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Single-serve varieties seem poised as the next big trend in the pizza category.Though it may take time for retailers to see impressive growth in pizza-for-one sales, a few buyers have already noticed gains."We have seen a nice increase in single-serve pizza," said Roger Burks, senior vice president of The Mad Butcher, Pine Bluff, Ark. "It started right before Christmas."He attributed the upsurge to

Single-serve varieties seem poised as the next big trend in the pizza category.

Though it may take time for retailers to see impressive growth in pizza-for-one sales, a few buyers have already noticed gains.

"We have seen a nice increase in single-serve pizza," said Roger Burks, senior vice president of The Mad Butcher, Pine Bluff, Ark. "It started right before Christmas."

He attributed the upsurge to the greater variety that's becoming available in single-serve, and to manufacturer-supported promotions.

Single-serve should have no problem creating a profitable niche for itself, said Dave Jenkins, vice president of NPD Group in Rosemont, Ill., a research firm that tracks national eating trends.

"There is a market for a single-serve products because pizza is so huge in terms of popularity, and it [has continued to make large gains] in the past 15 or 20 years," said Jenkins.

Pizza is the second most popular food in America, with every man, woman and child participating in 32 "eatings" per year, according to Jenkins.

"We've had Tony's as our big seller. It updated its varieties. It's had promotional activities and [provided] money, which has helped," Burks continued.

A frozen-food manager from an East Coast chain said single-serve has been doing very well in his stores, which he attributed to frequent promotions.

"Celeste pizza for 99 cents does a good job. It can be microwaved for a quick snack," said the manager, who did not want to be identified. "Tony's and Tombstone [single-serve] also do well, as do the minipacks with four or five pizzas in them," the buyer said.

"I attribute [increased sales] to the fact that we are pushing them. We found a few summers ago that we did fantastically with pizza under a dollar," he said.

"Single-serve pizza has been picking up," commented Janet Mancini, category manager for frozens and dairy at Genuardi Family Markets, Norristown, Penn. "There are lots of new entries."

Pizza-for-one is currently the fastest growing trend in frozen-pizza sales, and it will continue to grow, said David Banse of Silvermine Consulting Group, Westport, Conn. "Pizza bites or appetizer pizza is [also] being promoted in competition with frozen pizza. A number of manufacturers are doing this and trying to roll this into the pizza-for-one category," he noted.

Banse said that single-serve requires "trade-driven marketing techniques," since pizza-for-one is not an item that lends itself well to national consumer advertising. The trade has to support the product on a regular basis, and retailers need to promote it.

"If the trade gets behind [single-serve], it will drive the business more so than some other products in the store," he explained.

"The equivalent money spent against the consumer doesn't have the same effect as promoting the product in the stores," said Banse.

The consultant predicted that "enhancements to the product are going to dictate the growth of the category, as long as [retailers] maintain an inexpensive price point."

Banse did not see pizza-for-one as a replacement for other dinner options, but rather as a quick snack after school, or a mid-evening TV snack, since the amount in a serving will not satisfy most people as a full meal.

Single-serve pizza generated $174 million for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 7, 1996, an 8.7% increase over the previous 52 weeks, according to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill. It has a 9.8% share of the frozen-pizza category.

While all of the retailers SN spoke with sell single-serve pizza, some have not yet noticed significant growth in the category.

"We haven't paid much attention to it," said Ed Werlstein, vice president of purchasing and merchandising for Milwaukee, Ore.-based Kienow's Food Stores, who noted his stores have been stocking the item for at least four years.

"Totino's seems to be the leader, at 99 cents for a 10- or 11-ounce pizza," Werlstein said. "We always promote pizza, but that size is not promoted too often," he said.

Ross Nixon, vice president of merchandising for Dahl's Food Markets, Des Moines, Iowa, noted that single-serve may do well in terms of units, but dollar sales are in the premium pizzas.

"From a retailer's standpoint, you are trying to drive the high-ticket sale," Nixon noted.

He mentioned that premium pizzas are still growing as a category, with new rising-crust entries from Tombstone, Jack's and Tony's taking their place next to DiGiorno.

Similarly, Joanne Gage, vice president of consumer services at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., told SN that it plans to focus its promotions on the new self-rising dough products and high-end pizzas.

Nonetheless, Price Chopper reported that sales for single-serve jumped 12% over last year. But Gage said, "The new self-rising crusts is where the future growth will be."

Price Chopper carries 21 stockkeeping units of single-serve (including Stouffer's French Bread Pizza). In larger sizes, "Ellio's nine-slice is still the leader, followed by Celeste and Stouffer's French Bread," said Gage. In the single-serve category, Stouffer's French Bread Pizza and Tony's are the most popular.

"We have not experienced a growth in single-serve," said Peter Crawford, frozen-food director for The Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., who sells a large number of 12-inch pizzas. "We do twice what the rest of the country does [in large size pizzas]," he said. "We've got four feet of assorted [smaller] pizzas and Stouffer's French Bread, and 54 feet of 12-inch overwrapped pizza. It seems to be a Wisconsin phenomenon."

Tombstone, Jack's, Trade Winds, and Portessi are some of the brands that do very well for Crawford. He also sells private-label IGA pizza in the 12-inch size.

"I think we have a good cross section," he said. "We have thin-crust, deep-dish, and [rising-crust] items."

Crawford has a pizza on sale every week. "We have a very aggressive ad schedule. Pizza sales are higher here than in the rest of the country."

Demos are done in Copps stores three out of four weeks per month, usually for new items. "We demo items that are new to the customers," Crawford said. He attributed double-digit increases in pizza sales to both merchandising and promotional efforts.

Karen Mashburn, the frozen-food and dairy buyer for Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, noted that family sizes do best. She attributed lack of sales in the pizza-for-one segment to the fact that people can buy a slice of fresh pizza in many Minyard stores.

Similarly, the Northeastern buyer said that sales for single-serve and pizza generally dropped 50% in stores where fresh pizza had been introduced, although single-serve remained strong in the other stores. Mad Butcher's Burks said that single-serve breakfast and lunch pizza is doing well because people are buying it as a replacement to a fast-food restaurant breakfast or lunch. Burks has seen an increase in sales in the overall pizza category of almost 5% over last year.

Sheila Thomas, frozen-food buyer for Nob Hill Foods, Gilroy, Calif., said that small sizes of Celeste and Totino's pizza do well, although single-serve sales are "pretty slow."