Perhaps because I currently reside in the resort town of Palm Springs, my grocery shopping experiences often end with a cashier weighing in on my haul. An employee telling me they’re surprised that I’m not simply stocking up on boxes of La Croix, tortilla chips and salsa is just part of the checkout experience at this point. I nod politely, and say for the hundredth time, “Oh no, I live here.” But no single item on the conveyor belt comes close to provoking as much commentary as a frozen pizza. In a town where everybody goes out to eat, the sight of my frozen lifesaver for a night I don’t feel like cooking is observed as some sort of shocking heresy.
But there’s no shame in my F.P. game. To quote New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, currently embroiled in her own food shame press cycle, “Don’t yuck my yum.” Rather than bow my head when the cashier hit me this weekend with a loaded, “Ah, another frozen pizza, I see,” I decided to embrace my beloved freezer-section staple and dive deep into the crust of the matter. This is the fascinating history of the frozen pizza.
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Frozen pizza began appearing in grocery stores across the Northeastern U.S. in the early 1950s, made possible by the same rapid wave of refrigerator adoption that led to the rollout of the National School Lunch Program. An August 1950 patent application filing by one Mr. Joseph Bucci is one of our first historical pieces of evidence of the the product. In his application, Bucci drew up a shallow disc of dough with a slightly depressed center to be filled with sauce. Notably, the only mention of cheese in the patent filing is an aside about optional strips of the stuff being added (along with anchovies!) if the consumer so desired. It sounds like more of a tomato pie to me, but nevertheless, in 1954, the patent was granted. Frozen pizza was off to the races.
Perhaps Bucci was inspired by the sale of the first frozen pizzas just two months prior to his patent application in Boston grocery stores. The product sold under the name Roma Pizza, and is notable in retrospect for being branded a refrigerated pizza, and not a frozen one. While certainly a sensation in New England, Romas sometimes suffered from soggy dough that made the cooked product ultimately inedible. Bucci’s genius idea was to develop a quick-freezing dough that would even out to the correct texture as well as temperature when cooked in a home oven.
By the mid 1950s, the New England trend had spread throughout the country. Newspaper advertisements for $.33 frozen pizza pies ran in Massachusetts, and articles about frozen pizza entrepreneurs began appearing in Ohio newspapers around the same time. By 1954, frozen pizza wasn’t just a million-dollar industry, individual pizza makers were earning $5 Million a year all for themselves.
But the first person to really crack the code on frozen dough, tomato sauce and cheese was none other than Rose Totino. Yes, the Rose Totino of eventual pizza rolls notoriety. After opening a successful Italian restaurant in Minnesota with her husband Jim, Totino ultimately came to find that there was more money in making frozen pies than there was in baking fresh ones off. The couple found great success with their pivot, and within a decade, Totino’s frozen pizzas were being sold nationwide, becoming the best-selling brand in the space for much of the 1960s. In 1975, the Totinos parted with their business, selling their frozen pizza empire to Pillsbury for a cool $20 million, which is closer to $94 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars.
Frozen pizza had become water cooler talk in the 1970s, following something of a national controversy which saw some frozen pizza makers skimping on the cheese. Was cheese but a topping, like pepperoni or mushrooms, to be selectively placed atop a pie? Or was cheese a critical third ingredient, along with sauce and dough, required to appear generously for a dish to truly be considered a pizza? The national conversation grew to such fervent heights that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was drawn into the fray. In 1973 the organization attempted to set a 12% cheese standard for products to be labeled as frozen pizza. This did not go well.
The USDA received some 5,600 letters, most of them negative, in response to their 12% figure. Dairy farmers were livid that the figure was so low. One imagines that the lactose-intolerant community conversely found 12% cheese to be too high a number. Ultimately, the USDA backed away from the issue entirely, leaving the rest of the country to vote with their dollars on the topic of the correct amount of cheese.
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In 1976, another Minnesota pizza maker – who knew, right? – began to give Totino’s a run for its money. Frozen foods maker and delivery company Schwan’s launched its Red Baron line of pizzas, which remains a grocery store staple even to this day. Fun fact: as recently as 2011, 70% of all school lunch pizzas in the U.S. were made by Schwan’s. Totino’s, for what it’s worth, eventually ceded most of its pizza aisle space to other brands, choosing to focus on pizza novelties like “party pizzas” and the childhood-defining Totino’s Pizza Rolls.
And speaking of pizza novelties, in 1985 the other great afterschool snack of a generation made its debut. Bagel Bites, the brainchild of Floridians Bob Mosher and Stan Garczynski, were such an instant success that the two quickly sold their hit off to a Canadian beer maker. Sensing some supply-chain efficiencies, ketchup-maker Heinz would eventually come to own the brand in just a few short years.
In the 1990s, the game changed all over again thanks to the half invention-half marketing success story of “rising crust.” It was only in 1995 that Kraft launched its DiGiorno brand of frozen pizza, which would transform the industry in barely any time at all. Today DiGiorno is not only the top-selling frozen pizza brand in the world, but its sales account for nearly half of all frozen pizzas sold.
So what’s next for frozen pizza? “One word,” says Ghostworks founder and former restaurateur Nick Vivion, “Oprah.” He’s referring of course to O, That’s Good!, Winfrey’s new line of frozen pizzas prominently featuring cauliflower in the crust. “She’s changing the game. They’re becoming almost absurdly healthy. Frozen pizza is just a vehicle for vegetables and other healthy foods now. We’re living in the golden age of frozen pizza. You can quote me on that.”