Pizza and pasta play a potent part in pandemic recovery


Pizza has been a COVID-beating superhero over the past two years, and pasta is rebounding. Both are poised to play a potent part in pandemic recovery, because they share a key superpower: transforming inexpensive ingredients into healthy profit margins.

“In a post-pandemic world, operators are trying to streamline their menus to keep the inventory and operations under control,” says Lorenzo Boni, executive chef for pasta producers Barilla North America. “Pasta remains [popular] on more than half of all Canadian restaurant menus and has shown particularly strong growth in the fine-dining segment, where it has grown by 24 per cent in the last four years,” he says.

“Pizza climbed tremendously over the full two years of COVID. Right now, in the summertime, we’re seeing a little bit of a lull with the return to in-room dining, but it’s going to be short-lived,” says Dan Glendinning, Country Manager – Canada Foodservice for Hormel Foods Canada, based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.

“Now that people are coming back into dining-rooms, operators are looking at pasta again, because it’s profitable. But with inflation and interest rates going the way they are, we’ll see pizza take off again in the fall, when people may not be going out so much because they can’t afford it,” he says.

Staff Stretchers
Hormel supplies pepperoni and fully cooked, crumbled pizza toppings such as bacon, sausage and beef, which, Glendinning says, can be helpful in reducing kitchen labour. “A lot of these items can be taken from frozen and used in pastas as well as on pizzas,” he says. This cuts out a prep step at a time when kitchen skills are in short supply.

Chef Ryan Marquis is the national president of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Western and Eastern Regional sales manager and corporate chef at CW Shasky and Associates Ltd., which works with numerous suppliers of peppers and dough ingredients, as well as well-known sauce lines Tabasco and Patak’s. Marquis says that, as more diners return to restaurants, the staffing crunch is only going to get tighter.

Although guests will be “looking for new and innovative things,” he says, “the days of a 10-page menu aren’t around anymore. If you don’t evolve and you don’t change your menu, people will stop coming.”

Pizza and pasta are workhorses that allow for menu diversification without taking up much real estate in the walk-in, and they lend themselves easily to limited-time offers (LTOs).

“We’re starting to see those trends that impacted pizza earlier on take shape in the pasta category,” says Elaine O’Doherty, the Canada marketing lead for flour purveyor Ardent Mills. “Consumers that fit into the ‘functional food’ or ‘well-and-good’ categories are looking for foods that give them an added bonus, whether that’s in functionality, nutrients, or fitting into their individual preferences.”

Beyond Wheat?
One pre-pandemic trend that hasn’t disappeared is the move towards alternatives to wheat flour. O’Doherty names quinoa, chickpeas, buckwheat, rice and corn among the ingredients that will increasingly be appearing in gluten-free or “reduced-gluten” pasta. Cauliflower crusts are also holding diner interest.

She says gluten-free “is now the leading pizza-crust type called out on menus, and it has grown 63 per cent over the last four years, according to Datassential. Keto-friendly is also continuing to grow, and keto-friendly claims for pizzas have jumped 25 per cent over the last year, according to Technomic.”

In April 2022, Ardent Mills launched new certified flour blends for this demographic in the Canadian market. The new products include gluten-free and Keto-friendly flours for regular baking applications, as well as a Gluten-Free Pizza Flour Blend and a Keto-Friendly Pizza Mix for foodservice and pizza-chain operators.

As for pasta, “gluten-free and vegetarian recipes are trending among Canadians,” says Boni. “The menu penetration of the term ‘gluten-free’ among pasta dishes in Canada is 6.9 per cent, and it has grown by 11 per cent over the last four years. The term ‘vegetarian’ is called out on 15.5 per cent of pasta menus and is growing by seven per cent. To meet these demands, Barilla offers chickpea, red lentil and gluten-free pasta. Boni suggests, however, that these should not be promoted as a “healthier substitute” for traditional pasta, but as menu innovations in their own right.

