Foodservice: Win Your Slice of Pie

Today's pizza consumers are pickier than ever. What do they expect from c-stores?

Amelia Levin, Freelance writer

While Kwik Trip customers likely will always want cheese and pepperoni pizzas, the c-store chain is rolling out a line of pizzas targeted toward women and light eaters.
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Lunchtime’s calling. Instead of your regular convenience-store grab-and-go fare of prepackaged salad or yogurt, pizza is your craving. It’s fine, more or less, cheesy enough, but not exactly the Neapolitan-style, crispy-crust, fresh choice you expect from your neighborhood pizza joint or even from the take-and-bake aisle at your grocery store.

You’re slightly disappointed. OK, a lot disappointed.

That’s the thing. I’m not the only target demographic—a woman, with a child—behind this pizza revolution. Even my husband’s standards are rising.

The fact is, consumer taste preferences for authentic, fresh and natural are dictating trends in all food categories, especially pizza. Add to that the fact that pizza consumption has increased over the past few years, and c-stores are realizing the need to up their game.

“Consumers increasingly view pizza as the ‘go-to’ food when they don’t feel like cooking,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based research firm Technomic. Just this year, Technomic reported a whopping 75% of consumers eat pizza three times a month or more. More than half (55%) purchase their pizza each month from fast-casual eateries, according to Technomic’s 2014 Pizza Consumer Trend Report.

Fast-casual chains and even some newer quick-service (QSR) concepts are driving the pizza renaissance, with authentic, fresh, made-to-order and customizable pies, says Tristano. MOD and Blaze Pizza both offer build-your-own pies in a very Chipotle fashion, with many specialty options and gourmet ingredients. Even the big chains such as Dominos, Pizza Hut and Papa John’s have launched marketing campaigns touting a higher quality, better-tasting product at competitive prices, Tristano points out. And non-pizza places are getting into the market; take Subway’s recent launch of Flatizza, a square, thin-crust flatbread in cheese, pepperoni, spicy Italian and veggie options, for starters.

C-stores have a unique conundrum: the need to compete with both traditional operators in slice offerings, and with retail and grocery outlets for better take-and-bake options. So it’s a good thing equipment innovation has arrived.

Here’s a look at some of the top trends bursting onto the pizza scene.

Authentic and Artisan

Neapolitan-style pizza is the rage these days, with that crispy but doughy, slightly charred crust and a gooey, cheesy center, says Tristano.

Jim Bressi, director of product development for La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip, agrees. “We’re getting back to traditional, Italian-style pizzas you’d find in the North-east or out West where they’re based on olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs,” Bressi says.

Technomic’s report found that consumers agree that brick-oven (45%), hearth-oven (43%) and wood-fi red (32%) pizzas taste better and are of higher quality.

The problem is, how many c-stores offer wood-fi red or brick-oven pizza, or even have the space for it within their smaller footprint? Then there’s the added cost of ventilation and, of course, the cooking skills.

Obviating much of these obstacles, TurboChef released its Fire pizza oven at the National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in May. And Ovention uses another type of high-heat, convection technology to achieve the crispy, craveable, uber-rustic crust.

“The ROI is pretty quick for operators,” says Dave Shave, vice president of global sales and marketing for TurboChef, pointing out that the cost is far less than a typical $20,000 to $30,000 wood oven.

The unit uses two high-powered convection fans—no microwaving—on the top and bottom to cook fresh or par-baked pizzas at 750 to 840 degrees Fahrenheit in 90 seconds to 2 minutes flat. No vent required and all toppings possible, at just the press of a button.

TurboChef’s Fire also matches the other intriguing element of hearth ovens: aesthetics. With a see-through front and bright red exterior, the oven offers customers that theater appeal and opportunity to watch their food being cooked to order, says Shave.

The Matchbox Oven from Ovention has seen fast growth in the c-store channel as a result of its rapid-cook, ventless technology. The dual-sided, touch-screen oven can cook product at varying temperatures from one food item to the next; pizzas can be followed by subs, then back up to temp for another pie. Hot air, four times the industry average, can take a raw dough to crisp and ready in about 3 minutes, according to Steve Everett Jr., general manager of the Milwaukee-based company. “Convenience stores are looking to produce higher-quality pizza than in the past,” Everett says. “Gone are the days of frozen and microwaved pizzas; the foodservice dollar is too competitive.”

CONTINUED: Light and Fresh Fare


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