Pizza and pasta are commonly considered as comfort-food classics among Canadians, so it should come as no surprise that the predominant trend shaping these categories is a shift to less guilt-inducing variations. This includes healthier versions of items and options that suit a wide range of dietary preferences.
“In the pizza category, we’re seeing growth through what consumers perceive as better-for-you diversification and authenticity,” says Laurie Scanlin, R&D Culinary director, Ardent Mills. “Pizza crusts that follow clean-label, whole-grain, plant-based, vegan and/or gluten-free diets and lifestyles can help feed some health-minded consumer demands. In fact, gluten-free crusts are the fastest-growing menu mentions in Canada,” according to the company’s 2019 Pizza Crust Study.
“There’s been a lot of focus on the crust,” agrees Alex Rechichi, president, Crave It Restaurant Group. “There’s been a huge push for people to try and identify or make their own gluten-free crusts. There’s also been some work done around Keto and grain-free crusts,” he adds, pointing to cauliflower crust as a key offering.
And, closely linked to such ‘better-for-you” items is interest in vegan-friendly offerings. “There’s been a lot of interesting [innovation] done on the topping front that relates to vegan dining and flavour profiles — vegan cheese, dressings, [et cetera,]” continues Rechichi. “There’s been some huge advancements there in terms of the quality of cheese and how they melt, as well as various vegan toppings that might profile and taste similar to proteins.”
In fact, Shlomo Buchler, owner or Toronto-based Maker Pizza, identifies gluten-free and vegan as key menu additions his concept is looking at. However, he notes, in order to offer truly gluten-free items, it would be a significant undertaking, but one the Maker team is considering for the future. “It’s something that requires a lot of work and would have to be a separate project from Maker,’ he explains. “You basically have to have a separate kitchen for it or a separate production line and, at this point, that would be a lot of work. We want to do it on a level that would be comparable to what we’re offering now.”
Crave It Restaurant Group is facing similar challenges at its Via Cibo concept, “We don’t offer a gluten-free pizza crust because we haven’t found something we’re happy with. We tested it, but it’s still sort of the ‘Holy Grail’ we’re chasing,” says Rechichi. “When you go to Italy, [specifically] Naples, you can find gluten-free pizza you would never know was gluten-free. That is starting to permeate our markets now and there will continue to be development around healthful dining choices and [meeting] dietary needs.”
And, given interest in quality and authentic products, Michael Bou-Younes, lead trainer, Faema Culinary Academy (Toronto), notes traditional Italian ingredients continue to be a key selling point. “Today’s consumer is more educated about the tradition and uniqueness of heritage Italian products [and we’re] seeing specialty items such as Prosciutto and Buffalo Mozzerella become more commonplace outside of the ‘Neapolitan’ pizzeria. In turn, specialty meats such as Sopressata and Cacciatore are becoming more readily available alternatives to just pepperoni,” he explains.
“The focus in recent years has shifted to quality — especially in the delivery segment of the business,” says Buchler. “That’s always been our focus and we work daily to improve and maintain a high level of quality and consistency.”
“People have a much higher expectation now than they did 10 years ago. And, pizza [may be] a fast food, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a quality food,” Buchler adds.
“[The pizza segment] seems to be more focused on health and alternative products as people become more health conscious, [as well as] local products,” agrees Jeff Kacmarek, V.P. Marketing and Product Development, Domino’s Pizza of Canada, noting Domino’s has been working to provide cleaner ingredients and has made recent changes to the formulation of some products. “Whenever we’re looking at a new product or a supplier we definitely want to focus on [ones] that come from Canada.”
Bou-Younes reports Faema has been seeing increased demand for fresh-daily handmade pastas. “Traditional, simple shapes done properly on a daily basis strike a chord with the artisan touch people crave,” he explains.
However, there’s also been significant interest in far less traditional noodle types. According to Rechichi, most developments in the pasta category have to do with “healthful variations on the noodle.”
