Authenticity in the Digital Era
Restaurateurs in the United States are certainly feeling the impact of digital marketing and sales technologies. According to a June 2019 report by The NPD Group, restaurant digital orders—via mobile app, the internet or text—have grown by 23% over the past four years and now account for 3.1 billion visits and $26.8 billion in sales. Mobile apps represent 60% of all digital orders, and NPD forecasts that digital orders will keep growing by double digits through 2020 in all service modes, including delivery, on-premise and carryout. Importantly, a 2018 study by Valassis Local Solutions found that 42% of customers said the ability to place an order online would make them choose one restaurant over another.
The problem with digital ordering, some believe, is that it moves us one step closer to dehumanization, a potential pitfall in an era in which many consumers place a premium on authenticity even while wanting to place their orders quickly and efficiently. Washington, D.C.-based &pizza, a small but growing fast-casual chain, has a remedy for that—and it’s relatively low-tech. Founder Michael Lastoria last year introduced the Pizza Plug, a text-based hotline for customers who want to “talk” to a real person without, you know, having to talk to anyone. Patrons can text the Pizza Plug number and get real-time responses to their most burning questions, complaints or concerns from a live &pizza employee.
pizza’s oblong pizza are a key differentiation point, but their Pizza Plug hotline is unique, according to the 2020 Pizza Power Report.
“Text is not a new technology, but it’s still the fastest, easiest, lowest-barrier communications platform between individuals,” says Vanessa Rodriguez, head of brand for &pizza. “It’s how we all communicate with our peers, and we wanted to be able to talk to our guests in that same way—not to use text as a mass-marketing tool but as a way to build that one-to-one connection with them.”
The chain’s Digital Shop is staffed with several &pizza employees (or “tribe members,” as the company calls them) with strong customer service skills. They answer questions via text from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. “We treat it just like we would any of our shops,” Rodriguez explains. “It has its own P&L, a shop leader and shift managers to staff up as needed based on historical data so that we can ensure total optimization. We pull from the same pool of tribe members who work out of our brick-and-mortar shops so they really understand our guests and know how to drive a really great experience, whether it’s in person or via text.”
Meet the New “Meats”
Many customers will also want the best of both meat and vegetarian/vegan menu options in 2020, and marketers have a name for them: flexitarians. Although largely plant-based, the flexitarian diet is for those diners who want to be “more vegetarian” without giving up meat. A flexitarian might eat meatless meals—including plant-based meat alternatives—periodically throughout the week but still keeps bacon in the fridge and doesn’t feel guilty for ordering a pepperoni pizza when the craving strikes.
Only about 5% of American adults identify as vegetarians, while 3% say they’re vegan, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. But the number of flexitarians is on the rise. The NPD Group has estimated that about ¼ of Americans eat and drink plant-based foods along with animal proteins regularly. Many say they want to add protein to their diets, but some also express concerns about animal welfare and perceive plant-based protein as a “clean-meat” alternative that’s better for the environment.
Consequently, many leading chains have responded with more plant-based menu items. A recent example: Boston-based UNO Pizzeria & Grill, which unveiled its “Love All, Feed All” menu in October. The supplemental menu highlights vegetarian or vegan-friendly options—some of which already existed, some new—along with items for gluten-sensitive, dairy-free, calorie-counting and carb-conscious diets. Jim Ilaria, UNO’s president and CEO, says it’s “truly a game-changer for us, our first major overhaul in decades, and it’s an acknowledgement on our part that consumers these days are eating in different and more conscious ways.”
Fast-casual chain Pieology developed its own plant-based protein toppings that mimic the flavors of sausage, beef and chicken.
The new menu, which was inspired by a phone call between Ilaria and David Byer of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), includes the option to make any pizza vegan with the use of Daiya cheese. But the big news was the rollout of UNO’s Classic Beyond Burger, made with plant-based Beyond Meat. “The skyrocketing popularity of plant-based proteins like Beyond Meat tells us this is only the beginning,” Ilaria says. “The food industry is evolving quickly, and we need to keep up with the changing and growing needs and demands of consumers.”
In fact, Beyond Meat and its rival, Impossible Foods, have been making news all year. Little Caesars introduced its Impossible Supreme pizza, topped with plant-based sausage from Impossible Foods, in three test markets earlier this year. The product was custom-seasoned for Little Caesars and crafted with the texture of traditional pizza sausage, the company said. “This is likely just the beginning of plant-based menu items from Little Caesars,” David Scrivano, the chain’s president and CEO, said at the time.
Pizza Power Report: Million-dollar pizza chains (click to enlarge)
Meanwhile, Pizza Hut is trying out its own plant-based sausage from MorningStar Farms. The country’s No. 2 chain began testing its Garden Specialty Pizza, featuring Incogmeato Italian sausage, in Phoenix this fall. But fast-casual chain Pieology has gone further than most, rolling out three plant-based protein toppings that mimic the flavor and texture of Italian sausage, beef meatballs and diced chicken. “We’re looking to continue to be an innovator and appeal to untapped verticals,” Chad Bailey, Pieology’s vice president of marketing, says.
Pieology developed its own plant-based meat analogs—which cost an additional $1 per ounce—rather than partnering with one of the leading brands. Bailey notes that plant-based meats have improved over the years. “Even a few years ago, a ‘veggie burger’ was the most common denominator for a lot of vegan and vegetarian guests,” he says. “Bland flavor, odd texture and a general lack of visual appeal were common in the space. Today, there’s a growing segment of high-quality, all-vegetable products that offer the opposite, with bold flavors, great visual appeal and a texture that would make even the most loyal meat-eaters do a double-take.”
So what do Pieology’s customers think about the new options? “They love it!” Bailey says. “We’ve received a lot of feedback around how unique our offerings are and how well they simulate their meat counterparts. Even today, only a small amount of plant protein offerings have that high-quality experience, with a bite and chew that’s similar to traditional meat. We’re proud to showcase what we have, as we believe it’s heads and tails above any competitor in the space today.”
Ilaria says UNO’s new vegetarian- and vegan-friendly menu has gotten a similarly enthusiastic response from customers. “Even our own team members around the country are excited to be offering a more inclusive menu to those who dine with us,” he says. “We’re committed to keeping up with the desires of our customers and to continue experimenting with innovative ways to incorporate plant-based proteins into new menu items.”
Equipment in high demand:
• Wood Fired Pizza Ovens
• Stack Pizza Ovens
• Smart Beverage Dispensers
• Multi-Contact Grills
• Deep Fryers
• Dough Mixers
• Meat Grinders
• Dough Ballers
• Dough Rollers
• Counter-top Pizza Ovens
• Food Processors