Food, Travel and Tech

The history of frozen pizza—how a frozen food staple became a multibillion-dollar business

Frozen pizzas on display at an Associated Supermarket in New York.
JB Reed | Bloomberg via Getty Images

For weeks, Americans have been coping with the uncertainty surrounding the widespread coronavirus pandemic by stockpiling necessities, creating shortages of everything from toilet paper to hand sanitizers. 

At the same time, shoppers have also taken solace in the comforting thought of having an easily-prepared, adequately satisfying meal tucked away in their freezer: the frozen pizza. In March, Americans bought $275 million worth of frozen pizzas, which was a 92% increase over the same period a year earlier, according to data analytics firm IRI.

And for the modern shopper, it makes sense — filling your freezer with frozen DiGiorno, Red Baron and Stouffer's french bread pizzas can provide a much-needed respite from cooking and is typically cheaper than takeout.

But frozen pizza wasn't always an option. Here's how frozen pizza became an American staple and a multibillion-dollar business.

A world without frozen pizza

It wasn't until the 1950s that picking up a frozen pizza at the grocery became an option for American shoppers. In early-1950s America, pizza had only recently become widely popular (Italian immigrants brought the cuisine to the U.S. around 1900, but it only took off with the bulk of the population after World War II), and frozen dinners in general didn't enter the picture at all until more Americans started buying home freezers in the 1940s and 1950s.

As early as 1950, pizza restaurant owners in the U.S. had started offering refrigerated pizzas for customers to cook in their own homes. In June 1950, The New York Times wrote that the trend of refrigerated, "ready-to-cook pizzas" had recently become popular in Boston, leading to a New York City baker named Leo Giuffre selling similar pizzas in his own city for 49 cents each.

Around that same time, some restaurant owners started selling frozen versions of their pizzas that they could store longer than the refrigerated ones and sell to customers looking to cook them at home. In 1950, a man named Joseph Bucci in Philadelphia filed the first official patent for frozen pizza, titled "Method for Making Frozen Pizza."

In that patent application, Bucci mentions issues with quick-freezing pizza dough, including the need to eliminate excess moisture that "renders it soggy and unpalatable" by applying an "edible sealing agent" to prevent tomato sauce from permeating the dough when it bakes. Unfortunately, it's anyone's guess what Bucci ultimately did with his patent, because by the time it was granted in 1954, various businesses had already been putting frozen pizzas on U.S. grocery shelves for a few years

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USA Today notes that ads offering 33-cent frozen pizzas appeared in Massachusetts newspapers in the early 1950s, while an Akron, Ohio man named Jack DeLuca was reportedly selling around $20,000 per month of his eponymously branded frozen pizzas in 1952. And, in 1951, a Chicago businessman named Emil De Salvi launched his Pizza-Fro brand of frozen pies that, by 1954, had reportedly sold over five million frozen pizzas over the previous two-year period, according to a Chicago Tribune report at the time.

Enter Totino's

America's frozen pizza business was mostly made up of regional players until the 1960s, when a few businesses started to achieve national fame. Married couple Rose and Jim Totino began mass-producing frozen pizzas from a plant in St. Louis Park, Minnesota in 1962. (A decade earlier, when the couple took out a loan to open an Italian restaurant in Minnesota, Rose had to bake a pizza for her bank's loan officer because he'd never heard of pizza.)

By the 1970s, Totino's became the country's top-selling frozen pizza (annual sales jumped from $10 million in 1970 to $50 million in 1974, Forbes reported in 1975) and the couple sold their business to the Pillsbury Company in 1975 for $22 million.

(Today, Totino's is even better known as the leading purveyor of frozen pizza rolls — bite-size dough pockets filled with cheese and sauce that top the frozen appetizers and snacks category with over $600 million in annual sales for the brand, according to IRI.)

At the time of the Totino's sale, Forbes noted that larger packaged foods companies like Pillsbury were trying to "clip off some of the $4 billion in annual sales going to the pizzerias," referring to brick-and-mortar pizza shops selling fresh pies across the country. 

Frozen pizza becomes big business

Pillsbury wasn't alone, as the ensuing decades saw multiple large corporations get into the frozen pizza business by buying up notable family brands. Examples include Mama Celeste's frozen pizza, which was founded by Italian immigrant Celeste Lizio in Chicago in the early-1960s before being sold to Quaker Oats in 1969. 

