No matter how you slice it, there’s good news—and even better news. The good news is that retail frozen pizza category dollar sales are growing. IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, tracks dollar and unit sales at supermarkets, drugstores, mass market retailers, gas/C-Stores, military commissaries and select club and dollar retail chains. Its data show frozen pizza category sales rose 2.88% to $4,684,214,784 although unit volume declined 2.58% to 1,350,849,792 during a 52-week period ending December 27, 2015.

What’s even more encouraging is that this is a category that consumers love—anywhere, everywhere and anytime. In fact, for Americans, pizza lands in the number one spot as the ultimate comfort food, according to The Harris Poll, which conducted an online survey of 2,252 US adults between December 9 and 14, 2015. With a 15% slice of Americans hailing it as their number one, it gets more than twice as many votes as any other food choice.

For their part, category leader manufacturers are doing what they can to keep sales and satisfaction levels high. Prepared Foods spoke with Nestlé Pizza President John Carmichael during an open house last summer for Nestlé’s new global refrigerated and frozen food R&D center in Solon, Ohio. Nestlé Pizza produces the DiGiorno, Jack’s, Tombstone and California Pizza Kitchen brands.

“As consumers’ options for convenient meals and snacks continue to increase, it is more important than ever to innovate and develop superior products that compete with consumers’ new options,” said Carmichael. “Additionally, the way people eat is evolving—causing consumers to want new things from brands even in historically indulgent categories. These include new health benefits like gluten-free and cleaner labels, as well as new flavor experiences and format options.  Providing the best products that deliver on this is critical for Nestlé’s future success.”

One of Nestlé Pizza’s biggest 2015 initiatives was to extend its popular DiGiorno Pizzeria! brand (a 2014 IRI New Product Pacesetter award winner) with a new sub line. DiGiorno Pizzeria! Thin Crust pizzas debuted last spring and summer with four varieties: Supreme Speciale, Margherita, Primo Pepperoni and Spinach & Mushroom.

“Innovation has been an important theme for us this year to refresh our portfolio across all brands, Carmichael added. “California Pizza Kitchen has seen great success through its brand re-launch with a crispy thin crust in the premium segment of the category, incorporating innovative flavors and ingredients such as chorizo, Kalamata olives, artichokes, fire-roasted poblano peppers, and others; modern health options with new gluten-free varieties; and a new hand tossed crust variety – all of which give us new platforms for growth, innovation and to expand flavor and ingredient leadership.”

Another leader working all the angles is Schwan’s Consumer Brands, Inc., maker of Red Baron, Freschetta, and Tony’s pizzas. For starters, this Minneapolis business launched an entirely new line, Bon Appétit, last spring. It’s a specialty brand with a thin, artisan crust. Moreover, the 10-in pizzas take a high quality, flavor-first approach with ingredients. Varieties include Mozzarella & Pesto, Spinaci, Pepperoni & Pesto, Roasted Vegetable and Trio Bacon.

Perhaps most importantly, The Schwan Food Company is back in 2016 with even more passion for flavor and quality. On the heels of major ingredient simplicity announcement (removing negatives), Schwan’s came out in January with the Schwan’s Chef Collective, a nationwide team of up-and-coming chefs who will partner with the Schwan culinary team based in Marshall, Minn.

The inaugural team includes seven accomplished chefs external to the company who have honed their crafts in diverse culinary ventures across the country — from restaurants to food trucks and even the development of cookbooks. Each member of the team brings a unique perspective and is tasked with scouting emerging ingredients, cooking methods and global cuisines to continually influence the innovation of Schwan foods.

“Our team is constantly eating, tasting and sampling, and we gain insights from other leaders in the food world,” said Stacey Fowler, Schwan’s senior vice president of product innovation and development. “Schwan’s Chef Collective enables us to dive deeper into emerging trends and consumers’ ever changing lifestyles to develop new, delicious and wholesome recipes with quality ingredients.”

Niche Hitters

As it turns out, not all consumers are created equal. Although they share of love of pizza, many shoppers have certain dietary and nutrition interests. This is why the frozen pizza category continues to see many more new SKUs.

Last year brought a host of allergen-friendly products like those from Amy’s Kitchen, Smart Flour Foods and Daiya Foods.

An established organic brand, Amy’s, Petaluma, Calif., introduced three organic and gluten free pizzas that emphasize a rice crust base. New options last summer included Rice Crust Spinach Pizza, a Rice Crust Pesto Pizza and Rice Crust Dairy Free Pesto Pizza. This last variety is topped with Daiya shredded mozzarella-style cheese alternative, which is free of cholesterol, lactose and other common allergens. The result is a pizza that’s gluten free, dairy free and vegan.

Also following the organic route is Jane’s Dough Foods. This Columbus, Ohio, firm used Natural Products Expo East to introduce Sonoma Flatbreads, a 10” organic pizza line including Spinach & Feta, Uncured Pepperoni, Chicken Sausage & Peppers, and Four Cheese. Each pizza contains between 72% and 79% organic ingredients. There are no artificial flavors, colors, or ingredients. The uncured pepperoni is nitrate and nitrite-free, while the chicken is all-natural. Jane’s Dough also offers four GFCO-certified gluten-free pizzas.

For that matter, Smart Flour Foods created its own proprietary gluten-free flour crust blend of sorghum, amaranth and teff. Last summer saw this Austin, Texas, company extend its line with three new classic Italian flavors: Chicken Sausage, Tuscan Inspired Uncured Two Meat, and Sundried Tomato and Escarole. It also rolled out a larger family size in four varieties: Uncured Pepperoni, Garden Margherita, Classic Cheese and Italian Sausage.

Officials say all products feature real mozzarella and provolone cheese that is free of rGBH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone). Meanwhile, there are no preservatives or artificial ingredients and hand-selected uncured meats that are free of, nitrites and nitrates. The crusts themselves also are vegan, soy free, dairy free, and kosher.

Last year also saw dairy-free specialist Daiya Foods, Vancouver, B.C., expand its own frozen pizza line. It partnered with Beyond Meat, Los Angeles, to create a Supreme Pizza with Daiya’s dairy-free Mozzarella Style Shreds with Beyond Meat gourmet meatless sausage—as well as colorful peppers and onions and tomato sauce. Like all Daiya foods, the new pizza is free of dairy, gluten and soy. It contains no animal products, cholesterol, trans fats or preservatives.

“With over 22 million vegetarians, a third of the population who is dairy sensitive, and an ever increasing number of people now following a plant-based diet, we are fortunate to cook up our latest creation with industry leader Beyond Meat, who is well known for revolutionary and great-tasting, plant-based products that offer the same taste and texture of meat,” said Michael Lynch, Daiya’s vice president of marketing.

What about consumers looking for kosher options? Last summer found Kayco (also known as Kedem), Bayonne, N.J., importing six thin crust café-style artisanal pizzas from Italy. Officials say all natural Tuscanini Premium Handmade Pizzas feature fresh ingredients and the finest cheese.  Classic handmade pizza varieties include Classico Margherita, Mushroom, Roasted Vegetable and Four Cheese. Flatbread options include Mushroom, and a Margherita and Pomodorini. All are certified kosher by the OU.


Originally appeared in the March, 2016 issue of Prepared Foods as Cold Comfort.