Between legacy chains that have been serving up pizza for decades and new concepts popping up across the country each day, there are no shortage of choices for consumers. In its annual breakdown of the best brands in the U.S., the Harris Poll’s annual EquiTrend Study, in its 31st year, revealed America favorite pizza choice of 2019. And it's one of the crowded industry's up-and-coming challenger brands.
From a popular fast casual build-your-own joint to a pizza chain created by an Italian-born chef, here were the picks.
Methodology: The Harris Poll, which reveals the strongest brands in various industries including restaurants, technology, entertainment, media, and travel, revealed the results of its 31st annual EquiTrend Study on June 10. More than 45,000 U.S. consumers assessed around 2,000 brands across 196 categories.
Each year, the study measures a brand’s health over time After assessing each brand with the EquiTrend Brand Equity Index is comprised of three factors—Familiarity, Quality, and Purchase Consideration—brands receive a brand equity rating. Brands with the highest rating receive the Harris Poll EquiTrend “Brand of the Year” award.
"This year we added nearly 100 new brands across 11 new categories from voice-assistants to wearable tech. Yet the common thread that runs across all the brands awarded here is their consumer devotion and respect for—and expectation of—performance,” says The Harris Poll CEO, John Gerzema. “These are brands Americans especially love and expect great things from in the future.”
1. Marco's Pizza
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1. Marco's Pizza
At Marco's, more than just its unit count is on the rise. Compared to last year, the chain's brand equity score increased 10 percent, beating out other brands, like Domino's, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Papa John's. Along with the title of Pizza Restaurant Brand of the Year, Marco’s was also chosen as the Most Loved and Most Trusted Pizza Restaurant Brand among consumers.
Marco’s journey began in 1978 when Italian-born Pasquale ("Pat") Giammarco opened the first store in Toledo, Ohio. Today, the chain is growing faster than ever thanks to a refreshed growth strategy. Marco’s footprint currently spans across 900-plus stores in over 34 states and three countries. The company expects to hit the 1,000-store milestone by summer 2019 and could grow up to 1,500 stores by the end of 2020.
"With our continued commitment to our founder Pasquale Giammarco's original recipe and focus on quality, Marco's Pizza has stayed true to its Italian roots since 1978 and we are thrilled Americans confirmed its their favorite pizza restaurant brand," Marco's Pizza president and COO Tony Libardi said in a statement. "As we approach opening our 1,000th location, we look forward to continuing to provide consumers with high-quality pizza every day, the Italian way."
2. Blaze Pizza
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Blaze Pizza | Facebook
2. Blaze Pizza
In the explosive fast-casual pizza category, Blaze Pizza has been a step ahead. It even counts LeBron James as an investor. Opting for fresh dough and high-quality ingredients and inspired by Chipotle’s build-your-own ordering options, the pizza chain, which was No. 1 in the poll last year, grew beyond 300 units in just over six years.
Rick and Elise Wetzel, cofounders of the successful snack chain Wetzel’s Pretzels, as cliché as it might sound, sketched the business plan on a napkin in 2011. The first two Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza locations came to life simultaneously in 2012 in Southern California, with one in Pasadena and one in Irvine. Rick Wetzel told QSR he wanted “two at-bats” in getting the concept right, noting that the stores were identical but in different real estate environments.
A press gave Blaze the ability to quickly prepare dough without hand-tossing it, and a wood-fired oven that had been converted to gas “cracked the code” on how Blaze could scale an authentic cooking experience but still serve pizzas in 2–3 minutes. It's been a red-hot run ever since.
Blaze's 200 locations in its first five years earned it the designation from Technomic as the “fastest-growing restaurant chain ever.” Its 300th store opened in Miami last November, and the company says it will open a new restaurant every five or six days this year, with the 500th location probably arriving by 2021.
3. Domino's Pizza
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3. Domino's Pizza
From a new app and loyalty program to a fleet of autonomous pizza delivery robots, Domino’s has always been the technology king of the pizza space. As carry-out and delivery sales continues to grow, Domino’s is finding ways to improve the customer experience without sacrificing quality.
The pizza chain takes quality seriously, though, and will never outsource deliveryto a third-party service, it said. In order to maintain Domino’s delivery promise, the only people chief executive officer Ritch Allison trusts with the product are its own drivers. And that’s not going to change, no matter how big the third-party space gets.
A strong digital presence—its Piece of the Pie Rewards program has 20 million active members—allows Domino’s to guard share in the evolving space, Allison said during an April 24 conference call.