“A lot of the same trends we’re seeing in pizza crusts are moving into the pasta category,” says Scanlin. “Consumers are looking for more variety in terms of pasta colour, texture and nutrition; that can be achieved with whole grains and specialty grains, gluten-free and plant-protein choices. Here, quinoa and chickpeas are great options for offering pastas that contribute plant-based protein with a more diverse nutrient profile.”
“Anyone can come into our restaurant and ask for a vegan [or] gluten-free pasta,” says Rechichi. “Gluten-free has been a huge category for us. We’re [also] looking at potentially doing things with various vegan proteins, like Beyond Meat or the Impossible proteins to introduce a vegan Bolognese.”
And, with the rise of the Keto diet and an overall desire to reduce carbohydrate intake, spiralized vegetables have begun appearing on menus as a pasta alternative. “Vegetable-based noodle offerings have become more and more popular,” Rechichi adds. “We tested zucchini noodles (offering classic dishes with these noodles) and it worked out really well for us.” He also notes Via Cibo has been exploring offering a lentil- or quinoa-based pasta. “That was in the works pre-COVID-19 and now we’re looking at reigniting those plans.”
“During COVID-19 shutdowns, pizza-focused operations were among those best positioned to thrive, due to the fact these concepts have long relied on pickup and delivery for the majority of their sales,” shares Bou-Younes.
“Concepts like Maker Pizza and, obviously, Domino’s, which serve a great product that
translates well into off-premise [dining], have fared quite well in this environment,” adds Rechichi, “Because of the current pandemic, consumers’ purchasing habits have really changed over the last couple months,” says Kacmarek. “Consumers are looking for value — they’re looking for opportunities where they could potentially get two or even three dining experiences out of one order.”
And, as Rechichi notes, the circumstances created by the pandemic have made brands assess how they innovate and operate under the new parameters created by the pandemic and new ways of ordering. Many concepts, including Via Cibo, began offering make-at-home kits for both pizza and pasta during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown to meet the unique needs that arose. “[People] were tired of trying to figure out what to make,” he explains. “We put those on our delivery platforms and they did quite well.”
Via Cibo continues to offer frozen pizzas because demand has continued, however Rechichi says he doesn’t expect these offerings to become a permanent fixture for the brand. “We don’t know where it will go from here,” he explains. “We’re focused on making sure our restaurants fit the new model [emerging as a result of the pandemic] and being able to deliver on the digital front.”
Additionally, Kacmarek says Domino’s has put its focus on incorporating new zero-contact procedures during this time. “Whether it’s delivery or carry out, we’ve done a lot of work in that area and a lot of changes have taken place in our operations as a result.”
Technology is a significant part of Domino’s overall strategy and will likely become a greater focus for many of its competitors — as well as the larger foodservice industry — as they set their sights on recovering and thriving in the ‘new normal.’
“Ordering through apps continues to grow in popularity, so everything we do from a technology perspective is really focused on simplifying the order-taking process and creating a better user experience for consumers,” says Kacmarek. “We know that when customers order through our digital platforms, their satisfaction levels are much higher, so we feel that’s a great opportunity to continue to grow in and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Despite being a much smaller business, Maker Pizza is also investing in technology. “We’ve been working behind the scenes and, in September, we’ll be introducing some new technology that’ll make the overall [ordering] experience, practically seamless. It’ll be very heavy on customer service, but in a way that’s not intrusive and is super convenient,” explains Buchler.
This includes enhancements to the brand’s app, “a really advanced web-ordering system and a few other things customers are going to be really excited about,” says Buchler. “Right now we’re doing things the traditional way, where we take the majority of our orders over the phone and we have an in-house delivery team (about 22 drivers). But, we get really busy and that becomes a very cumbersome process, so we’re just looking to streamline the process.”
“Alternative dining and delivery in our post-pandemic world is definitely going to be a major focus requiring some outside-the-box thinking,” says Bou-Younes.