And, in 1966, the Simek brothers of Medford, Wisconsin pivoted from selling pizzas in their bar, The Tombstone Tap, to a business selling frozen pizzas to other nearby taverns. They called their product "Tombstone Pizza" and by 1984 the company was one of the country's largest frozen pizza distributors with over $100 million in annual sales. Two years later, Kraft Foods bought Tombstone for an undisclosed amount.

Meanwhile, frozen food delivery company Schwan's finally entered the frozen pizza business in 1970 with the purchase of Salina, Kansas-based pizza manufacturer Tony's. Schwan's nationwide distribution network helped boost Tony's into a national frozen pizza brand that sold $80 million-worth of pizzas annually by the mid-1970s, according to Forbes. 

Then, in 1976, Schwan's expanded its pizza business by launching Red Baron, which is now one of the country's leading frozen pizza brands with over $570 million in annual sales as of 2017, according to Statista. Schwan's also started selling its frozen pizzas to schools in the 1970s, and within four decades the company owned 70% of the school pizza market.

An advertisement for Schwan's Red Baron pizza from the 1970s.
Source: Schwan's

As more and more large corporations got into the frozen pizza business, by the early 1980s the market was worth $1 billion in overall annual revenue and even federal regulators felt the need to weigh in by attempting to set standards for how much cheese a frozen meat pizza was required to have. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a proposal that would have required all frozen pizzas with meat toppings to have cheese make up at least 12% of ingredients, with no more than 50% of that amount being imitation cheese. 

(The Washington Post noted at the time that the USDA only had jurisdiction over pizzas with meat toppings, and the Food & Drug Administration covered cheese-only pizzas. The FDA only required that manufacturers who use imitation cheese clearly state that in their labels.)

However, the USDA's proposal touched a nerve with consumers, who responded with thousands of comments, both for and against the proposal. While the dairy industry was obviously in favor of higher cheese requirements for frozen pizzas, many consumers simply wanted the federal government to leave their pizzas alone — so, the USDA eventually ditched the idea of its 12% requirement.

Going 'high tech'

Corporate takeovers and regulatory battles aside, the next major disruption of the frozen pizza market came in 1995, which The New York Times has called a "momentous" year in the product's history. That was the year that the food scientists at Kraft unveiled what the Times described as a "food technology coup": the rising-crust pizza.

In 1995, Kraft launched its DiGiorno brand of frozen pizzas, which feature a dough-y crust that rises as it bakes, as opposed to the flat, crunchy crusts that had comprised the platform on which the frozen pizza industry had been built for decades. Kraft's development included introducing various food additives — along with oils, yeast and baking soda — to strengthen the pizzas' dough and help it stay hydrated, rather than drying out. The company also introduced vacuum-sealed packaging to keep out oxygen that "erodes the dough," according to the Times.

For a frozen pizza industry that had been striving for decades to eat into the multibillion-dollar business of brick-and-mortar pizzerias, DiGiornio's rising crust put frozen pies one step closer to mimicking the average slice consumers might buy from their local pizza shop. DiGiorno even touted that fact with its now-famous tagline: "It's not delivery. It's DiGiorno." 

Source: Nestle

Within three years, DiGiorno was the top-selling frozen pizza brand in the U.S., and rivals like Schwan's were eager to launch their own competing products. In 1996, Schwan's unveiled its own rising-crust frozen pizza brand, called Freschetta. However, Kraft sued Schwan's, accusing its rival of hiring away a Kraft contractor in order to improperly obtain rising-crust pizza secrets. The lawsuit was settled in 2001 with undisclosed terms.

Either way, DiGiorno has remained the country's top-selling frozen pizza brand for more than two decades, with more than $1 billion in annual sales. (Freschetta saw roughly $188 million in annual sales, as of 2017, according to Statista.)

And, after roughly seven decades, the frozen pizza industry also continues its rise. In 2010, Kraft Foods sold its U.S. and Canada frozen pizza business, which includes both DiGiorno and Tombstone, to Nestle for $3.7 billion in cash.

Today, the U.S. frozen pizza market is worth roughly $5 billion, with the global market worth more than double that amount. By 2023, one estimate from Allied Market Research projects the global market could be worth more than $17 billion.

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