Better This, Better That

During the compilation of this year’s Pizza Power Report (page 36), certain key words kept popping up in our research and interviews with industry experts and pizza makers. Words like “more choices” and “control.” Words like “artisan,” “craft” and “quality.” The pizza industry, it seems, is undergoing a quiet revolution, and the customer stands at the forefront, leading a heroic quest for better pizza, better beer, better soda, better service, better everything.

And it seems that we’ve got Chipotle Mexican Grill to thank for it. Several pioneers of the so-called “fast-casual” trend—in which customers watch their personal-size pies being topped right before their eyes and get to customize it to their hearts’ desire—say they got the idea for their concepts after a meal at Chipotle. But a good idea’s a good idea, and it hardly matters where it came from. If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. (For the record, Subway has been letting its customers build their own sandwiches for decades, but, for some reason, Chipotle gets most of the credit for the model these days.)

Customer control is just one factor in the popularity of these Chipotle-like pizza concepts. Diners also delight in the variety and quality of toppings, sauces and cheeses from which they can choose. Pie Five Pizza (piefivepizza.com) offers seven types of sauce, including Tuscan Marinara, Buffalo Ranch and BBQ, with thin, classic, whole-grain and gluten-free crust options. Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint (unclemaddios.com) prides itself on its gourmet toppings and cheeses, including grilled Angus steak, chicken apple sausage, free-range grilled chicken and mandarin oranges.

Indeed, the “better pizza” movement and the fast-casual boom have merged into a single—and singular—phenomenon. And the timing couldn’t be better. As you’ll learn in our Pizza Power Report, research shows that, despite a sluggish economy, customers are increasingly willing to pay more for pies made with gourmet or natural/organic ingredients. They’ll even shell out an extra buck or two for a tastier beverage, whether it’s a craft-brewed beer or an artisan soda. As far as beer is concerned, that’s no big revelation, but this “craft soda” trend really caught my eye. Some industry watchers say these nonalcoholic beverages, typically made in small batches with natural cane sugar, offer a richer, more flavorful finish than some other products that have dominated soda fountains for the past 50 years. Personally, I’ve been in a longtime committed relationship with Dr. Pepper, but one of these nice, cool, refreshing craft sodas could easily tempt me away for the occasional fling.

All in all, it’s a good time to be in the pizza business. The economy may be plodding sluggishly along, but moneymaking opportunities abound for innovative operators who are willing to try something new and different. The pizza industry has good reason to cling to its traditions—they’ve worked for decades, after all—but many consumers have evolving expectations. As pizza professionals adapt and grow with the changing market, they will likely hold on to the best and most useful traditions while starting a few new ones. That is, after all, how you keep an industry fresh and relevant in a society that’s proved increasingly quick to change.