stevi B’s and Toppers all serve pizzas that feature baked potatoes. Imo’s and Sarpino’s both offer specialty pies topped with scrambled eggs—and they’re not even marketed as breakfast pizzas.

Foodservice pizza innovations have direct implications for the retail food sector, particularly because frozen pizzas are popular with consumers (they’re easy to make and easy on the wallet). Today’s more adventurous shoppers will discover DiGiorno’s Rising Crust Bacon Blitz or Freschetta’s limited-edition Southwestern Style Chicken pizza from its Simply Inspired line.

Pizza also is a food item consumers easily can prepare in other ways.  For example, they can grab a pre-made crust and a can of pizza sauce at the grocery store; top it with cheese and whatever else they choose; and create a pizza at home.

For operators, manufacturers and suppliers with a stake in the pizza market, this means recognizing that virtually anything is fair game when it comes to potential pizza toppings. They have the green light to innovate—to offer ingredients that aren’t typically associated with pizza or to craft new themed or regional pies with unusual topping combinations. They should consider consumers’ changing pizza preferences as a license to get creative. 

NRA Honors Top New Foods, Drinks

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) used its annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago to recognize winners of its 2012 Food and Beverage Product Innovations Awards.

NRA said an independent panel of experts—representing a broad variety of both commercial and non-commercial segments—evaluated new offerings on the basis of new flavor concepts, better-for-you nutritional profiles and operator flexibility.

“Our esteemed panel of judges selected ground-breaking food and beverage products that customers will soon be buzzing about,” said Jack Crawford, convention chair for and president and CEO of Ground Round Independent Owners Cooperative LLC.

Food and Beverage Product Innovations Award recipients include:

Cavendish Farms – Tempura Battered Extreme Beans. Cavendish Farms has taken long Kentucky flat beans pickled in a blend of spices and added their signature crispy tempura coating. It’s a spicy, tasty snack that offers superb plate appeal and excitement to any menu.

ConAgra Foodservice – Angela Mia NSA Crushed Tomatoes. This is the only no-salt-added crushed tomato product on the market today—it delivers fresh tomato flavor (100% California), aroma and color with only 14% of the sodium in traditional crushed tomatoes.

ConAgra Foodservice – The Max Fit for Kids Plus MaxSnax BBQ Chicken. These mini-hand-held triangles of 51% whole-grain quesadilla dough are loaded with chunks of white-meat chicken, a blend of cheeses and a sweet-and-tangy BBQ sauce, and they meet new National School Lunch standards.

Cook Natural Products – Mara’s Pasta. The only 100% whole-wheat pasta made from Maragrain. Grown by U.S. family farmers and designed to please the palate of the most finicky child, each 2oz serving contains 7g of dietary fiber and 8g of protein.

HJ Heinz Company – 3-in-1 Soup, Sauce or Dip. This is a unique frozen product that allows an operator to create three menu items by simply changing the preparation. Reconstitute with water for a soup; milk for a sauce; or sour cream for a dip.

HomeFree LLC – Gluten Free Vanilla Mini Cookies. These cookies are a good source of whole grains (9g), certified-organic (70%), heart-healthy, Kosher pareve, vegan and Non-GMO Project Verified. They are free of the top eight allergens and certified gluten-free.

Jennie–O Turkey Store – Precooked Turkey Burger. Developed specifically for K-12 foodservice, this product gives students an amazing burger experience with all the nutritional benefits of turkey. Most importantly, for kids and schools alike, it delivers on taste, texture, appearance and product performance.

Mighty Leaf Tea – Mfusions. Mfusions is a creative selection of fresh tea, fruit and herb-based drinks, packaged to go. The customer interactively activates the drink by conveniently releasing an agave-sweetened herbal/fruit blend into the tea within a self-contained cup, offering a portable and dazzling beverage experience.

STOUFFER’S – Parmesan Risotto. Supremely versatile, ready to heat and serve as-is or to customize with a customer’s own signature additions. Authentic 100% Arborio rice, rich Parmesan and Asiago cheeses, onions, garlic; and touches of extra virgin olive oil, chicken broth, cream and butter.

SASASWEETS – SasaPops brand artisan frozen pops. SasaPops Fruit Bars are pure—only fruit, water and organic sugar. SasaPops Dessert Bars are the first pops with dessert inclusions, such as cake chunks in decadent real cream bases. They are also available in a MiniPops size for children.


Busy Family Night   

According to a recent foodservice report from Mintel, 80% of family restaurant-goers are eating out less due to budgetary reasons, and it is not likely to change any time soon. Because of this and other issues, family restaurant sales are expected to decline by 7% over the next four years.

The pricing game has not really proven successful, overall, for such restaurants, notes Mintel. The greatest opportunity seems to lie in a sustainable approach that includes promoting reasonable prices with value-added benefits—like health and convenience.

Of course, therein lies the rub: “Healthy” menu items historically don’t sell well, because such items often translate as “tasteless” to many consumers. This could be about to change, however, as 34% of those surveyed say healthy food is an important factor in selecting a family restaurant, according to the report.

Convenience is another way to add value and could be another beneficial approach for this segment. Most consumers (75%) enjoy a sit-down, full-service experience, but many families also expressed concerns over slow service at such venues. Thus, busy families tend to save full-service experiences for weekends, when time is not at a premium.

“By utilizing an ‘express lunch’ concept, midscale family restaurants can attract the business crowd during the week and perhaps implement a family express dinner, where families can still enjoy their sit-down experience, but at a pace that coincides with their busy weeknight schedules,” adds Eric Giandelone, foodservice director at Mintel.

 Trends from the Trenches          

When it comes to the latest scoop on what consumers want from their menus, few people are as reliable as those working directly in the “food trenches”—i.e., culinarians. According to a report on (Feb. 3, 2012), there are five distinct trends in foodservice to keep in mind.

Wendy’s International Inc.’s Gerard Lewis, senior vice president and overseer of culinary innovation, new product marketing, operational testing and product optimization, recently spoke at the company’s Investor Day in New York. His observations began with the idea that Americans are “finding their inner foodie” and have become “enamored with food.”

The diversification of ingredients at grocery stores, including more exotic offerings in the produce aisle, is one indication of this trend. (Wendy’s No. 1 seller is currently the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad—something unheard of for that type of restaurant just a few years ago.)

Hamburgers are still relevant in foodservice. Some of the fastest growing chains are selling a lot of burgers. “We’re seeing adventure with the hamburgers,” Lewis acknowledged. This leads to the third trend: People are being more adventurous with food in general. Combinations of ingredients, as well as just-plain weird combos (such as a hamburger topped with a hot dog and an egg…served in the middle of a grilled cheese sandwich) are being spotted, although not at Wendy’s.

The fourth trend is customization. “They [consumers] want to see [their meal] prepared. They don’t want to see it coming out of a box or a drawer,” says Lewis.

And, lastly, ingredients matter. Customers are looking at what is actually in their food. As Lewis explains, “They want ingredient labels to be short and sweet.” pf