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Joe Guzzardi: Latest battlefield between old and new — pizzerias

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Posted: Saturday, February 15, 2014 12:00 am

America’s favorite pie isn’t apple; it’s pizza. Last year, pizza sales topped $40 billion. Consumers spent about $36 billion at pizza restaurants, and $5 billion on frozen or refrigerated supermarket pizza. Industry analysts report that 97 percent of adults eat pizza and that 93 percent of adults ate pizza at a restaurant within the last year.

Until recently, I wasn’t one of those 93 percent. I’m a fussy homemade pizza baker who has always turned his nose up at pies from the major chains. But the Internet pizza revolution aroused my curiosity and at least occasionally, converted me. Innovation has made it tougher for the home chef to ignore the convenience chains offer and has all but forced the small retailer out of business.

For the home pizza baker, it goes something like this: put the dough together, wait a couple of hours for it to rise twice, make the sauce, grate the cheese, get the toppings together and bake. Then, when the pizza has been devoured, start the clean up.

The new option is to go to your computer, log on to your favorite pizza chain, then order and pay online. Within minutes, you’re eating pizza. No clean up. And, by the way, no matter what restaurant you patronize, the pizza is more affordable and tastier than it was years ago.

While high technology has been a boon to the chains and consumers, the corner pizzeria has suffered greatly. They have neither the huge budget nor the Internet savvy to compete with the big boys.

At a stockholders meeting in mid-January, Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle said that in the past few years, strength in digital ordering “has been a big part of” the growing market share of big chains. Elaborating, Doyle said that most of the smaller outlets can’t match the major chains on the sophisticated technology platforms.

Mom-and-pop pizza shops have long been under assault from the cash-rich chains, which have other advantages like marketing dollars and purchasing power for ingredients.

In its study, the market researcher firm NPD Group, Inc. found that last year large chains accounted for 52 percent of all orders at quick-serve pizza shops, up from less than 47 percent in 2009, while the share for independent pizza restaurants fell to 29 percent from 31.5 percent. NPD says the number of independent pizza shops has fallen 6.6 percent since 2001, far steeper than the 2.9 percent decline in overall independent restaurants. The number of outlets at pizza chains rose almost 5 percent during the same period, NPD said.

The pizzerias Americans grew up patronizing after Little League games or on Friday nights before the movies are vanishing. The neighborhood joint that offered slices, calzones and hero sandwiches will soon go the way of the local bookstore, cozy diner and old-fashioned ice cream parlor.

Like almost everything else in the high-tech world, ordering online is a combination of good and bad. The good: It’s fast, efficient and ideal for the family on the run. The bad: Fewer family owned businesses, less incentive to get into the kitchen to bake pizza from scratch and the loss of individuality. No matter where Americans travel to, the food landscape is the same.

Whether Americans prefer the old or the new — and I prefer the old — doesn’t matter much. The old is going, going, gone and the new is here to stay, at least until something newer replaces it.

In the winter, Joe bakes pizza in his outdoor, wood burning stove; the the summer, he recommends the grill, either charcoal or gas. Contact Joe at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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