Pizza: A Comforting Food in Troubled Times

This familiar favorite can add to convenient options.

Bob Johnson

With much of the competition enduring severe restrictions on indoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic, the deli could be well positioned to take a larger slice of the vibrant pizza sector. 

But you must decide how far to go in committing the labor and capital needed to compete with the quality offered by numerous artisan pizzeria chains sprouting around the country, some of them offering consumers an opportunity to build their own custom pie.

QUALITY ON A BUDGET

One area the deli can cut corners is to find a supplier who can provide high-quality dough that is ready to bake.

“Pre-pandemic, there was a move toward making dough from scratch,” says Mark Snyder, national food service sales director at DePalo Foods, Charlotte, NC. “But labor costs continued to increase, particularly in markets like California and New York. There has been a tug of war between those two trends—pizzeria-quality dough and high labor costs.”

DePalo Foods makes, in addition to plain, wheat, and organic pizza dough, lines of calzones, pinwheels and Strombolis, and is one of many suppliers focused on offering products and ideas that will help the deli offer high-quality pizza with a manageable investment of labor and equipment. 


“We’re giving them scratch dough quality without the labor,” Snyder says. “Wegman’s has a pizza kiosk, and Whole Foods makes a little dough because they feel they have to; nobody else is making dough themselves.” 

Another area to economize is to look for baking equipment built to scale—taking no more than the amount of space and investment to get the job done. 

“Delis are looking to diversify their options, and one way is by buying smaller pizza ovens,” says Jill Falgiano, chef and national sales director at Losurdo Foods, Hackensack, NJ. “They are buying frozen dough rather than making it in the deli. That way, they don’t need to have the equipment and man hours to make the dough in house.” 

Losurdo Foods makes authentic fresh mozzarella, ricotta and grated cheese, in addition to quality frozen pizza dough. 

“With today’s technology in pizza ovens, from small deck to conveyer style to turbo, all you need is a simple 5 foot-by-7 foot prep space and commercial tabletop to produce quality pizza,” says Falgiano. “Hand-tossed training would take a bit more time and practice, otherwise training existing staff to slack out pizza dough on a screen is a great way to create a consistent thickness and shape.”


There are areas, fortunately, where the deli is well positioned to offer quality the specialty competition cannot match. 

Much like rotisserie chicken is widely used in salads sold behind the glass, some healthier ingredients for pizza can be conveniently sourced at the produce department.   

“The deli can utilize ingredients that are already in the store that they have to use, like spinach that is about to expire,” Snyder says. 

The dough used for pizza is a versatile ingredient that can be used for other items commonly found in the deli. 

“Dough can be used to make garlic knots, calzones with the sauce for dipping,” says Falgiano. “Pizza cheese and fresh ricotta are the staples of calzones and extremely popular. Entire pizzas are the most fulfilling and easy to transport and reheat food for people ages two to 100. Pizza has become one of the Covid food items. It’s a popular to-go food. More delis are selling it, rather than just pizza shops. It’s significant.” 

The competition cannot compete with the deli in the quality of cheeses and meats used in pizza, and the only question is how far you want to go in flaunting this advantage. 

“People have been wanting to experiment at home,” says Ada Desmond, marketing director at Les Trois Petite Cochon, New York. “In the past, you would have to run around the store to find the ingredients. We’re seeing more cross merchandising where the dough, cheese and charcuterie are displayed together.” 

Les Trois Petite Cochon has a nearly half-century tradition of producing award winning paté and charcuterie.

“In terms of charcuterie, we have a core older audience but we’re starting to get Millennials in their 30s and 40s who have kids and want to try something different,” Desmond says.

THIS IS NOT YESTERDAY’S CRUST

Gail Becker went looking a few years ago for healthier crust options for her two sons with celiac, which left them unable to process gluten. She  turned to social media and found an abundance of recipes for making pizza dough from cauliflower. 

It worked … except that it took her an investment of 90 minutes to make the crust and significant time to clean up the kitchen mess. 

The experience inspired Becker to start Caulipower, a company making vegetable-based dough whose rise both reflects and drives a significant trend toward healthier pizza crust options. 

 “We are in 25,000 supermarkets in the frozen food aisle,” says Kami Knudsen, head of special projects at Caulipower, Los Angeles. “We were the first when we started in 2017; now there is a flood of them. There are chickpea crusts and broccoli crusts. It’s a strong trend. People want to eat healthier. Now people eat gluten free because it makes them feel better; it’s a healthier choice.” 

The success of cauliflower crusts was a beginning that encouraged experiments in other dough alternatives that promise to be better for you. 

“Playing off the success of cauliflower, we continue to see rapid development for crusts containing healthier attributes such as vegetable inclusion, lower carb, keto friendly, cleaner labels, natural ingredients, etc. hitting the mainstream marketplace,” says Jim Vitti, vice president for sales and marketing at DeIorio’s Frozen Dough, Utica, NY. “Healthier crust options are gaining market share. We see it as part food revolution in the short term and part food evolution in the long term for the food industry.”

DeIorio’s makes a variety of frozen pizza dough products, including certified organic, gluten free, cauliflower and broccoli. 

Pizza is affected by the general consumer desire for foods offering better health, and this is one megatrend increasing during the pandemic. 

“We see a lot of store remodeling in process, and health halo items are rapidly receiving a larger portion of prime shelf space as new resets occur,” Vitti says Jim Vitti, vice president for sales and marketing at DeIorio’s Frozen Dough, Utica, NY. 

While the deli already has an abundance of brand name cheeses that can be promoted in the pizza program, fresh produce a couple aisles away, and incomparable meats, it is worth noting the healthier new dough options gaining favor among consumers. 

