A look at Pizza Today’s list of 2018’s 100 Highest-Grossing Pizza Chains

Each year, Pizza Today releases their list of the 100 most successful pizza chain restaurants in terms of gross sales. We decided to take a closer look at the list and see if we could identify any clear factors that correlate to greater sales: are higher per-unit sales an indicator? Online ordering and app utilization? Is there any identifiable precursor to success in a pizza chain? The answer: not really. 

We have, however, uncovered some interesting facts and trends that may shine a light on what successful brands are doing, and where the industry as a pack is heading. 

The biggest news in 2018 came from the top of the heap: Domino’s overtook Pizza Hut to claim the top sales spot, and the numbers are eye-popping. Both companies grossed over twelve billion dollars last year, each taking in more than three times their nearest opponent. What’s most important to understand is that Domino’s attributes their success almost exclusively to online and app-based ordering— claiming that 60% of their orders are now placed digitally. The Domino’s app is, in fact, one of the top five most positively-reviewed in the entire Apple Apps store, with a 4.8 average rating from over three million reviews.

Of the top 100, 93 offer online ordering, and more than half currently have a free app in the Apple Store. But, looking closely, customer reviews on average are dismal, coupled with a relatively low average number of reviewers, suggesting that most smaller chains have apps that are sorely lacking in end-user interface and therefore receive little traction. The median age of a company on this list is 42 years, meaning a majority may be willing to try new technology, but less willing to commit resources to its development. 

Another surprise: Little Caesar’s, the largest privately-owned company and Number Three on the list, seems to be enjoying a major upswing. Despite some issues with federal court cases over franchisees balking at the revenue-stifling $5 Hot-n-Ready deal, Little Caesar’s managed to add over 1,000 units over 2017 and overtook Papa John’s to join the Top 3.

As with Domino’s, the rise of Little Caesar’s appears to stem from a flurry of recent innovation. In 2018, the company released its own mobile app, alongside a doubling-down on the Hot-n-Ready concept, wherein a customer can place an order, arrive at the store, enter a code to unlock a hot box, dubbed the “pizza portal”, retrieve his or her food, and eat it without ever speaking to another human soul. 

The more surprising news out of Little Caesar’s came this week, when it was announced that they have partnered with Impossible Foods to craft a bespoke meatless sausage designed to mimic the company’s classic flavor. They are testing the $12 Impossible Supreme in three markets and plan a wider release in the fall. This move makes Little Caesar’s the first major pizza chain to add a meat alternative, and strangely ties them to a paradoxical “healthy pizza” movement that has been undergirding the rapid success of fast-casual chains like MOD, Blaze, and Pieology. 

Pizza in America has always been a cuisine of convenience. That’s why fast-casual chains will continue to succeed and why better online ordering will result, simply, in more orders. What is strange is that for the first time in history, the pizza industry is adapting its menu to the American diet, not the other way around. Across food industries, the watchwords are Clean Eating, Mindfulness, Diversity. As the pizza industry strengthens its identity in terms of its convenience, expect it simultaneously to trend away from its legacy as the folk cuisine of the suburbs.