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Pie in the Sky

When Kraft and California Pizza Kitchen meet to design a new frozen pizza, the negotiations can get subtle and intense: Cut down the oregano, bring up the Parmesan, add zingy kalamata olives, think up a snappy slogan—give the public what it wants next

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You could cut the tension with a knife.

Instead, we are about to cut the pizza. Here in the Kraft test kitchen in Glenview, it is the hour of reckoning. A platoon of Kraft chefs stand by their ovens. Kraft’s senior research chef, Paul Pszybylski, is here, as is Kraft’s pizza brand manager, Chad Mulder. From the West Coast has come the team from California Pizza Kitchen, which is expanding its frozen pizza partnership with Kraft. CPK’s cofounder Larry Flax, a bit the worse for wear after the redeye and a mild case of the flu, perks up as the first offering is ceremoniously laid on the table before us. The outer ring of crust is browned to a perfect caramel; the pizza itself is a symphony of red and yellow and green. This is the Chicken Fajita, a revolution of sorts, since the 12-inch pie will first appear in grocery freezers and only then, maybe, at CPK restaurants. Flax lifts a triangle to his mouth as the room collectively holds its breath.

He dabs at his mouth, shuts his eyes.  

“Too much going on. We’ve overcompensated with herbs. Let’s bring up the Parmesan.”

There are quick nods of agreement. Not a problem. Cut down the oregano. Bring up the Parmesan.

The next pie is placed on the table and expertly sliced. Confident looks are exchanged around the table. The Mediterranean is a bold move but one that Flax personally backed. Eggplant, caramelized onions, and, yes, kalamata olives—a Kraft breakthrough. Previous pizzas had sported olives, but only drab rings of tasteless black olives. Kraft has dared to use the more flavorful kalamatas, slicing them lengthwise, and figured out how to freeze them.

Flax squinches up his face. “It’s, what, too bitter? The problem’s the eggplant. It’s very different if you don’t get a bite of olive.”

“We could drop the Parmesan a bit.”

“Bring up the salt. Take the olives down.”

Not so long ago nobody talked herbs and kalamatas in the test kitchen. The millennium passed with cheese and pepperoni firmly atop the doughy rising crust. But beneath that bubbling cauldron of cheese, the forces of change were silently at work. New gourmet toppings had begun appearing in restaurants like CPK. As carb counters grew ever more vigilant, the dominant doughy pie gave way to a thin, almost crackerlike crust. Adult consumers craved more gourmet ingredients. Buyers were ready to pay for quality. It was, as the Kraft folks like to say, a “perfect storm” in the freezer.

“Premium and thin are the drivers now,” says Mulder. “Thin is in.”

As it happens, a great deal is riding on the stylish thin crispy crust and its increasingly exotic toppings. Last fall, Kraft introduced three new CPK pizzas into grocery freezers, and the stakes could not have been higher. Since Kraft and CPK launched the Crispy Crust pizza in 2005, CPK’s sales have doubled, passing the $100-million mark in November 2006. Kraft has long dominated the pizza category, controlling 33 percent of the market with its four brands: DiGiorno (1), Tombstone (3), CPK (8), and Jack’s (10). But in Minnesota, rival Schwan has been steadily nibbling away at Kraft’s lead. Its top brands, Freschetta, Red Baron, and Tony’s, give Schwan a 28 percent market share, and the company vows a bigger bite.

“We’ve had a great year; we intend to challenge Kraft for product leadership,” says Mark Jansen, the vice president of marketing and product strategy at Schwan. The company’s new Freschetta Pizzamoré will feature bake-and-serve trays and pre-sliced pies that Jansen promises will “crack the code” of pizza delivery.

It’s no surprise that the higher-quality frozen pizzas, the so-called premiums, have put a scare into the pizza delivery chains, which have countered with lower prices and innovations like bake-at-home versions. But the rising costs of fuel and ingredients such as tomato paste and cheese have merely propelled the frozen folks on to greater ambitions. “We’re going after an even bigger slice of the pizza pie,” John Boswell, a senior vice president and the general manager of Kraft’s pizza category, crowed to Frozen Food Age early in 2007. “We’re setting our sights on the $20-billion local pizzeria business.”


Illustration: Jackie Besteman

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