Fresh produce toppings can also help pizza operators stand out.
Originally printed in the July 2022 issue of Produce Business.
Platforms. Everyone in menu research and development thinks about platforms for serving a wide variety of menu items. Platforms can be breads, tortillas, biscuits, baked potatoes or pizza crusts, and each of these platforms is a perfect perch for fresh produce. Pizza especially. Crispy or doughy crust, a savory sauce, melted cheese, and a blank palette for possible toppings from arugula to zucchini.
“American diners love to see new, innovative options on menus, but they also love to see and order the familiar,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting Inc., in Sacramento, CA. “A vegetable-topped pizza may never take over the popularity of a pepperoni pizza, but there is no doubt about the growing demand for more options for ‘better-for-me’ menu items that feature more fruits and vegetables.”
Pizza is a paragon of platforms for fresh produce because of its widespread popularity.
Americans eat 3 billion pizzas per year, according to a 2021-published article in Pizza Today magazine in celebration of October’s National Pizza Month. Not even the pandemic could part Americans from their pie. Case in point: the Top 500 Pizza Chain category was one of the only menu categories to manage positive sales growth in 2020, increasing by 4.7% during the year, according to the 2022 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report by Chicago, IL-headquartered foodservice market research firm, Technomic, Inc. What’s more, cumulative Top 500 Pizza chain sales increased by 7.5% in 2021.
However, times are changing. That is, 28% of respondents to Technomic’s March 2021-published Pizza Menu Trends reported they ‘strongly agreed’ that they would eat pizza more often if there were healthier options available.
“The wellness or health halo trend started long before the pandemic, but since restrictions have been lifted, many diners have expressed an even greater desire to eat healthier,” says Deena Ensworth, senior content manager for the Salinas, CA-based Markon Cooperative Inc. “Of course, vegetarians are in this demographic, but so are flexitarians and meat-eaters. Using small bits of protein, say crispy, salty prosciutto to accent the bitterness of arugula or the sweetness of pineapple, appeals to a wide range of customers while allowing foodservice operators to reduce food budgets and sidestep meat shortages.”
Fresh produce toppings can also help pizza operators stand out.
“We see independent restaurants differentiating their pizza menu offerings with unique fruit and vegetable toppings to help them stand out from local competitors as they welcome diners back post-pandemic,” says Chef Scott McCurdy, director of culinary for Rosemont, IL-headquartered foodservice distributor, U.S. Foods.
During the pandemic, operators were scaling back their menu offerings, McCurdy says. “Today, they are expanding their menus to include exciting, bold flavors and concepts that will attract and retain both new and returning diners. For something like pizza, making simple, exciting twists on old menu favorites using fresh ingredients including pre-cut, pre-diced and pre-marinated items is an effective way for restaurants to add new flavors to their menu without adding a lot of complexity back-of-house.”
7 INSPIRED WAYS TO INCORPORATE FRESH PRODUCE INTO PIZZA
1. THE MIGHTY ’SHROOM
Mushrooms are the third most popular pizza topping in the U.S. after pepperoni and sausage. However, they are No. 1 when it comes to produce. Fifty-four percent of the 6,000-plus Americans asked about their most liked pizza toppings for a 2021-conducted YouGov poll responded with ‘mushrooms.’
“This may be because they go well with both veggie and meat pies,” says Pam Smith, RDN, foodservice consultant for the Redwood Shores, CA-headquartered The Mushroom Council, co-chair of The Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative, and co-creator of the menus at Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52 restaurants.
“This will only trend up as the New York Times declared mushrooms the 2022 ‘Ingredient of the Year.’ This will land mushrooms at the top of most superfood and top trend lists, so why not top them on every pizza? They play a vital role in feeding the immune system and support brain and bone health. Not to mention, they are a delicious foundation for plant-forward and plant-based eating.”
By volume, white sliced mushrooms remain incredibly popular on pizza due to price, availability, and demand by traditional pizza operators, according to Sean Steller, director of business development for Phillips Mushroom Farms, in Kennett Square, PA. “We are seeing more shiitake and maitake featured on pizza, as well as mushroom blends growing in popularity. Some operators are listing ‘Mushrooms’ or ‘Mushroom Blend’ as the topping to provide additional flexibility around ingredient availability.”
