There’s always a line at Williamsburg Pizza, the iconic Brooklyn slice shop whose brick-walled interior is hardly larger than a subway car. What makes impatient New Yorkers willing to wait in a long line, squeeze their way up to the register and eat at the tiny counter that runs along the window? The answer can be found by scanning the thousands of social media pictures posted about the restaurant.
Williamsburg slices are famous for their generous helping of a particular type of pepperoni that curves into a tiny bowl when cooked. The edges of each piece char slightly and caramelize, giving each slice (or square in some cases) a unique taste, texture and look. Although restaurants rarely advertise who makes their ingredients, that famous pepperoni is made by Hormel Foods.
When you put those pizzas out every Monday morning and you see the same one has gone first every time, it’s telling me something.Shane Ward, Senior Brand Manager for Hormel® Pepperoni
Nino Coniglio, the restaurant’s owner and a prominent figure in New York’s pizza scene, explains that Hormel® Pepperoni Cup N’ Crisp is reminiscent of an older style of pepperoni, one that was common when he was young, before “companies changed their recipes so the pepperoni stayed flat.” Hormel Foods, he says, was one of the few companies that understood the appeal of that classic shape. It wasn’t long before “some pizzaiolo chefs rediscovered that and brought it back.”
So while their goal was to perfect this forgotten style, refining it for modern palettes, the development team took care to maintain the characteristics that make the pepperoni, in Coniglio’s words, “a nostalgic thing.”
Bringing Back that Famous Pepperoni
The remarkable success of that food service item at Williamsburg Pizza and elsewhere did not go unnoticed at Hormel Foods’ headquarters. Several years ago a team began to strategize how to bring that famous pepperoni to grocery store shelves. Shane Ward, senior brand manager for Hormel® Pepperoni, was determined to adapt the product, making sure to preserve the details that keep people coming back to Williamsburg Pizza. Ward worked closely with the company’s deli and foodservice divisions, assembling “insights and information we had already gotten over the years from our expertise in other spaces.” Those teams had been supplying toppings for restaurant pizzas for decades, developing a keen sense of the product and their markets. And while the Cup N’ Crisp pepperoni you can now find at your grocery store is extremely similar to what you’d get on a Williamsburg Slice, things that work well in a restaurant kitchen may not translate perfectly to everyday consumers and their different equipment. Furthermore, this coordination gave Ward’s team the opportunity to stay ahead of evolving consumer trends. “Foodservice typically sees things before we do,” Ward says.
With Hormel Foods’ knowledge of the restaurant industry, Ward’s team had access to large-scale consumer research before the product launch. For years, people had been enjoying a pepperoni similar to Cup N’ Crisp in restaurants, so the team was able to use social media and restaurant reviews to get a sense of what people were really saying about it. “We knew the flavor profiles that people were looking for,” Ward says, “so we could operate more quickly.” It didn’t hurt that many found the pepperoni unusually photogenic. “People eat with their eyes first nowadays,” he says.
While these research tools added depth to the development process, the process of food innovation for a national brand takes some time, especially when it comes to something like pepperoni, a ubiquitous part of American cuisine that has changed little since the early 1900s when Italian butchers introduced their version of the cured salamis of their home country. Ward is quick to point out that, no matter how many Yelp reviews they looked at, the meticulous work of the R&D team was essential to the process. To get the product just right, the R&D team baked thousands of pizzas, circling in on that perfect flavor and texture profile.
“Those pizzas would then be put out for team members to try, and the Cup N’ Crisp slices would always go fastest,” Ward says. “When you put those pizzas out every Monday morning and you see the same one has gone first every time, it’s telling me something.”
After months of testing and research, Ward and his team began thinking about branding. He wanted Cup N’ Crisp’s presentation to reflect its connection to those cool neighborhood pizza joints. Rather than package it in the bright, family-friendly colors of their existing pepperoni line, Ward believed that something more minimal would speak to the product’s premium quality. The packaging now shows a slice presented on a wood cutting board to highlight the pepperoni itself, while background images of dough balls and pepper shakers harken back to its slice-shop origins.
Launching During A Global Pandemic
The project was near culmination in January 2020, just as the world was about to be turned upside down by the COVID-19 virus. Less than two months later, indoor dining would be suspended across the United States. Many restaurants temporarily closed and consumers across the country found themselves peering into their refrigerators, hoping to replicate the dine-out experience in the safety of their kitchens.
Rolling out a new product is always an adventure, but there was truly no roadmap for a launch during the first quarter of 2020. Within days of the product’s debut in March 2020, transmission of COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on public life. Grocery stores were among the first businesses to experience the chaos and confusion. Customers were coming out in droves, picking the shelves clean for fear of lockdowns and store closures. The immediate future of in-store shopping was so unclear that some retailers that would have carried Cup N’ Crisp decided to postpone their annual “retailer reset,” the process where stores decide what new products they will stock throughout the coming year.
So while Ward didn’t gain every distribution opportunity he had hoped for, he does acknowledge that the lockdowns may have provided a unique opportunity for Cup N’ Crisp to find its niche and create a legion of loyal customers. “Consumers couldn’t go out to eat,” he says, “and we had a pizzeria level product that we’re now providing to the masses across the country.” For many, it was a great substitute for eating in their favorite neighborhood pizzeria. Some home chefs took to social media to share their creations, turning their feeds into virtual dining rooms where their loved ones could see what they were cooking up.
While there can be something charming about standing in a crowded pizzeria — so much energy concentrated in a tiny pocket of a city block — Cup N’ Crisp helped people rediscover the value of returning to their own kitchens. Rolling dough and grating cheese are the kind of simple family-friendly cooking experiences that bring us closer. Ward hopes that Cup N’ Crisp will help people bridge the gap between these two worlds, allowing them to enjoy the peace and safety of their home kitchen without having to sacrifice the quality they find at their favorite restaurants.
Coniglio says that ever since he introduced Hormel Foods’ cupping pepperoni in his restaurants, customers frequently asked: “How do I get this? Where can I get this from?” Until now, the only way was, as Coniglio put it, “Make a friend who owns a pizzeria and buy some.” But by bringing the product to local grocery stores, Hormel Foods has taken a major step toward making this premium pepperoni available to all.
While public life will eventually return to normal, Hormel Foods will continue to develop innovative foods that push the boundaries of what’s possible for people to prepare in the comfort of their own kitchens, and beyond.