As adventurous fast-casual pizza concepts grow in number, consumers across the country are responding favorably to their new generation of menus and customizable options emphasizing a wider variety of ingredients and toppings — particularly when those concepts offer more choices in cheese.

While traditional favorites such as Mozzarella, Parmesan and Provolone continue to dominate the national pizza landscape, emerging chains such as MOD Pizza, Toppers Pizza and Spin! Neapolitan Pizza are building traffic and sales by menuing such less-typical varieties as Gorgonzola.

“Pizza pioneers have demonstrated that pizza can have a lot of ingredients and not just mozzarella and red sauce,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president-foodservice strategies for WD Partners, a consultancy in Columbus, Ohio. “And this [strategy] is a good way for a smaller, emerging concept to differentiate itself from the growing number of competitors.”

According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's 2012 Foodservice Cheese Tracker, independent and regional pizza operators featured a wider range of cheese options in 2012 — on average 5.7 varieties — than the larger national brands, which used an average of 5.0 varieties. The WMMB also found that 36 of the 45 varieties of cheese measured by the study have at least some level of usage among independent and regional operators, compared to only 24 used by national brands.

For example, the WMMB's Tracker revealed that Monterey Jack and Gorgonzola could be found on the menus of 7.2 percent and 5.6 percent of independent and regional concepts, respectively. In comparison, all three were absent from the menus of the major national pizza chains.

Although the strategy of broadening a restaurant's ingredient palette plays into the current trend of encouraging consumers to customize their own freshly made pizzas, it also addresses the growing sophistication among diners.

“There's been a very clear change in Americans' tastes,” says Jennifer Harvey, food specialist for the eight-unit MOD Pizza chain in Seattle. “Five years ago, you couldn't put Gorgonzola on a [fast-casual-style] pizza. But consumers are more savvy and interested, and ... find that pizza is a safe place to experiment.”

MOD Caspian
MOD's Caspian pie combines Gorgonzola
with Mozzarella

While MOD's customers can build their own pizzas from 28 ingredients and toppings, one of the chain's best-selling premade pies is the Caspian, which combines Gorgonzola with Mozzarella, barbecue chicken, barbecue sauce and sliced red onions. “It gives you sweet and sour and salty and tangy, all coming together in a really interesting way,” Harvey says.

In addition, MOD — an acronym for “made on demand” — also features Gorgonzola in its Calexico pie, which also is topped with Mozzarella, chicken, jalapeños, hot buffalo sauce and MOD red sauce.

While Harvey sees the trend toward giving customers more ingredient choices continuing to grow, she cautions operators not to overdo it. “You don't want to intimidate the customer with too many options,” she says. “They can wind up with 'analysis paralysis.'”

Toppers Pizza, the 49-unit takeout and delivery chain based in Whitewater, Wis., also was designed to give customers more choices than were available at the national chains, says Scott Gittrich, founder and chief executive. “I wanted something that was more culinary-driven,” he says. “I chose the 'Toppers' name because the hallmark of the menu was unusual toppings. But it's not hifalutin — it's not a basil leaves or wood-fired grill kind of place.”

In addition to offering a choice of cheeses that includes Mozzarella, Pepper Jack, Cheddar and Provolone, Toppers features a number of “playful and unusual” premade selections, such as its ultimate comfort food Mac 'N Cheese pie. A chain signature, the Mac 'N Cheese pie features macaroni combined with a Nacho cheese sauce blend of Cheddar and Mozzarella baked au gratin style.

The Nacho cheese blend also factors into one of the chain's newest rollouts, the Tater Tot pizza, which in addition to the popular deep-fried potato nuggets, includes bacon pieces and green onions. “I favor quirky toppings with a fun image,” Gittrich says.

The five-unit Spin! Neapolitan Pizza in Kansas City, Mo., aims to be a little more upscale, with its wood-fired baked pizzas, elements of both fast-casual and casual-dining service, and a contemporary menu crafted by Michael Smith, a James Beard award-winning chef. While guests can build their own pies, they also can choose from 23 pizzas developed by Smith.

Ingredients tend to lean a little more upscale, too. Co-owner Gail Lozoff says the eight-year-old concept focuses on “more flavorful onions or garlic roasted in a wood-fired oven.” In keeping with that strategy, the concept such cheeses as Asiago, Blue Cheese and fresh Mozzarella.

A white pizza called Cinque Formaggi showcases five different cheeses, including fresh Mozzarella, Provolone and Fontina.

For customers who prefer their pizza for dessert, Social Life Pizza in Tustin, Calif., has fused two favorites to create a Cannoli Pizza — a pizza crust topped with a sweet ricotta blend, chocolate sauce, powdered sugar and Maraschino cherries.