By Charlie Pogacar

Last year, Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana launched a frozen pizza company, Genio Della Pizza. The move sent shockwaves through the industry—why was any industry leader obsessed with quality pizza suddenly turning toward something long associated with inferiority? 

But Mangieri’s pivot was not without precedent—he joined the long list of acclaimed pizza restaurants that have begun manufacturing frozen pizza. In New York City alone, brands with frozen pizza programs include Roberta’s, Table 87 and Talia di Napoli. That’s not to mention pizzerias in other cities that have expanded into retail, or the long list of them, including Pizzeria Bianco and Sally’s Apizza, that now offer a frozen product via Goldbelly. 

If frozen pizza was once viewed as lesser than, or low-brow, a new reality is setting in. As an example of the direction it is going, consider that Mangieri’s product is handmade in Italy under his self-proclaimed manic supervision. “I’m in the factory, and I make the pizza and run around driving everyone nuts, telling them that we need to turn the oven temperature higher or lower, add more cheese or less cheese, and all that,” Mangieri told PMQ.

Related: Here’s Why Starting a Frozen Pizza Brand Is a Major Challenge

Mangieri and a growing number of his contemporaries believe they can elevate a segment that Technavio projects to grow 5% annually between 2024–2028. Up against behemoths like DiGiorno, Newman’s Own, and newer, monied entrants like Rao’s Homemade, it will be a tall task. But history tells us it’s possible—if not likely—that consumers might be hungry for a quality frozen alternative. 

A Trailblazer

In 1990, the owner of a pizza restaurant in Vermont convinced a local grocery store owner to put 24 of his parbaked, frozen pizzas on the shelves. Frozen pizza wasn’t exactly a novelty at the time, but there wasn’t much in the way of artisan options. Those 24 pies sold out in a couple of hours. The grocery store owner called the pizza restaurant owner and told him he needed 110 more, as soon as possible.

Thus the legend of American Flatbread’s frozen pizza empire was born. For decades, the company, owned and operated by founder George Schenk, set a high bar for what frozen pizza could be. Ingredients were sourced from American Flatbread’s farm. The frozen pizzas were made on that farm, in fact, for many years. The space was an assembly line during the week and would morph back into a restaurant on the weekends. 

Related: Meet the Ski Bum Who Started a Flatbread Empire

For Schenk, American Flatbread’s frozen pizza was a way to feed quality food to more people. That’s why he’d gotten into the pizza business in the first place. Having spent years working in a white table-cloth type of restaurant, he found the humbleness of pizza—and his ability to use it as a canvas for something clean, wholesome, and affordable—appealing. 

“Pizza is intrinsically not expensive to make, and, in that way, it is an efficient way to feed people,” Schenk said. “If we could [make pizza] but hold on to the core values of the food that’s meaningful and responsible to its environment, it struck me that we’d be able to imagine this in a much better way that was financially accessible to more people.”

This philosophy aligns with Mangieri’s rationale for launching Genio Della Pizza. Despite being known as 50 Top Pizza’s No. 1 pizzeria in the U.S., Una Pizza Napoletana has never expanded beyond its one location and famously closes when Mangieri is unable to work. That’s due to Mangieri’s aforementioned attention to detail and thirst for control of the pizza making process. Frozen pizza, then, was Mangieri’s way of extending his culinary reach. 

“I guess anybody would think, ‘Obviously, I’m limiting my growth abilities here,” Mangieri said of the principled way he runs his single restaurant, Una Pizza Napoletana. “Is there something else I could do to grow as a businessperson and also connect with people on a larger scale than just in my restaurant?'”

There were other lessons that Schenk learned at American Flatbread that still apply to the frozen pizza segment today. One example is something Schenk quickly understood about his target demographic. Because American Flatbread was making pizzas by hand with quality ingredients, the price point was high to the point where people told Schenk the operation wouldn’t work over the long term. Those people misunderstood something, though, Schenk said.

“The competition wasn’t other frozen pizzas, “Schenk said. “We were competing with takeout from local pizzerias. And because we were so often using better, cleaner ingredients, it was a competitive price point from a different point of view. We were giving young families the option of giving something good to their kids—it had turned into an important segment of the market.” 

