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Frozen pizza-makers, aware that their chief competition is the pizzeria down the street, keep innovating in order to win market share.There is no reason why other frozen sectors can't benefit by following the same formula, said Dan Koch, general manager of Schwan's Sales Enterprises, Marshall, Minn., owner of the Tony's, Freschetta and Red Baron frozen pizza brands. Restaurants like Domino's or Pizza

Frozen pizza-makers, aware that their chief competition is the pizzeria down the street, keep innovating in order to win market share.

There is no reason why other frozen sectors can't benefit by following the same formula, said Dan Koch, general manager of Schwan's Sales Enterprises, Marshall, Minn., owner of the Tony's, Freschetta and Red Baron frozen pizza brands. Restaurants like Domino's or Pizza Hut always offer something for free, usually a coupon for the next purchase. "People respond to promotions, and pizza is the favorite food of America. The fact that we promote it keeps it top of mind," Koch said.

Some say manufacturers or retailers are trying to promote it too much.

A midwestern wholesaler who requested anonymity warned that the category could be "ruined" by too many offers of multiples, such as five pizzas for $10, or even three for $9.99, rather than the regular price.

The rising crust segment is taking over the frozen pizza category, the frozens buyer pointed out. Because these products usually sell at a higher price, the ring goes up. "That should be a good thing, but we will lose the advantage if we keep cutting the price. And, eventually, the pressure on price will put compromises on the quality," he said. His company is now thinking about introducing its own private label rising crust pizza, but, he said, "What's the point of doing it if our stores can't make a reasonable return on it?"

Retailers are supposed to be setting the price, Koch said, insisting that promoting pizza is the best way to convert restaurant sales over to supermarket sales.

Another manufacturer source said the big fear is that if you promote it too much, no one will want to buy it at the full price, waiting, instead, for it to go on sale. "It's a balancing act," the source said. "Price always works the first year. But brand equity is for the long haul." So the challenge is to offer value, convenience and taste, keeping in mind that tastes vary according to geographical region.

In the United States, Koch said, most people order cheese pizza. In the Midwest, sausage is a favorite. Still, despite the exotic ingredients that can be used -- pepperoni, "supreme" [a combination of vegetables, cheese and pepperoni] and cheese -- are the dominant flavors and those three cover 70% to 80% of all pizzas, Koch said.

Joel Westrate, frozens category manager for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., said he doesn't handle pizza, since most of it is direct-store-delivery, but he believes that pizza is like anything else, in that new introductions drive the business. "Everybody's trying to protect their own market share, and they do that by coming up with other varieties," he said. "Every once in a while, they'll hit on a really good one. If not, they'll try again."

But also, "people are a little bit more willing to try new things," Westrate observed. "Twenty years ago, who would have thought of pineapple on pizza? There's a pineapple and barbecued chicken, one of our D&W stores has that. You're going to see more and more of that."

In 1998, the growth rate of restaurants was up 2.69%, according to Koch, who cited figures from The Food Institute, Fair Lawn, N.J., although it has slowed a little. Still, through September, 1999, restaurants' growth in sales still outpaced that of grocery stores by about six times.

"If manufacturers and retailers work together, they can provide choices for consumers that will be acceptable. The advent of European technology over the past five years has allowed pizza manufacturers to make a product comparable to restaurant quality. Some barriers have come down, but more needs to be done to make shopping for groceries more like shopping for excitement," Koch said. Technology is growing, and e-tailers are making shopping more convenient. Several months ago, Schwan's launched an on-line food shopping service, Schwan's Mealtime On-line, which sells pizza, but not the Tony's, Freschetta or Red Baron brands.

Pizza's broad growth is answering consumer's demands, representatives of both Schwan's and Kraft said. It has succeeded because manufacturers listened to consumers, and retailers have worked as partners, allocating the space and promotional activity to make it move.

