Pizza Was the Restaurant Hero of 2020

A few times a week, Elizabeth Reninger strolls to lunch at a pizza place near her job. She orders the same thing every time: a slice of cheese and chips for $ 6. For a little adventure, she sprinkles parmesan and paprika flakes on top.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, Ms. Reninger, a criminology student at Northern Arizona University who also works at a dog daycare, estimated that she only ate pizza once every few months. That changed late last summer when she strolled into a pizzeria with slices and ice cream.

“Maybe the warm, sticky cheese is a kind of comfort food for me with the pandemic,” Ms. Reninger said. “I go a couple of times a week, maybe three times a week, which is kind of embarrassing.”

For many Americans, pizza has been a perfect pandemic option, a comfort meal for a time that is far from pleasant. Whether it’s a thin crust version topped with fresh vegetables or a filled crust tart piled with sausage and hot peppers, pizza has ticked a lot of boxes in those strange times, mostly because it’s easy on the way and light – sometimes quite inexpensive – can feed a whole family. In the first nine months of 2020, Domino and Papa John’s combined revenues soared that they roughly equaled sales of about 30 million more large cheese pizzas than the previous year.

In a year when restaurants across the country struggled to stay afloat and many were unable to cover rent payments and pay employees due to government-mandated closings, those who split pizza fared Generally better. According to Technomic, a research and consulting company in the food industry, sales of pizza rose by up to 4 percent in the past year. Pizza and chicken are the only food categories expected to grow.

“The overall pizza category was a big winner,” said Sara Senatore, an analyst who covers restaurants in Bernstein. Ms. Senatore noted that it may have turned into a meal for families on tight budgets due to falling wages or lost jobs.

For big pizza chains like Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and the privately owned Little Caesars, the pandemic turned out to be a sales boon. Technomic said the four controlled 43 percent of the $ 44 billion market that fell into the pandemic. Some analysts say the big chains, most of which have not yet reported fourth quarter profits, have almost certainly gained more market share because of their size, hiring additional problems like paying rising prices for cheese and other ingredients Cope with help or rent coverage better after particularly lean weeks as an independent pizzeria owner.

For the first nine months of last year, combined sales at Domino and Papa John grew nearly 12 percent, or $ 434 million. Pizza Hut revenues were slightly below 2019 levels over the same period. The chain was in the middle of a turnaround plan as it faced closings and restrictions related to Covid at its restaurants across the country. Even frozen pizza did well during the pandemic. According to NielsenIQ, sales rose almost 21 percent to over $ 6 billion.

“Pizza was the perfect food for the pandemic, but I think it’s the perfect food for all time, too,” said Ritch Allison, chief executive officer of Domino’s, who immediately saw double-digit sales growth in the same store in the US last year Spring. Last year, Domino stock rose 40 percent to $ 385 per share. In the fall of 2008 it was trading at a low of $ 3.

“We are fortunate to have entered the pandemic,” said Allison, noting that the company has a robust delivery service and has invested in its digital capabilities over the past decade.

But as demand increased during the pandemic, Domino rushed to hire 30,000 people. increased the production of fresh dough sent to all of its locations; and there was an occasional shortage of ingredients as meat producers closed their facilities due to coronavirus outbreaks. TV commercials, which typically take months to plan and shoot, were re-started within days to allow drivers to wear masks during deliveries.

Mr Allison said his company has also gotten pretty nimble to respond to pandemic customer behavior. When cheeseburgers and tacos were also found to be popular pandemic options, two specialties were quickly made: cheeseburgers and chicken tacos. Both are going to be big sellers, Allison said.

“My new favorite is the chicken taco, and I’m adding extra jalapeños to give it a zipper,” he added.

The pandemic has devastated the catering industry overall. Last year, more than 68,000 restaurants closed permanently, with buffets, French bistros and soup and salad bars being hardest hit, according to Datassential. 11,000 restaurants were opened during the pandemic. Pizzerias led the way with almost 2,000 openings.

Justin Morse and his partners were hoping to have their version of escargot (served in small baking cases with salt crackers) and steak fries for guests when they opened Brasserie Brixton, a cozy 45-seat French bistro in Denver in July. However, they grew increasingly nervous as the city’s food restrictions increased in late fall, and they were unable to apply for government assistance programs like the paycheck protection program due to no evidence of any loss of revenue.

Mr. Morse and his co-owners knew they had to focus on delivery. When they realized that items like French onion soup didn’t travel very well, they made a U-turn. On Thanksgiving weekend, they built and installed a wood stove.

“Which industry is already set up for delivery and take-away? Pizza, ”said Mr. Morse. “We said, ‘Let’s imitate an industry that people are already familiar with in terms of delivery and take-away. ‘“While their restaurant, temporarily renamed (Le) Brix Pizza & Wine, offers a classic Margherita pizza, it also sells pizzas with a French flair. One comes with white anchovies and thyme and one with potatoes, crème fraîche and rosemary.

“We don’t sell enough pizzas to cover all costs, but it’s better than the alternative,” said Mr Morse, who supplies most of the pizzas himself. He said the group hopes to get back to French cuisine in a few months but is considering continuing the pizza business elsewhere.

Domino’s Mr Allison said he believes demand for pizza will remain robust even after the pandemic ends.

“We were given the opportunity to serve many new customers during the pandemic who had never or had not ordered from us for a long time,” he said. “We hope we have done a great job of serving them and that they will become loyal customers.”

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