This is true for the new wave of frozen pizza brands like Genio Dello Pizza, too: You can buy a pie right now via Goldbelly. It will run you about $100 for four of them, but there’s no waiting list and no waitstaff to tip—unlike dining out at Una Pizza Napoletana. 

A Different Challenge

American Flatbread eventually sold its frozen pizza business to a third party out of New Hampshire. The founding company still operates several restaurants in New England, but no longer offers its famous frozen pies. 

Perhaps one of the reasons Schenk got out of frozen foods was because retail is an entirely different animal for pizza restaurants. This is a consistent refrain from those who have tried to find their way into the frozen-pizza segment: It is really, really challenging. “It’s two completely different businesses,” Mangieri said. 

There’s the obvious: Shelving fees at grocery stores can be costly; competition in the retail space is no joke; selling packaged goods requires different permitting and often more space than your run-of-the-mill restaurant kitchen. Then there’s the aspect of marketing to an entirely separate group of consumers, ones who may never have heard of your brand before. That can cost millions of dollars. 

“It typically costs $100 million to make consumers aware of a national brand,” wrote Gary Pryor, who once launched Gino’s East Frozen Pizza, in a recent story for PMQ. “A vast majority of small frozen pizza brands will not have that much capital while the big brands have enough money to advertise during the Super Bowl. A new frozen pizza brand will require lots of capital to compete, or it will have to capture a consumer demand that isn’t being met in the frozen pizza market.”

To be clear, Pryor is not suggesting every frozen pizza brand requires $100 million to be successful. The figure is meant to paint a picture of what smaller brands are up against when they attempt to break into the space. 

And there are other challenges that are no less daunting. One intangible Mangieri identified is how soulless the retail world can feel at times. “The whole landscape of the CPG (consumer packaged goods) world [is] pretty heartbreaking when you come from the restaurant world,” Mangieri said. “It tends to be more like, here’s the promos we need, here’s our margins we need every month, and you need to do this, this and this or you’re not coming into the store and that’s it.” 

“They don’t necessarily even care what it tastes like,” Mangieri continued. “Ultimately, I think that’s been the hardest thing for me to learn and understand. I’ll send samples to food store buyers, and they don’t even like it. They like the big legacy brands, where it’s super salty and has a taste that I don’t personally identify with.” 

Mangieri also points out that, even from a culinary perspective, making a line of frozen pizza isn’t as simple as you’d think. There are many different considerations that go into ensuring the final product is fresh and tasty. 

“If you want to get into retail, figure out how to make what you want to sell scalable, before you start presenting it,” he said. “Don’t take what you make, freeze it or package it, and try to get it out in the world.”

The Benefits

Of course, if the cons outweighed the pros, people like Mangieri wouldn’t try to crack into the frozen pizza business. The space is rife with opportunity, and there are shelves beyond the grocery store. Some brands start out small, like at a farmer’s market, or take a page out of Schenk’s book and approach a locally-owned grocery store, like a co-op. Other brands even bypass Goldbelly by starting up an in-house direct-to-consumer frozen pizza business. 

One company that has gone that direction is Lou Malnati’s, the iconic deep-dish brand out of Chicago. Under its frozen pizza label, Tastes of Chicago, the company sells over 2 million pizzas per year. One of the hidden benefits for Lou Malnati’s, which has 80 brick-and-mortar locations across several different states and regions, is that the retail side of the business helps fuel store growth. 

“Our shipping data from the Tastes of Chicago business gives us some really good insights into where we have brand awareness,” said Lou Malnati’s CEO Mike Archer. The data has pointed toward potential expansion into markets like Tampa, Florida, and Dallas-Fort Worth. 

Like Schenk, like Mangieri and every other pizza operator that’s broken into the frozen pizza business, Archer said that, as different as the retail space might be, the mission remains the same. 

“As we continue to grow this brand, one of the things that’s most important to us is, how do we get pizza into people’s mouths?” Archer said. “And [our frozen pizza] is one of the ways we are accomplishing that.”