Consumers are hungry for mozzarella, and operators are ready to satisfy their appetite. According to Datassential, 76% of restaurants feature traditional mozzarella as a menu mainstay; another 11% offer it as a seasonal item or special. When it comes to fresh mozzarella, 41% offer it all the time, and 24% do so on a limited basis.
Because it’s so beloved, just offering mozzarella can be enough to attract consumers’ interest. In order to grow their businesses, however, chefs must retain that interest by finding new and innovative ways to feature mozzarella in both existing and emerging categories. Among the biggest opportunities: pizza, burgers, breakfast and global cuisine.
Pizza rules mozzarella’s roost, as Technomic’s previously referenced research indicates. In fact, frozen pizza accounts for approximately 8 of every 10 pounds of soft Italian cheese that’s sold by food processors to retail and foodservice. Datassential likewise reports that mozzarella is a “nearly ubiquitous” pizza cheese, appearing on 76.5% of restaurant menus that feature pizza.
Mozzarella’s ubiquity in the pizza category doesn’t mean it’s stale there, however. While it’s an old standby, mozz is also a driver of innovation. “Consumers absolutely love pizza, but we’ve seen pizza trends changing,” says Mike Kostyo, a trendologist at Datassential. He cites new regional styles like Neapolitan-style and new flavor profiles like Buffalo chicken pizza as examples. “No matter what the trend is, it still has mozzarella on it.”
Chef and registered dietitian Jessica Foust, vice president of culinary innovation and nutrition for Creative Food Solutions, agrees. “Because it’s such a safe cheese, mozzarella can be a vehicle to enable people to try things they’re not used to eating,” she says. “If you’re already familiar with the cheese on a pizza, you might be more comfortable trying new toppings.
Papa Murphy’s is one of several pizza chains using mozzarella to unlock new trends and flavors. In January, the Vancouver, Washington-based take-and-bake pizza company introduced new keto-friendly “crustless” pizzas that place sauce and toppings on top of whole milk mozzarella inside a bowl. Other innovative pizza players include Hot Stuff Pizza, a South-Dakota based chain that recently launched a BBQ Pulled Pork Handcrafted Pizza with pulled pork, BBQ sauce and mozzarella.
Because most American pies feature traditional mozzarella, adding fresh mozzarella also can infuse pizza with new energy. Uno Pizzeria & Grill, for example, now offers a Margherita Chicago Thin Crust pizza with fresh mozzarella, pizza sauce, tomato slices and basil. Panera Bread similarly has a Margherita Artisan Flatbread with grape tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, a tomato bell pepper sauce, fresh basil, and a blend of fontina and mozzarella cheeses. And Little Caesar’s now offers the Pepperoni Cheeser! Cheeser! Pizza, which features pepperoni, fresh mozzarella, sweet basil and a toasted asiago-parmesan crust.
The burger category has seen explosive growth thanks to new plant-based burgers, according to Kostyo, who says plant-based patties are a rising tide that has lifted all burger ingredients—including cheese.
“In 2019, the fastest growing single trend on menus was plant-based burgers, which took up the top four spots in our menu database,” Kostyo reports. “Cheese is pretty much a given on any burger, and mozzarella is one option you might see.”
Mozzarella currently is the sixth most prevalent burger cheese at restaurants, appearing on 9.5% of menus, according to Datassential. Although it presently appears as a burger topping on only 1.4% of menus, fresh mozzarella is trending, having grown 52% since 2015.
“I’ve definitely been noticing mozzarella making it on top of burgers more frequently,” says Saputo Dairy USA Executive Chef and Senior Manager of Culinary & Sensory Nikki Trzeciak, noting a restaurant near her home in Dallas that’s known for serving two-cheese burgers. “I love mixing mozzarella with a sexy piece of cheddar or a really melty, gooey piece of muenster because I want that pull and texture of mozzarella, which makes eating anything more interesting.”
Burgers featuring mozzarella are appearing more frequently on restaurant menus. In 2018, The Capital Grille introduced a Caprese-style Wagyu Burger with heirloom tomato, 15-year aged balsamic and fresh mozzarella. In spring 2020, meanwhile, Twin Peaks expanded its menu with The Smokestack, a burger with in-house smoked pulled pork, smoked mozzarella, pickled red onions, pickled jalapenos, tomato, pickles, cilantro, BBQ sauce and black pepper aioli. And then there’s Australian burger chain Sneaky Burger, which takes things to a whole new level by offering a fried “mozzarella patty” that can be added to or in place of a traditional beef patty.
Eight in 10 consumers say breakfast is an important part of their day, per Datassential, which notes a growing opportunity in the breakfast daypart for restaurants and retailers alike. In particular, operators of convenience stores and quick service restaurants have experienced significant gains in breakfast sales—of 64% and 46%, respectively—within the last year.
Mozzarella can help drive breakfast growth for those who seek it, Datassential suggests. That’s because 68% of consumers believe cheese is an important component in handheld breakfast items, and 70% say the same for “other” breakfast items, such as omelets and skillets. Furthermore, a not insignificant 15% of operators say breakfast is the daypart during which they sell the most cheese by volume.
“We continue to see the number of operators offering breakfast increase year over year, so using mozzarella in options like breakfast sandwiches and wraps or brunch burgers could be an area to grow or cross-utilize mozzarella,” Kostyo says.
Illustrative of the breakfast opportunity is Bruegger’s Bagels, which in March 2020 introduced a Twice-Baked Hash Brown made with crispy shredded potatoes; a blend of mozzarella, provolone, cheddar, Parmesan, asiago and Romano cheeses; and an onion-and-chive cream cheese filling. Corner Bakery also has tapped into the trend with its Power Breakfast Egg Bowl. Introduced in winter 2019, it features scrambled eggs, ancient grains, chickpeas, oven-roasted tomato, fresh mozzarella, pesto and a “power” greens blend of baby kale, arugula and spinach.
Mozzarella can be used across dayparts and menu categories. It crosses cuisines just as easily. In fact, Datassential reports that many French restaurants (38.8%) and even some Chinese restaurants (2.6%) have mozzarella on their menus. And at Mexican restaurants, mozzarella is trending upward: Although only 4.5% currently menu mozzarella, that’s up 4% from one year ago and 13% from 2015.
“Mozzarella doesn’t have to be just ‘that Italian cheese.’ You can call it very different things and use it in very different ways,” Creative Food Solutions’ Foust says. “It could be used, for example, in Mexican dishes instead of queso quesadilla—anywhere that you want a great, creamy, melting, indulgent cheese.”
Fusion cooking is one way to introduce mozzarella to global cuisines. Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom, for example, offers Italian Nachos that combine Italian and Mexican influences via homemade pasta chips that are baked with mozzarella, provolone and pepper jack cheeses; topped with pepperoni, pepperoncini and Italian sausage; and served with spicy marinara sauce. In 2019, P.F. Chang’s introduced its own fusion offering: Kimchi Fries, which are steak fries topped with cheddar, mozzarella, kimchi, edamame, Korean ketchup and gochujang mayo. Mellow Mushroom’s Thai Dye Pizza features an olive oil and garlic base topped with grilled curry chicken, mozzarella cheese, Roma tomatoes, onions and a garnish of fresh basil, cucumbers and Thai chili sauce.
Mozzarella continues to be Americans’ favorite cheese variety. Dig into all aspects of this pasta filata cheese, Saputo’s flagship product, by downloading our Stretching for Success white paper.