Papa Murphy’s CEO Ken Calwell Talks Pizza Innovation

American consumers are more willing than ever to try new and bolder flavors, and that’s a good thing
Papa Murphy’s CEO Ken Calwell Talks Pizza Innovation
Papa Murphy's

Papa Murphy's has released five products just in time for National Pizza Month.

Papa Murphy’s, the Washington-based take-and-bake pizza chain with locations in 38 states, along with international locations in Canada and Dubai, has just had its biggest simultaneous product launch in company history, with the introduction of five products this month.

In October, Papa Murphy’s introduced two new additions to its Gourmet Delite line: Angus Steak and Roasted Garlic, and Spicy Fennel Sausage; a gluten-free pizza crust developed in partnership with Udi’s; Thick 'n' Cheesy Homebaked Bread (“cheese and dough is just good together,” says CEO Ken Calwell); and finally, a returning favorite in time for Halloween: the Jack-O-Lantern Pizza.

Papa Murphy’s CEO Ken Calwell sat down with The Daily Meal to talk about how consumer trends have driven the company’s innovation.

Firstly, there’s a multi-stage process of product testing for any new products:

“When I came to Papa Murphy’s we didn’t really have a disciplined testing process, so three and a half years ago when I joined, that was a big area of investment for us. It’s a seven-stage protocol that starts with writing concepts on paper, and then take those concepts to our panelists in the Washington — Vancouver and Portland— area. The ones that do best, say, a good-for-you pizza that tastes good, get made into prototypes.

“Those prototypes get put into a matching exercise to see how they compare to our concepts, and the ones that do well get tested in-store.  We don’t advertise it at all. We put it in stores and see if our crews are able to make them efficiently at volume, and we’ll find out where the issues are.

“In the next stage, we go to test markets across the country, with advertising, and if it works, it goes right to national.”

Unlike other pizza brands like Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, Little Caesar’s, whose advertising is focused on young males, Papa Murphy’s top demographic is moms, and the company’s top-selling days are family-oriented holidays. Halloween, in fact, is the biggest day of the year.

For moms, Papa Murphy’s strategy of freshly-made dough each day and fresh produce that can be baked into something good at home, works across the board. “We’re the fifth-largest pizza chain in the country, but I like to say, we’re the largest chain that makes pizza fresh every day,” says Calwell.

As for product innovation, Calwell notes that we’re in a particularly golden age of experimentation.

“I’ve been in the pizza industry since 1987 and if you go back to the 80s and 90s, America was very conservative and risk-aversive when it came to flavors of food. Pizza was traditional— pepperoni, mushroom, and sausage— that was pizza.  But by the late 90s, early 2000s, Americans became more curious about more diverse and bolder flavors. There’s all this infusion of Mexican, Asian, and South American flavors.

“Maybe Americans have just been more exposed to new foods, something as simple as Chipotle, but now, they don’t mind trying things. I tried to introduce steak on pizza in 1990 and consumers just weren’t ready. These Delite pizzas- the pizza industry has been trying light pizzas since the 80s, and they’ve failed, failed, failed.

“Now, all of a sudden, consumers are ready for it. I just see that Americans have gotten bolder and more willing to take risks.”

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Karen Lo is an associate editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @appleplexy.   

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