Papa John’s, the nation’s third best-selling pizza chain, is introducing organic pizza toppings and gluten-free crusts in select test markets, it announced earlier this week.
The organic options—Roma tomatoes, mushrooms, green peppers, and onions—are currently only available in the Lexington, Kentucky market, while the gluten-free crusts are being tested in Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Nashville. (And the chain notes the gluten-free crusts may not be suitable for customers with Celiac disease as cross-contamination with wheat can occur.)
According to the chain, the move toward organic is intended to align Papa John’s with changing consumer values.
"We just think this is a trend that is going to be out there, and we want to be the first in our industry to have organic produce on our menu," chief ingredients officer Sean Muldoon told Fortune.
Papa John’s appears to be taking cues from other leaders in the fast-food sector—chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread have been tweaking menus, removing artificial ingredients, and in the case of Chipotle, spending years to reformulate genetically modified ingredients out of its menu items. But organic has yet to make a significant appearance on national fast-food menus with few exceptions like Chipotle's dabbling and Wendy's organic tea options.
Demand for organic food, though, continues to rise in the U.S., despite restaurant chains being slow to catch up. Earlier this week Organic Authority reported on a survey that found organic food in more than 80 percent of U.S. households, with placement by state increasing significantly between 2015 and 2016.
"That was telling us this is where the consumer is going," Muldoon noted.
Muldoon says that while organic food is indistinguishable in taste from nonorganic, the “perception of health," Fortune notes, matters significantly as it leads consumers to feel better about their purchasing habits.
Unlike the gluten-free crusts, which people will choose for health reasons—even if the taste is different—selling organic pizzas for a higher price will take some effort and scrutiny. And making the shift nationwide for a chain like Papa John’s, which has more than 3,400 North American locations, could be quite costly. The chain says it will be closely monitoring consumer feedback on social media and tracking sales to determine the program’s success.
The moves come a little more than a year after Papa John's announced it would remove artificial ingredients from its menu, including artificial flavors and synthetic colors, in an effort toward offering "better" ingredients. In 2015 it announced plans to remove antibiotics from its chicken suppliers.
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