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Plant-Based Proteins: Pizzerias’ Success Secrets, Part One

Pittsburgh-based Caliente Pizza & Draft House has found success by adding plant-based proteins to the menu.

Posted on July 23, 2022

Operators' Corner Meat alternatives Vegan menu Velma_2

Above: The Velma pizza at Caliente Pizza & Draft House features plant-based pepperoni.

Plant-based sales are sprouting up fast—and by now, they’re less an of-the-moment trend and more a long-term shift in Americans’ eating habits. If you’re thinking of adding some plant-based proteins to the menu, take notes from brands that have found incredible success by incorporating them. In part one of this three-part series, we'll look at Caliente Pizza & Draft House.

This Pittsburgh-based independent, now with seven locations, found skyrocketing success after adding vegan cheese around late 2020, so adding plant-based pepperoni from Hormel, under the Happy Little Plants brand, was an easy decision. The option launched in early 2022.

Here's how they've handled these additions to their menu:

Marketing messages: Rubbing elbows with the Pittsburgh-area vegan group has helped spread the word organically, advertising new menu items as soon as they’re released. “They have a Facebook page with thousands of followers,” says Nick Bogacz, president of Caliente. “They’ve been our mouthpiece—our best source of marketing—and we’ve now become a destination for these options.”

Meat matchmaking: While attending a trade show in London in 2019, Bogacz noted the plethora of plant-based proteins and vegan cheeses—and how great they tasted. Back home, he believed he could attract the sizable vegan presence in Pittsburgh with pizza items made just for them. Adding vegan cheese went over “phenomenally,” so when Hormel sent over samples of its Happy Little Plants pepperoni, the taste testing began. “On staff, we have a couple of vegans, so they tried it—and the meat eaters did, too,” Bogacz remembers. “Everyone was surprised by the texture, taste and look. That’s what really stood out to me when we tried plant-based proteins: that they were actually really good!”

Pizza pairing: The Velma specialty pie features red sauce, basil, vegan pepperoni and vegan cheese. Bogacz is considering adding more options to the menu: plant-based sausage, as well as an Italian-style sub, done vegan with the plant-based pepperoni. “The ingredients work just like the meat-based ones,” he says. “I think it’s a trend that’ll just keep growing.”

Customer response: “I think what you find is that the customer’s partner is vegan, and instead of ordering two separate pizzas, the nonvegan will try the plant-based pepperoni,” Bogacz says. “The only thing is that we make sure to put the plant-based pepperoni on the opposite end of the make line, so the two pepperonis don’t get confused.” Vegan and vegetarian customers appreciate this extra care.

Pricing and profits: Caliente charges a premium-topping price for the plant-based meat—but finds that interested customers are more than willing to shell out for it, as long as the quality is up to snuff.

Words of wisdom: “Definitely taste-test the plant-based proteins, and have someone who’s vegan as part of the taste-testing crew,” Bogacz recommends. “Don’t just eat it and be done—cook it. You want to see what it looks like fresh and after it’s been sitting in a pizza box for 10 minutes.”

Read more about pizzerias' super-successful plant-based strategies in the August 2022 issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine.

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