See more of the story

When the Star Tribune began collecting readers’ recommendations for their favorite frozen pizzas earlier this year, we couldn’t have predicted just how important frozen pizza would become.

The Minnesota Frozen Pizza Bracket required months of planning: crisscrossing the metro to pick up pies at grocery stores, butcher shops and gas stations; finding a kitchen with enough ovens to bake two dozen pizzas for a tasting; and building a system where tens of thousands of readers could vote.

Things began to change rapidly just before the bracket went to press. We had to make last-minute edits to the story twice. As social distancing became the norm, we could no longer recommend that people host pizza parties in their homes. Then, when March Madness was canceled, we had to take out those references, too.

A week later, we got text messages and e-mails with pictures of Twin Cities supermarket freezer cases cleaned out of pizza. Whether stocking up out of uncertainty, or feeding a family with a relatively inexpensive meal as job losses loomed, Minnesotans were turning to this simple frozen food for sustenance, comfort and survival.

Overnight, our lighthearted, pizza-pun-filled competition became an opportunity to highlight Minnesota’s role in feeding America in a time of crisis.

“There are no rivalries right now,” said Shawn Dockter, owner of Heggies Pizza, the champion in the Minnesota Frozen Pizza Bracket. “This is about helping. We have a responsibility in our food industry. Providing food is what it’s about and providing people a bright spot in their day, of having a good meal. It’s what we’ve been focusing on completely.”

Dozens of brands of frozen pizza are made in Minnesota, one segment of a $4.8 billion industry nationwide, and of an even larger frozen food industry with Minnesota roots. Supermarket giants like Schwan’s Co. and General Mills are based here, as well as regional chains like Bernatello’s Foods, with local restaurants and small wholesalers in the mix.

Many of them have seen spikes in grocery sales in the last few weeks, and are hustling to keep up with demand, even as restaurant and bar accounts are put on hold and fundraisers are postponed.

Retail demand has been “unbelievably high” for Heggies, Dockter said. The company has had to cut back on some varieties to ensure its workers can put out as many pizzas as they can while keeping their distance from one another.

Schwan’s has scaled up pizza production “to the fullest capacity,” said a spokesman. And in the race to get the pizzas to stores, some Minneapolis corporate office employees are personally helping to get them on the shelves.

Kettle River, based in Askov, has been distributing double the number of pizzas they normally do. “Our trucks were going every direction,” said owner Lisa Waletzko.

But the boom in retail comes at a price. Restaurants are closed for dining in. Are frozen pizzas taking their place?

“We’re so grateful, but we feel guilty,” Waletzko said. “There are so many people, probably 40 to 50 of our customers are closed right now. The bars and restaurants, we feel bad for them.”

Waletzko said the company is paying its current success forward by bringing pizzas to fire departments, police departments and teachers.

Schwan’s is donating $250,000 to Second Harvest Heartland. Heggies Pizza is donating pizza to food shelves by the truckload.

“We’re doing as much as we can, like the other great companies on the list, to provide food in a crisis,” Dockter said.

For some companies with smaller retail footprints, however, demand is sliding. Giovanni’s Pizza, which mainly wholesales its pies to resorts near Brainerd, is struggling without those accounts. But the slowdown has freed up some time for new projects, said general manager Jerry DeChaine. The brand is working on two new varieties: chicken wild rice and teriyaki chicken.

One restaurant is seeing both sides of its business merge. The 45-year-old local chain Davanni’s started selling frozen pizzas in grocery stores about four years ago. Lately, it is finding that customers are ordering the frozen pies from their restaurants for delivery. Still frozen.

“That’s something we never would have imagined would have been a need,” said John Stephens, Davanni’s director of operations. “It’s a nice niche for us to be available for customers at this weird time.”

At the same time, brand loyalties do run deep, and voters still came out in droves for their favorites.

Tim Niver, owner of Mucci’s — both the pizza and the restaurants — said he’s humbled by the support for his brand in the competition. And even more so, that people are choosing his pizza to feed their families in the midst of a global crisis.

“It feels pretty good, feeding people,” Niver said. “That’s what we’re meant to do, feed people and make them feel OK, give them a momentary sense of comfort, make their home smell nice when things are cooking. Those are the sensibilities I think about when I think about frozen pizza. People need this.”

Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853

@SharynJackson