Late last year, Augie Hinnenkamp got a message from a customer: "Your pizza is life-changing."
That's not always the first response someone has when rating a frozen pizza.
"Maybe we're doing something right," said Hinnenkamp, CEO of Edina-based Clo-Clo Vegan Foods.
Since debuting in early 2020, Clo-Clo's frozen pizzas have found a "sweet spot" among shoppers seeking allergen-free or allergen-friendly pies. The brand was recently rolled out at Cub Foods stores and has national ambitions.
"There's a lot of noise, and to be successful you have to be differentiated on the shelf," Hinnenkamp said. "There's a niche, and we're proving that in the marketplace."
It takes a niche to carve out success in a category as crowded with legacy brands as frozen pizza.
Americans bought 1.4 billion frozen pizzas over the past year — and half of that total were from just the five leading brands, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
Minnesota companies have major real estate in the freezer aisle. Schwan's Red Baron is the second-best-selling brand (behind Nestle's Di Giorno), while General Mills-owned Totino's comes in third. Each of the top 20 frozen pizza brands has more than $45 million in annual sales.
So how can Clo-Clo or any other newcomer hope to compete?
"You're looking for differentiation that's going to delight and surprise consumers," said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president at IRI. "Differentiation is key, but it has to be differentiation that matters to people."
One fast-rising brand may provide a road map. California company Caulipower, which sells cauliflower-crust pizzas topped with otherwise traditional ingredients, was founded in 2016. Last year it passed $80 million in retail sales, ranking it the 14th-best-selling frozen pizza brand in the nation.
"The big mainstays are the ones that drive sales, but you have some differentiated products that are driving growth both from a unit and dollar perspective," Lyons Wyatt said. "In pizza, a lot of the innovation is around the crust."
Convenience, price, customization and functional ingredients all need to be played up despite economic pressures cutting into marketing budgets, Lyons Wyatt said.
"This is the time to get your name out there," she said. "Communicate the benefits and value — whatever your distinction might me, get out and do that."
The freezer aisle is expected to be a refuge for inflation-weary shoppers over the coming year — though frozen pizza prices rose an average of 13% in 2022, on pace with the average rise in the cost of groceries. Still, in most cases it remains cheaper to buy a frozen pizza than order one from a restaurant.
"Households are both returning to busy day-to-day routines and also looking for more cost-effective alternatives to restaurant dining during this inflationary period," said Alison Bodor, CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute. "Frozen pizzas help meet these direct needs and changes in dining habits."
She said that "better-for-you" ingredients and health claims are a major lure for consumers across all frozen foods.
That's where Clo-Clo can shine, Hinnenkamp said.
"Caulipower did this with cauliflower crusts, but also with egg and dairy in their pizza," he said. "We're the next generation of healthy, better-for-you frozen pizza."
Clo-Clo was named for the Hinnenkamps' daughter, Chloe, who has a rare autoimmune disease triggered by food proteins called eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE). So Chloe's parents teamed up with a chef and developed a line of pizzas — and now bowls, vegan cheese and gluten-free bread sticks — so she can eat foods most kids take for granted.
"She was missing family pizza nights, and it's just brutal to see your kid not get to participate," Hinnenkamp said. "We have a passionate story and authentic brand, and it resonates with people."
Allergies to dairy, wheat, nuts and other foods have been rising in recent decades and today affect 32 million Americans, according to the advocacy group Food Allergy Research and Education — that's one in 10 adults and one in 13 children.
That's a slice of the population most pizza brands aren't always able to reach.
Hinnenkamp said there's a place for all the pizzas.
"Every once in a while you can hammer a Heggie's at midnight," he said. He just wants to make sure there's a place for everyone at the table when pizza is served.
"Nobody on pizza night has to be excluded," he said. "We take a lot of pride in that."