“When I take a look at our U.S. business, I don't see any need for us to go onto these third-party platforms,” he said. “We have an incredibly strong digital channel in our business. We're far and away the digital leader in pizza. So, it's just not clear to me why I would want to give up our franchisees’ margin or give up the data in our business to some third party, who will ultimately use it against us.”
Domino’s plans to push against third-party delivery pressure with its fortressing strategy, which allows the company to deliver pizza quicker and more efficiently by flooding markets with multiple locations. In March, the pizza chain celebrated the opening of 16,000th location. Allison has big growth plans for Domino’s internationally. He told CNBC Domino’s wants the brand to hit 25,000 stores globally by 2025.
The chain's U.S. same-store sales rose 3.9 percent in Q1. Comps on the franchise side grew 4.1 percent and company-owned stores hiked 2.1 percent. Total revenues increased 6.4 percent, or $50.6 million, compared to last year.
4. Pizza Hut
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4. Pizza Hut
The home of the “Original Pan Pizza” continues to draw in customers six decades after it first opened in Wichita, Kansas. Pizza Hut’s strategy to stay relevant in the ever-growing pizza industry uses a combination of menu innovation. marketing, and scale to keep customers coming back.
In May, after three years of experimentation, a reinvented version of the Original Pan Pizza launched systemwide. It's baked in a newly engineered pan and topped with a new blend of cheese and sauce. "The finished product is the result of a lengthy innovation journey Pizza Hut embarked on, focused on combining art, science, and culinary expertise to bring the taste of the Original Pan Pizza to the next level," the company said.
"Pizza Hut has a rich history of things we’re known for, and creator of the Original Pan Pizza is certainly at the top of the list,” Marianne Radley, chief brand officer, Pizza Hut, said in a statement. “Reinventing our most iconic Pizza Hut menu item is just another way we’re showing our customers that as a company we’re about the pizza first and will never become complacent when it comes to taste.”
In addition to a new focus on taste, Pizza Hut has turned its attention to marketing. Exclusive partnerships with the NCAA for March Madness and the NFL puts Pizza Hut commercials and marketing material in front of millions of eyes throughout the year.
The pizza chain has been able to leverage these partnerships and turn them into opportunities to add more value for customers. Throughout March Madness, Pizza Hut brought back the fan-favorite P'ZONE and centered deals around it. Entering into its second year as the official sponsor of the NFL, Pizza Hut kicked off the football season early with an exclusive draft day deal. 2016 first overall draft pick, Jared Goff, unveiled a code for fans to redeem 50 percent off all menu-priced pizzas and enter for a chance to win a VIP trip to a 2019-2020 NFL regular season game of their choice.
Pizza Hut has been able to capitalize on these sponsorships with major sports organizations, but the creativity around deals and LTOs don't stop there. Throughout the year Pizza Hut uses events and holidays to get customers to interact with the brand. From a heart-shaped pizza at Valentine's Day to a May the Fourth Star Wars-themed deal, the pizza chain is trying to have fun with the way it's attracting guests into its stores.
5. Papa Murphy's Take N' Bake Pizza
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5. Papa Murphy's Take N' Bake Pizza
Even with some financial troubles over the past few years—97 locations closed in 2018—Papa Murphy’s still remains the fifth largest pizza chain in the U.S. Its current footprint spans across 37 states with 1,331 franchised and 106 company-run stores. In April, the company sold to MTY Food Group Inc., a leading franchisor that runs Pinkberry, Cold Stone Creamery, Grabbagreen, Blimpie, and many others (it had 5,941 total locations in operation as of February 28).
The 35-year-old company will help MYT differentiate its portfolio and expand its reach in the pizza segment.
“We believe the pizza segment is highly attractive due to its size, fragmented nature and growth potential,” MTY CEO Eric Lefebvre said in a statement. “The Papa Murphy’s brand is well loved by its loyal customers and is supported by a strong network of franchise partners. We expect the combination of these two companies and the expertise it brings to produce tremendous opportunities for MTY’s U.S. expansion objectives.”
MTY said the deal was strategically timed “as Papa Murphy’s system is building momentum after implementation of refreshed corporate strategy and refocus on the brand.”
This includes refranchising, an improved marketing message that streams a low, broad, and consistent value story, and becoming more convenience driven. In March, Papa Murphy’s rolled a new ecommerce platform that serves as the foundation for many of its convenience initiatives. The brand said it’s led to a steady increase in the mix of online orders with Q4 ecommerce sales jumping 34 percent over Q3. Online check average were roughly 28 percent higher than in-store orders.
Delivery orders still represent a very minimal part of Papa Murphy’s overall business. The mix in its top 10 stores offering delivering hit 4 percent in Q4. At year’s end, delivery was live in 480 restaurants. The company plans to double that count by the end of 2019.