Veggie Power
As in other categories, the descriptor “plant-based” is still a distinct selling point; Datassential reports that vegan is the fastest-growing pizza type in America, appearing on 187-per-cent more menus in the past three years. For example, in January, Pizza Hut and Beyond Meat launched plant-based Beyond Italian Sausage Crumbles as a permanent offering at Pizza Hut Canada locations nationwide. The crumbles are being used on three menu items: The Great Beyond, with fresh vegetables and banana peppers; Beyond Italian Sausage Alfredo Loaded Flatbread; and Beyond Creamy Alfredo, a savoury pasta alfredo dish.

Fresh vegetables such as kale, spinach and arugula are also gaining ground, along with avocado and — love it or hate it — pineapple. Glendinning predicts that this type of “plant-based” eating will last longer than the fascination with the manufactured meat replacements that are now so popular in the burger category. Vegetable-topped Asian inspirations are also on his radar: “It may not even be cooked on the pizza; as the pizza comes out [of the oven], they’re adding fresh toppings as something more unique.”

Gluten-free and plant-based, non-dairy items are completing the trifecta of food groups perceived as healthy, with Slice, the U.S.-based independent pizzerias’ network, reporting dairy-free pizza has become 333 per cent more popular this year.

Pep Talk
Nonetheless, Glendinning believes that when people go out to eat, they’re still looking for indulgence, so there will always be a place for classic mozzarella and pepperoni. In fact, pepperoni remains the number-1 protein in pizza; Slice found it topped 37 per cent of all U.S. pizzas. Hormel has recently unveiled its Rosa Grande pepperoni in Canada, a “cup-and-char” pepperoni whose edges curl upwards as they cook, trapping oils and flavour. Glendinning notes that smoked meats such as brisket and pulled pork are growing in popularity as pizza toppings in the U.S.

Above all, there’s strong consumer desire for exciting, bold new flavours and combinations, including Mexican, Indian and Thai inspirations. Tomato-based sauces, still the norm, appear alongside “blonde” pizzas with alternatives such as pesto or alfredo sauce.

Chef Marquis says younger diners are looking for “higher-Scoville toppings” and flavourful blends of international palates that balance, spice, salt and sweet.

“The story for pasta is similar, with consumers being more open to bold flavour combinations, unique, alternative ingredients, and interesting textures for sauces and noodles,” says O’Doherty.

Even new pasta shapes provide opportunity for innovation. “Orzo menu penetration has grown by 74.7 per cent in the past three years,” says Boni. Barilla has recently extended its classic pasta line with orzo, “a very versatile pasta cut,” he says, that “can be used in soups, pasta salads, or as a side. It can also be cooked risotto-style, used in desserts like orzo pudding or used to give some interesting texture to soufflés.”

“In time of turbulence, we’ve seen consumers lean into traditional and authentic dishes,” O’Doherty says. “Traditional pasta and pizza aren’t going away, but lifestyle choices like gluten-free and Keto-friendly aren’t either. It points to a general need for operators’ menus to delicately balance comfort and health to fill consumers’ split desires.”

Independence Day
According to CREST® data from Toronto-based NPD Group, independent QSR Pizza operators have picked up three points of share since pre-pandemic, and now account for one out of every four pizza servings in the QSR Pizza channel.

“This is part of a trend that is spreading across all of the foodservice market,” says Vince Sgabellone, industry analyst, Canada Foodservice, The NPD Group. “Independents have grown share across segments (FSR and QSR) since 2019.”

According to The NPD Group/ReCount®, the number of independent QSR pizza operators grew by four per cent in 2021, while chains grew by three per cent. Put another way, 85 new independent QSR Pizza operators opened in 2021, staging a bit of a comeback after more than 200 closed down during the early days of the pandemic. Again, he says, this is part of a bigger trend across the entire restaurant landscape, where independents bounced back in 2021 with seven per cent unit growth versus just one per cent for chains. 

He says data shows people choose independents — whether pizza independents or any independent in general — over chains because they had a craving, want something special/new/different, are looking to celebrate a special occasion or want better food quality and variety. He says these are all very emotional or food-forward factors, while chains are driven by functional factors such as convenience, habit and price.

“Consumers have been turning to independents in a search for unique and authentic restaurant experiences,” says Sgabellone. “This trend is spreading across restaurant segments, and is especially pronounced among younger demographic cohorts.”

By Sarah B. Hood

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