Flatbread pizza
Flatbreads reinvent pizza into an upscale entrée or appetizer.

Innovative flavors

Pizza manufacturers can let their creativity take over when it comes to toppings and crust flavors in this over-saturated category. Flavor innovation will be what ropes in the elusive millennial dollars. “Millennials are going to determine the next 20 years in the pizza category,” Mr. Foran said.

According to Technomic’s 2014 The Pizza Consumer Trend Report, millennials were the most likely of any age group to try new regional or themed pizzas, noting their adventurous palates.

All the ways millennials have influenced the food industry are also hitting pizza. “Anything you see in other food categories is what we’re seeing as a trend in the pizza aisle,” he continued. “It’s not directed toward healthy but what millennials looking for.”

This means swapping out mozzarella with goat cheese and casting sriracha as a viable topping. It also means looking outside of pizza’s native Italy for inspiration.

“Pizzas made from the traditional tomato-and-mozzarella foundation are giving way to more complex Mediterranean, Latin and Asian flavors, like tapenade, aioli and Thai prepared on non-traditional bases such as flatbreads, thin crusts, naan and other ethnic breads,” Ms. Reeves-Collins said.

Variety and global/ethnic inspirations are dominating the pizza industry as exhibited by Pizza Hut, Wichita, KS, and a part of Yum! Brands, which just last year overhauled its menu in order to grab these trends by the horns. The pizza chain expanded its crust choices from one to 10, including salted pretzel and honey sriracha; one sauce choice to six; and zero premium toppings to five, including Peruvian cherry peppers. Pizza Hut also incorporated sauces such as Buffalo or balsamic vinegar lightly drizzled on a pizza after it’s baked — a symbol of an upscale, premium product, an attribute that appeals to consumers today.

“Today’s ‘next generation’ pizza consumer is seeking a much more upscale, elegant and one-of-a-kind taste experience, so all these new pizza industry participants will need to ensure they are able to meet the demand consistently,” Ms. Reeves-Collins said.

The importance of quality rings true in the data as well. According to Mintel, in April 2014, 41% of survey respondents said they buy pizzas with naturally rising crusts; 36% looked for pizzas with hand-tossed crusts; 25% buy craft/artisanal pizzas; and 20% buy pizzas with toppings they haven’t tried before. All of this suggests that quality is a priority for shoppers when they purchase store-bought pizza.

Those numbers also indicate that the crust is crucial to purchasing decisions. Pizza manufacturers are finding value in leveraging this importance with crust innovations. Bakers aren’t only getting creative with toppings but also with types of crusts, whether flavored, wood-fired or artisan-style.

“Wood-fired, stone-deck and Neapolitan pizzas are becoming all the rage again in restaurants,” Mr. Charles said. “That’s spurring demand across the channels we service for similar items.”

According to Mr. Mafoud, this can be attributed to consumers wanting to bring restaurant quality home during the Great Recession and also to the globalization of popular culture. “In the past 20 years, people have gotten to know pizza by traveling to New York and Europe, and now we see more artisan pizzerias and bistros,” he said.

To facilitate bringing that pizzeria quality home, Damascus Bakery introduced Brooklyn Bred, a crusty fermented pizza base that consumers can purchase to create their own pizzas at home. “Every pizza starts and ends with the crust,” Mr. Mafoud explained. “Everyone has ideas about pizza, so we’re giving them the most important and difficult component, the crust. The rest is simple.”

The rectangular shape of the crust even facilitates creativity in toppings, he asserted. When confronted with a round pizza crust, people default to tomato sauce and mozzarella. When confronted with Damascus Bakery’s rectangular crust, consumers feel free to use their imagination in creating their pizzas.

“They’re incorporating their secret recipes,” Mr. Mafoud said. “They’re putting duck on it, or eggs. They’re opening cookbooks and turning on the Food Network. Now, pizza is a creative entrée. Consumers have taken the most iconic meal on the globe and reinvented it.”

Pizza manufacturers are experimenting with new stuffed crusts as well as flavors incorporated into a crust. These can be any combination of herbs or vegetables, whether powdered or diced. The millennials’ anything-goes mentality gives pizza manufacturers the freedom to try any combination they think will catch consumers’ attention.

“It’s not your standard frozen pizza anymore,” Mr. Nasti said. “It has become more artisan, more authentic looking. It doesn’t look cookie-cutter.”