By Ed Zimmerman
For those of us over 50, carry-out and delivery “back in the day” was pizza, Chinese or chicken. That was it. Those were the choices, and we were happy, but I’ll return to that later.
In considering a to-go meal, these were the three choices, but pizza was always first. And the reason it was No. 1 is that pizza was (and is) the easiest, most economical way to feed a crowd. So, if the group is your family or a sports gathering or a church group or a kids’ party — Pizza is King!
Delivery and carry-out, DELCO for short, relies on the food going through some type of last mile supply chain that delivers the food in an edible condition. The introduction of the corrugated box, with vents, allowed heat to maintain in the box, but steam to escape. This ensured that pizza arrived still hot, but not soggy, so consumers were happy, and the price tag was palatable, along with the pizza.
Pizza is a perfect food — carbs, protein and veggies all in one place. It’s easy to serve and eat, requires no prep and little clean-up. Carbs, in the form of crust, satisfies our communal need to break bread together. Veggies — via tomato sauce and vegetable toppings — deliver perceived health. Protein is delivered via cheese.
As Americans move toward plant-based and away from heavy meat consumption, cheese creates a middle ground. No, cheese isn’t plant-based, but cows are! Cheese indexes better with younger folks as an acceptable protein — less impact than meat yet still acceptable. From a cost point of view, cheese generally costs less per SERVING than meat and doesn’t create the slaughter of an animal to enjoy. For many of us older consumers (read sentence one above), we have less sensitivity than younger consumers to these issues.
So, let’s consider what happened in the last year.
The pandemic forced Americans to completely change their eating patterns and behaviors. Restaurants closed, consumers panicked and retail sales boomed as a frightened populace bought groceries and cooked at home. We hid in our homes and had Instacart, COSTCO and other third parties deliver our groceries. Whole Foods, and others, cleverly allowed us to place orders online and ran our packages out to our cars. Several months into COVID, it seemed we would survive.
As the months wore on and people tired of cooking, a few brave souls started ordering food for delivery. Third-party apps, restaurant chains and even independents fielded an army of people to pick up restaurant food and deliver to homes. People gained confidence. Terms like “essential workers” emerged, and we trusted they would do the right things, not show up to work if they were sick, wear a mask, wash their hands and not touch other co-workers.
People began to report in and post on social media — “we bought food from a restaurant and didn’t get sick.” Others followed. Sales increased, confidence grew and now food was flying from restaurants to home, and fear subsided.
As sales volume grew, all restaurants were promoting. Chicken, burgers, salads, whole meals, all going through third-party apps and delivery. People were so happy not to cook, so glad to spend money, so happy not to clean up after — but reality was also settling in. Burgers and fries, delivered 45 minutes after order, were soggy and cold. Salads wilted. Sandwiches were limp. But pizza — pizza showed up hot and crisp and economical.
The reason pizza was king in the pre-pandemic world is that our gorgeous, delicious star of foodservice transports well, doesn’t cost a lot and is delicious. This formula was as true 30 years ago as it is now. Pizza has the unique ability to transcend time, space and economics.
A key to survive and thrive in the cheese business is to have a pizza strategy. So, what can YOU do to support pizza and the pizza industry?
Mozzarella remains the base cheese to pizza’s success. Mozzarella is the No. 1 cheese produced in America. It is the typical, high-volume, low-margin product. If you have multiple plants spread across the country, you can do well. Regional players can bluff their hand into some regional success, but it’s not a winning formula. Supporting pizza with specialty cheeses, designed to add value, is a much better game plan.
Pizzerias can’t make money selling cheese or pepperoni pizza for a low price and a coupon. National chains that can allocate the cost of R&D, legal, promotions and technology split over thousands of locations can win that game, but not locals or regionals. The key to success is to create a following on specialty pizzas that add value through cheese blends and unique toppings. This is a game cheesemakers can also play and win.
You must create a story, a reason, a value-added WHY for a pizzeria to call you to form a partnership. I believe big companies should do business with big companies and small companies should do business with small companies. Small and mid-sized companies need small and mid-sized cheesemakers to understand their needs and develop creative solutions to joint problems.
Said simply, small cheese companies can’t make money selling Mozzarella. Small restaurant companies can’t make money selling Mozzarella. Here is the opening, the creneau, for both parties to win. Cheese companies should seek out pizza innovators and find common ground.
Pizza is king because it answers every need, taste, price, convenience, and if you don’t have a strategy aligned with pizza, your king or queenship is jeopardized. Learn pizza, love pizza — it will love you back!