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Pizza 2.0

The next generation of pizza embraces customization and technology.

​By Pat Pape

Pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty tasty, but when it’s at its best, there are few things that taste better. Every pizza provider wants to give customers that enjoyable pizza experience, and to keep up with the competition, some convenience stores are serving up new pizza tastes, along with a slice of technology.

In January, Ankeny, Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores launched a free mobile app that shows all of Casey’s 1,900-plus locations, most of which make fresh pizza onsite. The app features monthly promotions, pizza specials, coupons and contests, but more importantly, it allows customers to order pizzas and subs for pickup or delivery. About 400 of its stores provide pizza delivery, and that number grows annually.

“Pizza is definitely a competitive product, and the app is going to be another way for us to connect with our customer,” said Bill Walljasper, senior vice president and CFO of Casey’s. “We anticipate increased pizza sales and increased add-on sales.”

People Love Pizza
U.S. retail sales of frozen and refrigerated pizza exceeded $5 billion in 2014, while restaurant pizza sales reached $41 billion, reports market researcher Packaged Facts. The group forecasts the restaurant pizza segment will have sales approaching $43 billion by the end of 2015.

According to Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group, in the year ending November 2015, 5.2 billion ready-to-eat pizza servings were sold in the United States (individual slices and whole pie purchases combined). Most were sold by major pizza chains, but 4%—or 209 million servings—were sold by convenience stores. While that number is relatively small, sales of c-store pizza jumped 8%, 13% and 19%, for each of the last three years, respectively.

“It’s probably coming from those c-store concepts we call ‘food forward,’” Riggs said. “They are into more prepared foods, higher quality and more variety.”

Pizza has long been an easy, convenient and affordable meal, but staying on top of the business is a challenge. “There are all kinds of business models,” said Jack Cushman, corporate foodservice at CST Brands Inc., which operates Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes in upstate New York. “There are the delivery guys, like Dominos; the people who deliver and offer sit-down, like Pizza Hut; people who just do sit down, like Mellow Mushroom; and Mr. Gatti’s, which is an entertainment model. We sell pizza whole and by the slice, and that’s more of a New York City pizza [style].

 “People think pizza is simple, but it’s not,” he added. “You’ve got to take it seriously and have a passion for it. It’s not just another category. That’s a mistake people make.”

Keep It Fresh
QuikTrip of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has a solid pizza program but continues to roll out enhancements. Last month, the retailer introduced a made-to-order Carryout X-Large Pizza with 12 substantial slices. Customers can choose from a pizza flavor on the QT Kitchen menu or select favorite toppings.

For convenience, the new pizza’s ingenious container is a perforated box that converts into four separate pizza “plates.” The remaining parts refold into a smaller pizza box for storing any leftovers.

“Not only do you have to make a good pizza, you have to price it competitively,” said Mike Thornbrugh, QuikTrip spokesperson. “And you have to have the people [on staff] who are trained to make it right every single time. That’s one of the most important parts of the business.”

Launching a pizza program doesn’t end the continual quest for the perfect pie. Currently, two major chains are revising their offerings.

Maverik, based in North Salt Lake City, Utah, discontinued its pizza program several years ago. Now several stores are testing made-to-order, single-serve gourmet pizzas. Customers can choose existing flavors, such as Thai or Hawaiian, or build- their-own pie with upscale toppings, such as bacon and feta cheese, at an additional cost per topping.

“We’re re-introducing it with a new recipe and new process,” said Ernie Harker, director of marketing for Maverik. “It’s a premium item, not a low-priced pizza.”

Rutter’s of York, Pennsylvania, recently dropped its pizza program, which featured a 7-inch single-serve pie, but a revamped pizza program is in the works, according to Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice for Rutter’s.

Giving customers the option of mobile payments and ordering are benefits all three chains expect to roll out in time. “It’s the wave of the future, and we’ll be part of it,” Thornbrugh said.

Prepackaged Programs
Retailers who want to sell pizza but aren’t sure where to start can call on companies that create in-store programs. Hunt Brothers Pizza is one of the largest, with pizza operations inside more than 7,000 outlets in 28 states.

“We customize a program for each store depending on their needs,” said Keith Solsvig, vice president of marketing for Nashville, Tennessee-based Hunt Brothers. “We consider where you have availability [for a program] and where it makes the most sense to capture the traffic flow.”

Hunt Brothers Pizza crusts arrive in stores with sauce and cheese in place; additional toppings are added by store personnel. Because pizza is often an impulse item and much of the business is grab- and-go, Hunt Brothers encourages stores to keep hot pizza in the warmer.

“People come into a store and see pizza,” he said. “It looks great, and they grab it. Stores know when they have a lot of customers coming in—when a work shift ends or after school—and can have pizza prepared. That’s truly a convenience.”

Piccadilly Circus, a c-store pizza program based in Milford, Iowa, tries to keep the program consistent in each store, “but not all stores are the same,” said Dana Evaro, vice president of marketing for the company. “We do have flexibility built into the brand. We provide all equipment, cabinets, branding, a turnkey solution for building awareness in the community, plus a full marketing strategy to help each store hit its goals.”

Piccadilly Circus introduces existing customers to the upcoming program with POP materials and newspaper ads. “We invite customers into the store during our training to try free samples and give us feedback,” Evaro said. “One of the most important things is revolving flavors. We come up with three or four limited-time pizzas every year, and we have a long list of pizzas in our kitchen that we’d like to roll out. They offer something new, and the next one may fit a large niche.”

Tell Customers
Convenience store customers are in a hurry. Most won’t slow down long enough to peruse the foodservice area unless they know what is available.

Nice N Easy uses direct mail to keep consumers updated, and shoppers are invited to pizza “Happy Hour” from 5 pm to 7 pm every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, where they save $3 on a 16-inch cheese pizza. Toppings sell for the regular price of $1.69 each, and most people get at least one topping.

In 2014, when Nice N Easy was acquired by CST Brands of San Antonio, Texas, the chain’s made-to-order foodservice program was so impressive that CST replicated it in several Texas Corner Stores that had not previously offered pizza.

“Nice N Easy’s irresistible pizza program was introduced in the first rebranded Corner Store market in San Antonio in December,” said Hal Adams, president of retail operations for CST. “So far, we’ve opened five Corner Store Markets that serve pizza. We sent out a series of direct mail fliers, offering a $5 one-topping pizza in the first, a free pizza slice in the next and a free two-liter soda with any pizza in the third.”

As a result, the Northeastern version of pizza is already gaining a Texas following. “Pizza is enjoyed in all parts of the country,” Adams said. “It can be made to order to suit individual tastes, and it can be sold by the pie and the slice. Nice N Easy’s pizza recipe has a fabulous base and crust, a delicious tomato sauce and is basically a perfect pizza. When we opened the first store, popular personalities at a San Antonio TV station happily tried the pizza on air.”

Pizza has a reputation as an indulgence item, but according to Cushman, “It’s actually pretty healthy compared to other things. There’s fiber in the bread, dairy in the cheese and lycopene in the tomato.”

“Pizza is part of the American culture,” Solsvig said. “One thing we know from our research is that our pizza increases the sales in a store—the whole store. When we put pizza into a store, it will sell more beverages, more snacks and even get a higher gas volume. It’s a situation where everyone benefits.”

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a fulltime writer and communications consultant. Her writing portfolio can be seen at patpape.wordpress.com.