Forget Toilet Paper—the Really Distressing Shortage Is Frozen Pizza

As home snacking peaks, brands are barely keeping the freezer case full

Have you seen something that looks like this in your local supermarket? Then buy it, because manufacturers are struggling to keep it in stock.
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If you were to take a spin down Argonne Drive in Woodridge, Ill., just south of the I-55 interchange, you’d pass the plant belonging to Home Run Inn Pizza. And if you were to take that drive one night this week, you might notice something unusual about the place. While most every business in this suburb 30 miles southwest of Chicago has been shut down by the coronavirus, Home Run Inn’s pizza plant is in overdrive, its lights burning well past sundown.

The 60,000-square-foot factory (which not only runs two high-speed pizza lines but does all its own cheese, meat and sauce production as well) has been cranking seven days a week, 16 hours a day since the middle of March. Normally, the place operates two hours a day less than that and powers down completely on weekends. And while the plant turned out about 55,000 pizzas daily during normal times, the owners have dialed the output up to 85,000.

And, vp of branding Gina Bolger says, it’s still not enough to meet the demand.

“It’s incredible,” Bolger said. “We equate this to every day being like Super Bowl Sunday—the orders don’t stop. The demand is through the roof. We’re trying to keep up as best we can.”

The experiences of Home Run Inn, a 73-year-old Chicagoland favorite that also ships its frozen pies nationally, are by no means unique. From coast to coast, demand for frozen pizza has reached heights not seen in generations.

“I’ve been in this business over 25 years, [and] I’ve never seen a spike like this across the country,” said Newman’s Own president and COO Dave Best, who reported that sales of his company’s frozen pizzas are up by 190% since the coronavirus crisis began. “This is unprecedented,” he added.

Where did all the dough go?

While media coverage of panic buying and hoarding has tended to focus on items like bottled water and toilet paper (and how hand sanitizer somehow became more precious than a good beluga caviar) the bare racks left by shoppers who’ve filled their fridges at home with frozen pizzas have drawn considerably less attention.

Even so, a simple box of frozen pizza has become something of a rare bird nowadays. As of the middle of March, for instance, grocery stores across Los Angeles could barely keep the stuff in stock. In the Massachusetts town of Fall River two weeks ago, one truck driver for Schwan’s, maker of the Red Baron brand, resorted to padlocking his trailer for fear that panicked shoppers would break in. Last week, Minnesotans called off the friendly competition among the state’s frozen pizza brands to allow them to focus on simply feeding people. “There are no rivalries right now,” Heggies Pizza owner Shawn Dockter told the Star Tribune.

How much frozen pizza are people buying? According to data analytics firm IRI, Americans filled their shopping carts with $275 million worth of the stuff for the four weeks ending April 5. That’s a 92% increase from the same period a year ago.

It’s not only pizza that’s scarce, of course. Nervous Americans facing weeks or even months of sheltering at home have been busy buying up plenty of shelf-stable foods—among them boxes of mac and cheese, pasta and spaghetti sauce, and pancake mix. But manufacturers say there are attributes unique to frozen pizza that make it particularly desirable in trying times like these.

Why do we love thee, pizza? Let us count the ways

The most obvious thing frozen pizza has going for it is cost. Take the $3.98 that Walmart wants for a 20.6-ounce Red Baron pepperoni pizza. Assuming that two slices makes a meal, that means two people can have dinner for $1.99 a head. And with the Department of Labor’s calculated unemployment rate of 5.1% for the week ending March 28 and some 16 million Americans having lost their jobs in the past three weeks alone, cutting household expenses is now the order of the day.

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