By Falgiano’s reckoning the dough is one of the two pizza ingredients that must be of consistent quality and the other, the cheese, is already a staple for which the deli is known. 

“Pizza programs are popular nationwide from your single store to your big box, everyone is on the pizza trend; the most popular being good old fashion plain cheese and cheese and pepperoni,” says Falgiano. “’Better for you’” programs will also gain attention. You need consistent quality ingredients. You want to be loyal to your cheese brands. It’s the dough and the cheese that must be consistent.” 

Numerous other suppliers to the deli have also noticed increased consumer interest in healthier crust options that offer less or no gluten, less carbohydrates or just plain less. 

“We’ve seen a higher demand for our clean-label flatbread pizza crusts, with requirements for the crust to be clean-label and many asking for thinner or plant-based options,” says Beth Gordon, online marketing manager at Atoria’s Family Bakery, Chicago.

Atoria’s makes a wide variety of lahvash flatbreads, including cauliflower and coconut, whole grain with and without flax, garlic and herb, used both for wraps and pizza crusts lower in carbohydrates. 

“A crust trend we’ve seen is of alternative breads, such as our Naan,” says Gordon. “Naan bread is a fully baked, soft and pillow flatbread. It’s not exactly ‘healthy’ from a nutritional panel standpoint (contains more oil and sugar than a thinner lavash crust). But with a short ingredient list and high oil content, it makes for a tasty and easy crust alternative. Just place your toppings on and pop it in the oven until you see your cheese melt.”

Better-for-you options are an important part of a general trend toward offering crusts that are in some way more interesting. 

“Cheese-stuffed, meat-stuffed or ricotta-stuffed crust, also ‘better-for-you’ options are great for a deli to promote,” says Falgiano. “Whole wheat dough and multi grain dough are available. Flavored doughs are a trend as are healthier doughs like multi-grain and whole wheat. Whole wheat because it is healthier and multi-grain because it is easier to digest.”  

GRAB AND GO … INGREDIENTS

Increased sales at supermarkets since March and April are an indicator that many people have rediscovered during the pandemic the joys of cooking at home: Produce sales have consistently remained near 10% above the previous year and meat sales above 10% since the pandemic sent consumers in search of ingredients to prepare at home, 

The deli has an opportunity to offer consumers who want to assemble and bake their pizza at home with higher quality ingredients. 

“People want the taste and ease of cooking pizza, but with better, healthier, cleaner and different crust options, says Gordon from Atoria’s. “The new way of the crust for many shoppers is a thinner crust like flatbread or lavash, with simple, real ingredients. There are several benefits of a thinner crust: lower calories and carbs, more flavor from the toppings and a faster cook time, to name a few. And with simple ingredients, you get the authentic flavor of real bread with a better nutritional panel.” 

One advantage of cross merchandising all the ingredients needed to make a pizza at home in a convenient location is that it lets consumers be in and out of the store as quickly as possible during the pandemic. 

“For the short term, consumers do not want to wander for any extended duration,” Vitti says. “They want quick convenience and flexibility. Virtual presentation is now particularly important, especially for the increased curbside pickups. It’s much more challenging to assume impulse purchases. Additionally, we are seeing success with interactive instructional and idea displays that can be quickly captured and tied online through a cell phone, etc.”

The popularity of make-it-at-home pizza is so strong, some suppliers are tailoring products specifically to meet this demand. 

“We recently launched a Gourmet Pizza Kit that is being received very well,” says Vitti. “It contains the three basic components—dough, sauce and cheese—and allows for the consumer to select their other favorite toppings from throughout the deli area. This provides convenience and flexibility. The pandemic has really brought the consumer ‘back to the table’ to prepare, but making dough from scratch can be time consuming and cumbersome.  Allowing the consumer to add their favorite components makes the experience interactive and satisfying.” 

The grab-and-go pizza can anchor a small section of its own by adding related items like calzones or Stromboli. 

“Pizza is very low cost to make and buy with high profit margins and has become even more popular in our current times,” says Falgiano. “It is easy for a deli to widen their customer base with pizza or calzones as a comfort food. They can sell the component as kits for people to make their own fresh pizza at home.” 

PRESENTATION SUITED FOR TROUBLED TIMES

The pizza program faces unique challenges and opportunities brought on by the pandemic. 

Business in the deli has been flat at best since last March and April, and the hot, soup and salad bars have all but disappeared. 

“The deli business overall is down because they had to close down the salad and hot bars so there is less traffic,” says Snyder from DePalo Foods. “Everything has to be grab-and-go or behind the glass. Whole Foods and Wegman’s are doing more behind the glass, but other stores like Publix aren’t.”

With reduced foot traffic, it is more important than ever to go the extra mile to let consumers know about the pizza program. 

“Advertise the options and varieties just like you would subs and sandwiches, for example, Hot Fresh Artisan pies; they are comforting when everyone needs comfort,” advises Falgiano. “Delis are known for grab-and-go; pizza is a perfect addition. Pizza is one of the only new business restaurants opening during this time.”

The message and the product must be both fresh and able to grab the attention of busy consumers anxious to get out of the store. “Provide consistently new and fresh ideas for the consumer,” Vitti suggests. “Tie it to a virtual community and make it interactive. You’re competing against available time for the consumer, so keep the message quick and to the point, but allow them to tie back into the idea virtually at their convenience.” DB

Cover Story

The State of Sandwiches

Lisa White To say the last year has been challenging for supermarket deli prepared food programs may be an understatement. And there is no doubt prepared sandwich programs were caught in the crosshairs due to […]

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