Higher-end restaurants serving wood-fired pizzas are among those driving demand for specialty mushrooms, adds Fred Recchiuti, general manager for Basciani Foods Inc., in Avondale, PA. “Our Wild Bunch is a combination of sliced cremini, portabella, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms. Chefs will use as is or roast or smoke the mushrooms first before topping a pizza. A plus is that using the word ‘wild’ on the menu allows operators to charge a premium and make better margins.”
A wide selection of mainstream and specialty mushrooms are available fresh from foodservice produce suppliers or broad-line distributors. Increasingly, local mushroom farms are springing up to offer close-to-home grower partnerships.
2. ONIONS AS STAPLES
Onions round out the top five most popular pizza toppings in the U.S. and are No. 2 after mushrooms as a produce topper. Forty-eight percent of the 6,000-plus Americans asked about their most liked pizza toppings for the 2021 YouGov poll responded with ‘onions’.
“Depending on how they’re cooked, onions can add a sweet nuance or a crisp and tangy option to your pizza toppings. The best part about pizza is there really no rules,” says René Hardwick, director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association (NOA), in Eaton, CO.
Red slivered is the most popular cut requested by customers or prospective customers for pizza, according to Megan Jacobsen, vice president of sales and marketing for Gills Onions, in Oxnard, CA. “Onions aren’t just on top of the pizza — a lot of onions are used in tomato sauce and our onions are found there, too.”
Some of the more unique produce-based toppings for pizzas are driven by the ongoing fermentation trend, says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, based in Arlington, VT. “We’re seeing some pickled vegetables, from onions to pickles and sauerkraut.”
3. CRUCIFEROUS CRUNCH
Cauliflower, top or bottom, is a key trend for pizza, says Claire Conaghan, associate director at Chicago, IL-headquartered Datassential. “Cauliflower is now found on nearly 8% of pizza menus and is up 351% over the past four years. It can be used as the base of a crust, roasted for topping, or even blended for a vegan take on a white cheese sauce base.”
“Some of the most exciting uses of produce in pizza extend beyond toppings,” agrees U.S. Foods’ McCurdy. “Cauliflower pizza crust is certainly trending with diners and we’re seeing many restaurant operators ordering pre-made cauliflower crust from us or perfecting their own in-house cauliflower pizza crust recipe.”
Other cruciferous veggies also trending include Brussels sprouts (1.8% of menus, +7% over the past four years), broccoli rabe (2.8% of menus, +14%), and broccolini (1.0% of menus, +30% over the past four years), according to Datassential.
4. STREET CORN
High-impact prep is being applied to vegetables on pizza, meaning a lot of roasted tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and onions, says Menu Matters’ Webster. “We’re even seeing growth in roasted corn.”
The most unique pizza of the past year in Datassential’s database is Round Table’s Street Taco Pizza, says Conaghan. “Sixty-five percent of consumers said it was very or extremely unique and 50% said they would definitely or probably buy it. The pizza is topped with charred corn, chorizo, tomatoes, crema, crisp tortilla strips, green onions, three-cheese blend, salsa Roja, and lime wedges.”
Round Table Pizza, headquartered in Atlanta, GA, operates over 400 restaurants. The Street Taco Pizza was offered as an LTO (limited time offer) in the spring of 2021, coinciding with Cinco de Mayo.
Beyond sweet corn, consumers are also seeking more heat, according to Farmer’s Daughter Consulting’s Myrdal Miller. “Chile peppers are a topping option you’ll see more often — sometimes as fresh toppings and also as house-made sauces for topping the pizza as an alternative to the ubiquitous crushed red pepper flakes.”
5. PEPPERY GREENS
Arugula is also appearing more as a fresh finish to a cooked pizza, says Myrdal Miller. “The sharpness of the peppery arugula on top of a pizza offsets the richness of the cheese.”
Adding fresh arugula to the pizza after it is baked, so the arugula is lightly steamed on the top of the pizza works out very well, recommends U.S. Foods’ McCurdy. “Tossing the arugula in olive oil and lemon or a restaurant’s house dressing and piling it on top of the pizza can add so much flavor, color, and a different little twist to the experience.”