"We've had a long growth run. It's basically managing the mix, keeping things fresh and staying in tune with the customer. Retailers have responded by allocating more space for this fast-growing industry. If grocers aren't taking a closer look at all the convenience foods, sales will slip away to the takeout or the restaurant sector. We're one industry that has addressed that," Koch said.

Because consumers are eating out more often, their tastes will become more eclectic, experts predict, so people will become more adventuresome.

"It will be an opportunity for food manufacturers for themselves, but the stores have to lure the people in. If the manufacturers do their job, and retailers make shopping fun, rather than a task, we can change the math of this, because we do present value," Koch said.

Shelagh Thomee, speaking for Kraft Pizza, Northfield, Ill., said a Kraft survey showed that in the eastern part of the U.S., veggie and cheese are very close, one and two in sales. In the central states, sausage is king, and in the South, hamburger topping wins. In the West, it's chicken.

Half and half toppings on Kraft's Tombstone brand made significant jumps in just 9 months, running a very close second to sausage topping in the central region, Thomee said.

"All other toppings, which is to say, specialty, have also made significant swings in the last year. I think we are seeing that the frozen pizza category is being helped by all these innovations, what consumers are looking for, which is taste and variety of flavors," she said.

In the world of kosher pizza, Amnon, Brooklyn, N.Y., started as a restaurant 40 years ago and began supplying frozen pies two years ago. They stick to plain cheese, no toppings, both because kosher toppings would be too costly at retail, and because, in the opinion of president Sol Levy, people like plain best. Amnon makes a regular frozen, reduced fat and a deep dish pie that Levy demo'd recently at a Foodarama ShopRite in Lakewood, N.J. The deep dish is a 6-inch round deep dish pizza, packed two in a box, $3.49 on special. "Kids love it. They like to get their own little pie," Levy said.

Wolfgang Puck, Yorba Linda, Calif., is the only restaurant crossover to make it onto Information Resources' list of top selling brands, and it is number 24, with sales of $13.1 million for the year ended July 18, 1999. California Pizza Kitchen, Los Angeles, and Kraft have teamed up to deliver several varieties, including Garlic Chicken topping, to customers in test markets. Kraft is putting a lot of money behind the brand, observed Dennis Deiro, western regional sales manager for Wolfgang Puck pizza. "It's tough. We have our loyal customers and we are looking to broaden that base in the year 2000."

He said the company has had a lot of ideas for toppings, including Hawaiian, but they feel that people will take more of a chance at a takeout place. "In frozen, they will venture out on a supreme, but that's about it. They see pineapple on a frozen pizza, they'll run. And we can't give sausage away out here in the West. It's not that people don't eat meat, because pepperoni is up here and DiGiorno has a Meat Trio, but sausage is not a big item in the West."

Deiro said that when he's out with his family, they'll order a pepperoni and pineapple pizza, but focus groups and trade inquiries have taught Wolfgang Puck to shun that combination as a frozen choice. Regular pepperoni and supreme are the leaders in the West, he said, and sausage does pretty well in the Midwest.

Wolfgang Puck frozen pizza is available in most places, he said, and recently made strong gains in Florida through Albertson's and Publix.

Bryan Nichols, category manager for Marsh's Supermarkets, Indianapolis, said flavors like DiGiorno's new smoked mozzarella would be the direction new frozen pizza is going. "I think there is an adult market for some of these types of flavors. DiGiorno and Freschetta are trying to take it out of the norm of what was known as pizza flavoring, and put in some new ones."

Pizza joints had them as far back as the early 1970s, and maybe even earlier. LaManno's Have-A-Pizza, for instance, a restaurant in Miller Place, N.Y., was offering the Hawaiian pizza, with ham and pineapple; the Polish pizza, with kielbasa and onion; and The Islander, with clam and garlic, in 1971 and with some additions or subtractions, still has those types of what one cook there calls "yuppie pizzas."

"Everybody wants artichoke," he said, before hanging up at a busy hour.