Chipotle, Subway, Others Seek to Revolutionize the Pizza Industry

There's money to be made in pizza. More than one in 10 (13%) people eat pizza at least daily, and the pizza industry comprises 10% of total food sales -- or around $36 billion a year, according to industry statistics. 

Now, the pizza business is particularly fragmented as compared to other fast food markets. "One thing we have seen changing in the last three years is that regional chains are beginning to give up some of their market share because this pie chart hasn't changed a lot over the past couple of years," says Domino's CFO Michael Lawton, speaking at the Morgan Stanley Global Consumer and Retail Conference on Nov. 20.  

Domino's (NYSE: DPZ  ) , Pizza Hut (NYSE: YUM  ) , and Papa John's (NASDAQ: PZZA  ) compose 50% of the market; smaller chains with 100 to 500 locations, such as Papa Murphy's, compose 25%; and mom-and-pops make up the remaining 25%. 

New pizza players  

But lately, we've begun to see a lot of movement in this industry. New players are trying to capture market share, while traditional brands seek to define themselves outside the pie. The only clear winner so far is the consumer who gets to enjoy ever expanding options. 

These upstarts believe their respective expertise has what it takes to capture market share from the traditional players. As such, Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG  ) hopes to revolutionize pizza the way it has for Mexican food. Chipotle executives have announced an equity interest in a new venture with two Colorado-based restauranteurs, with the option of becoming a majority stakeholder as the concept expands. Pizzeria Locale is essentially Chipotle with pizza instead of Mexican food. The interactive service format enables diners to personalize their options, and the pizza is ready in two minutes. The first store is located in Boulder, Colo., with plans to open additional Denver locations later this year.  

Meanwhile, Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ: BWLD  ) has become an investor in PizzaRev, a five-unit made-to-order chain based in Los Angeles. Company executives recently opened the first PizzaRev in Minneapolis, with an eye for additional Midwest locations if the rollout continues as anticipated.

Midwest convenience chain Casey's General Stores (NASDAQ: CASY  ) already has the real estate, and now is perfecting the pie. The 1,770-store chain offers pizza delivery at 325 locations, with more expected outlets in the coming months. Company executives are also testing a pizza-only express store in Des Moines. One successful test that is now being rolled out nationally is the flatbread crust pizza.

Subway's also going flat, but it's not going the whole pie. It recently expanded its menu to introduce Flatizzas, its healthy take on pizza. Now guests are able to "have it their way" when it comes to pizza toppings, with options that include margherita, veggie, and pepperoni. Still, this menu expansion is not simply because of pizza's widespread popularity, but likely the result of the "veto factor" in which one person controls the dining decision simply because it doesn't offer what he or she wants. No one says no to pizza. 

Reinforcing the pizza moat

At the same time, several pizza chains are doing what they can to fend off challenges from the non-traditional pizza purveyors. Domino's, for instance, is focusing on digital initiatives. In fact, 35% of Domino's orders now happen digitally. 

"The big benefit to us with the consumer going online is not about the ticket, it's about the transaction. They are more likely to come back to us, they like the experience better than on the telephone, and they are getting to see the full range of our products," says Domino's Lawson. "Many buy from us one day and then two weeks later they buy from someone else. What we can clearly see is if you switch to us through digital means, you are probably going to give us a bigger share of your orders."

Chicken time 

Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is adding a new focus on chicken. Parent Yum! Brands  (NYSE: YUM  ) is seeking to diversify its menu in order to boost revenue. Currently, Taco Bell is responsible for 66% of Yum's total revenue, while Pizza Hut and KFC split the remaining third. Now, Yum! Brands is stepping up its brand marketing for the chain. Pizza Hut switched creative agencies in June from Interpublic's Martin Agency to O'Keefe, Reinhard, and Paul to represent its separate WingStreet chicken brand. Previously, both chicken and pizza advertising were developed by the same agency. Soon, Pizza Hut will launch national creative for the first time to advertise its "award-winning" WingStreet chicken fried wings and chicken strip deals.  

Still, there have been some less-than-successful pizza experiments. Last year, Chili's, owned by parent company Brinker International (NYSE: EAT  ) , introduced flatbread and pizza to its guests. While company executives refuse to call these menu offerings disappointing, it should be noted that this year Chili's is heavily focused on Fresh Mex. 

Plain Janes

Whether pizza comes from a new upstart or long-held favorite, some things stay the same: preferred toppings. One in three pie orders are plain pizza, according to delivery provider Foodler. Among those that like something on top, 52% order meat toppings. The top five most popular toppings, in order, are pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, sausage, and bacon.  

No matter your favorite, though, it appears that even the pizza purveyors know that man cannot survive on pizza alone. In a recent contest, Pizza Hut offered "free pizza for life" … which the rules indicate is based on an assumption of one $10 large one-topping pizza every 45 days for life.

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