Consumers shift their pizza dining

Diners are still eating pizza even as the pandemic eases, but they’re more likely to visit the restaurant for dine-in and carryout.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Consumers are still eating pizza. Despite a year in which cooped-up Americans ordered a lot more pizza delivery, they have not shied away from the product as they’ve ventured out of their houses as the pandemic has eased.

But how they’re eating pizza is changing. They’ve been visiting pizza restaurants and going to them to get their pies again.

That, at least, is according to data from Zenreach, which analyzed foot traffic to pizza restaurants and found that it has increased 49% since the beginning of the year.

The data measures customers going to the restaurants either to dine in or carry out. So it doesn’t capture delivery that has dominated the pizza landscape for much of the past year. But the numbers should provide comfort to those companies hoping to get walk-in customers back as the economy normalizes.

“People are anxious to get back to some sense of normalcy,” Megan Wintersteen, vice president of marketing for Zenreach, said in an interview. “It’s good news for the category.”

The pizza category was hurt by the pandemic more than you’d imagine. While much of the attention has focused on strong sales among the biggest chains—notably Domino’s and Papa John’s, along with smaller chains such as Marco’s and Hungry Howie’s—the sub-sector as a whole didn’t perform as well as you’d think.

Sales among quick-service pizza concepts increased by $1.6 billion in 2020, led largely by the big pizza delivery chains like Domino’s, Papa John’s, Marco’s and Hungry Howie’s, according to Restaurant Business sister company Technomic.

Indeed, take away those four chains alone and the sector lost $300 million in total sales last year. In other words, consumers shifted their fast-food pizza business to the biggest concepts during the pandemic.

Outside of that group, the pizza business struggled like just about every other sector. Fast-casual pizza chains saw sales fall 6.5% last year, for instance. Consumers dined in a lot less often in 2020, and such concepts were built on their inside experience.

Casual-dining Italian and pizza chains, meanwhile, had the same problems as casual dining, with total sales in that sector falling by about $2 billion, or 22%.

Zenreach data suggests that consumers have returned to some of the smaller, casual-dining and fast-casual pizza players that they avoided during the pandemic.

Some markets have seen extreme increases as they’ve opened up. California as a whole has seen foot traffic to pizza restaurants increase almost 120%. In Chicago, foot traffic grew 85%, and in New York it grew 82% since the start of the year.

“There’s growing optimism with the vaccine rollout,” Wintersteen said. “A lot of the jumps we have seen in the last 30 days, in New York City and Los Angeles, a lot of that is attributed to restrictions lifting.”

The big question for the sector as a whole is whether consumers return to their entire pre-pandemic habits. That has yet to happen—most limited-service restaurant chains in particular have seen a slow return to things like dine-in service, and in general takeout sales have increased this year even alongside improvements in dine-in sales.

Wintersteen believes consumers stick with some of their pandemic habits, meaning they will continue to order pizza delivery at elevated rates even after they return to dine-in pizza.

“Humans are creatures of habit,” she said. “The pandemic erased all of these habits. We created new habits over the past year.

“With takeout and delivery skyrocketing over the course of 2020, as rates normalize, they will probably still remain higher than they were prepandemic. It opened up a whole world to customers that would have driven down the street to pick up their pizza.”

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