An American touchstone has played an important role in getting us through the pandemic, and it’s not getting the appreciation it deserves.
I don’t mean doctors or teachers, USDA or pandemic puppies, or even Dolly Parton.
I’m talking about pizza.
No, a circular stuffed-crust hasn’t given us a vaccine, but it has been the CDC of comfort cuisine, the Fauci of foodstuffs, to a people searching for normalcy and stability.
Pizza came to our aid as soon as offices closed and restaurants had to stop dine-in service.
Americans had been spending half of their food dollars on meals prepared outside the home, and they were in for a rough transition to fixing nearly all of their own grub while also working at the kitchen table and listening to their kids clomp around in the next room.
Pizza shops, like many quick-service restaurants, have a long tradition of offering takeout, and few other sectors were as closely associated with food delivery before the pandemic began.
The demand for supreme, cheese and meat lovers showed up clearly in sales.
In the first quarter of 2020, most of which preceded the pandemic, Domino’s Pizza saw quarterly domestic same-store sales rise by a modest 2%.
Over the next three quarters in full pandemic mode, sales rose faster than dough in a brick oven — 16%, 18%, 11%.
The gains were even bigger at Papa John’s, which saw quarterly North American sales jump 5%, 28%, 24% and 14% as last year progressed.
(Pizza Hut, by the way, didn’t have quite the same story. It was continuing with its pre-pandemic plan to cut back its fading dine-in business and shift to the growing takeout market. It also had a major franchisee go bankrupt last year.)
The Nation's Culinary Darling
Pizza is one of the ultimate American foods, the best-case outcome of the melting pot ideal. Maybe we didn’t invent pizza, but we transformed it, customized it and marketed it into an icon.
We developed our own regional spins, so that generations of Americans have served a symbol of Naples, Rome and Palermo in the styles of Detroit, Chicago and New York. (Or simply dispensed with the pie wedges and cut the round pizza in a grid pattern, as New Englanders have been known to do.)
In any case, we’ve all got a local pizza shop, often an independent place, that we swear by.
And no wonder. Pizza is fast, simple and satisfying. It’s portable, shareable, freezeable, reheatable, easy to clean up, and not reliant on silverware.
Pizza offers a platform for almost every agricultural commodity.
To a base of dough, tomato paste and cheese (grain, produce and dairy), you can add bacon, ham, sausage, mushrooms, peppers, black olives, pineapples — even anchovies, in case any aquaculture operations are raising them.
That’s not to say that pizza covers all of your food groups in a balanced way. It’s loaded with fattening carbs and grease. I try to avoid pizza altogether during the low-activity months of winter.
Still, pizza has taken on a cultural significance accorded to few other foods. Without trying, you could probably list half a dozen fond memories that involve eating pizza.
In college, I even knew a guy who treated pizza as a fallback meal.
When he went to the dining hall for lunch or dinner, the first thing he did was get a piece of pizza.
If he didn’t find anything else he liked, the slice became his main course. If he picked up other food, he just threw the pizza away.
The rest of us, I should say, found this practice boldly wasteful.
But even that story falls short of the legendary pizza caper that Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign pulled off — ordering a stack of pizzas for a Democratic function and leaving his opponents to foot the bill.
With the end of the pandemic at least seemingly in sight, pizza’s recent boom appears to be cooling off.
After their incredible midyear growth, Domino’s and Papa John’s both saw their sales increases decline in the fourth quarter. Still solid increases, just not as big as the ones earlier in the year.
Consumers may be turning to other types of restaurants that have started offering takeout and delivery, and reopening restaurant seating will add to pizza shops’ competition, ABC News reported.
This shift is a reminder that we don’t know how lasting the pandemic’s changes to eating habits will be.
I suspect that the ways we shop for food — takeout, delivery, grocery pickup — are more likely to stay than the exact foods we choose.
Pizza will be part of that mix. The advent of cauliflower pizza suggests we’ll do whatever it takes to keep a slice on our plate.
But we’ve got plenty of other foods, and a diet too reliant on pizza wouldn’t be good for either your belly or your wallet.
Still, the close of the COVID crisis might give the ultimate validation of the versatility of pizza.
Pizza has served us well while we’ve been holed up at home. But when large gatherings are once again reasonable, many people — from accounting departments to sports teams to extended families — just might celebrate with a pizza party.