6. GREEN GOLD: AVOCADOS
Avocado menu penetration has grown 26% in the last decade, reaching just over half (50.8%) of U.S. restaurants offering avocado and/or guacamole on the menu, according to data supplied by the Irvine, CA-headquartered California Avocado Commission (CAC). What’s more, avocado menu penetration in the pizza segment has seen a 155% increase over this same time.
“Avocados complement savory and spicy pizza toppings, adding visual appeal and a healthy halo,” says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing.
A great example is the Avocado Carpaccio Pizza served a few years ago at Jean-Georges Beverly Hills, an upscale restaurant located at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills and named for celebrity chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
“The Avocado Carpaccio Pizza is made with homemade pizza dough, sweet onion shaved very thin, and extra virgin olive oil. Once cooked, we top it with thinly sliced, ripe, organic local avocado, and we finish the pizza with lime juice, fleur de sel (salt), chopped jalapeño, and cilantro leaves,” says Chef Steve Benjamin, the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills’ culinary director.
Eighty-two percent of foodservice operators who use avocados choose to purchase fresh, says the CAC’s DeLyser. “Fresh avocados are best for the pizza category. Slightly under-ripe avocados are often used to hold the fruit’s shape while being cooked at high pizza oven temperatures.”
DeLyser adds research shows restaurants benefit from the halo effect when California is the source of origin. “Over 80% of consumers want an avocado source of origin stated on the menu. This is where an operator can really shine when running a seasonal LTO that features California avocados during the spring and summer season.”
According to Datassential Menu Trend research, as shared by the CAC, the proteins most commonly paired with avocado are chicken, bacon and egg. The latter two ingredients are breakfast staples.
“We’re seeing more breakfast pizzas as an alternative option for that day part, particularly as operators try to drive a rebound here and consumers are resuming more pre-pandemic behavior during the week,” says Menu Matters’ Webster.
7. FRUIT – BEYOND PINEAPPLE
For fruit toppings, U.S. Foods’ McCurdy sees operators taking the traditional pineapple topping and adding a unique spice blend to it or grilling it to bring out the sweetness of the fruit. “This is an example of how operators can take a topping everyone is familiar with and add their touch to it, so they are differentiating the menu offering.”
Mandarin oranges are starting to appear on pizza restaurant menus. These are added to Hawaiian pizzas in addition to classic pineapple, according to Datassential’s Conaghan.
Also on a citrus theme is the second most unique pizza of the past year in Datassential’s database. This is Round Table Pizza’s Charred Lemon Chicken Pizza, which the chain introduced in July 2021. This pizza is packed with produce. It features an original-style crust topped with a creamy lemon sauce, then spinach, a three-cheese blend, garlic, lemon pepper grilled chicken, zucchini, tomatoes and red onions. It’s finished with charred lemon slices, shredded parmesan cheese and green onions.
Fig and prosciutto pizzas continue to be a trend, one that started in flatbread and is now gaining traction on more traditional pizza, according to Conaghan. Additions of arugula or asparagus and bleu or goat cheese are common on these builds.
Mangos are another fruit finding favor on pizzas. Mango is a global fruit that thrives in tropical climates, so chefs often look to where mangos are part of the culture, such as India, Southeast Asia, South America, Mexico, South Florida and the Philippines, for inspiration about ingredient pairings that would work on savory and sweet pizza, says Suwann Frison, foodservice marketing manager for the Orlando, FL-based National Mango Board (NMB).
Distributors can use suggestive selling opportunities to help operators succeed with ideas for how to refresh a pizza menu with fresh mango, adds Susan Hughes, the NMB’s foodservice consultant. “For example, when mangos are in peak season, think outside the pizza box, including how mangos can replace tomatoes on pizza because of their sweet/sour flavor that pairs with typical and unexpected pizza flavors.”
Hughes adds three additional tips. “First, the flavor and texture of mango pair well with all proteins, from cheese, pork, bacon, chicken, and seafood. Secondly, mango works well with barbecue sauce, garlic rub, extra virgin olive oil, pesto, and white sauce, and thirdly, the versatility of mango also shines with different cooking techniques when charred, grilled, smoked, and even pickled.”
Finally, pizzas topped with fresh fruit and/or vegetable items are typically more sophisticated or flavor-forward, allowing them to command higher price points on menus, says Markon’s Ensworth. “With the staying power of the wellness trend, expect this to only increase.”