6 Forgotten Pizzas from Instant Pizza's Golden Age
According to a 1975 report by the North American Pizza Association, the take-out and dine-in pizza segment of the restaurant business was a $5 billion per year industry. Notice that “delivery” was not included in the analysis; at that time, there were few national pizza chains, and even fewer that provided delivery service. (Domino’s, the first chain whose business model concentrated on pizza delivery, had fewer than 200 stores across the U.S. in 1975, compared to the over 5,000 they have today.) So what was a stuck-at-home person to do when they had a hankering for some Italian pie back in those dark days when microwave ovens weren’t yet a regular kitchen fixture? Interestingly enough, most of the “instant” pizza solutions that were on the market 40 years ago didn’t taste remotely like their restaurant-made cousins, but a lot of folks have fond memories of them and occasionally still crave their pre-packaged flavor.
1. Nabisco Poppins
Nabisco introduced their handy brand of toaster mini-pizzas in 1969. Available in three varieties (cheese, sausage and pepperoni) at around 50 cents for a box of six, Poppins were a reasonable substitute for pizza when Mom would neither go pick up a pie from the local pizzeria nor let you use the oven to cook a frozen one. The two main drawbacks were that, fresh from the freezer, it usually took at least two toasting sessions to heat the slices thoroughly. And, once the pizzas were warmed all the way, the cheese and other toppings tended to slide vertically. The rounded crust caught some of the slippage, but enough ended up on the heating coils of the toaster to lay down an impressive smoke screen the next time Mom made breakfast toast.
2. Buitoni Toasterinos
Buitoni solved the sliding sauce and cheese debacle by encasing their toaster pizzas completely in dough. The first bite guaranteed a searing burn on the roof of the mouth, but fans didn’t care; the little pastries were deliciously addictive in their own unique way (so much so that all these years later there is a Facebook page pleading for a return of this product).
3. Kellogg’s Presto Pizza
Kellogg’s introduced their fruit-filled Pop Tart toaster pastries in 1964, and the rectangular breakfast treat flew off grocers’ shelves as quickly as they could be stocked. The company decided to expand on the concept and presented Presto Pizza in 1971, a non-refrigerated tomato sauce-filled pastry that was similar in everything but name to their Pop Tarts. But Presto Pizza never really caught on for some reason (maybe it was because there was more dough than filling, leaving the end product a little dry and tasteless) and was soon discontinued.
4. Big Al Luccioni’s Pizza Kits
As the spokesman for Iron City Beer, Big Al Luccioni’s smiling mug was a familiar face to Pittsburgh natives in the 1970s. The draft specialist had been working for the Pittsburgh Brewing Company since 1954 and the combination of his outgoing personality and intricate beer expertise led to him appearing in TV commercials and on billboards selling the city’s trademark suds. In the mid-1970s he launched his own line of refrigerated Pizza Kits, which included two olive oil-coated crusts, thick tomato sauce, and four different cheeses.
Big Al’s Kits were primarily an Upper Ohio Valley phenomenon, but even today many Pittsburghers reminisce on “Forgotten Food” forums about the unique flavor combination of the thick, spicy sauce and copious amounts of cheese contained in individual plastic bags (so much that there was plenty to spill during assembly and then clean up afterward).
5. Roman Frozen Pizza
In the early 1970s, 99 cents was considered the price barrier for frozen pizzas. Experts believed that consumers would take the trouble to buy the freshly-made version from a pizzeria rather than pay more than a dollar for a 10-inch frozen pie. Roman Products of New Jersey took a chance, however, when inflation was forcing their costs upward and making a $1.09 or more sticker price inevitable; they added some “deluxe” features to their product to justify the higher price. The company paid some major bucks to the Kelly, Nason advertising agency to perform surveys and assemble focus groups, and among their findings was that the Northeastern States preferred cheese pizza, Chicagoland loved sausage, and Detroit and the surrounding area was pepperoni territory. They also determined that consumers disliked the sometimes messy task of slicing their own pizzas, so another innovation Roman added was pre-slicing their pies into eight pieces, which they packaged in special perforated baking trays. The new, improved Roman frozen pizza debuted in June 1975 at a suggested retail price of $1.49 each. Sadly, the company overspent on all that market research and new packaging. It filed for bankruptcy in September 1975 and dissolved the following year.
6. Libby’s Spread ‘n Heat Pizza
The “Pizza” in the name of this product was a bit misleading; Libby’s Spread ‘n Heat was simply a flavored sauce sold in a smallish can. You had to provide the bread and the cheese. And the cooking process was a little more involved than the standard heat-and-serve convenience food: You first toasted a slice of bread (or an English muffin, if you liked a thicker crust) in the toaster, then slathered on the Libby’s Spread. Next you sprinkled the cheese of your choice on top and popped it into the toaster oven for another two or so minutes. But back in 1975 the folks at Libby’s were betting that consumers would prefer waiting three minutes for a slice of pizza bread versus the 30 minutes it took for a frozen pizza to cook. Libby’s wasn’t wrong with its prediction that consumers would buy a product that allowed them to concoct a reasonable facsimile of pizza out of a hamburger bun (Ragu's Pizza Quick Sauce would take off in the years to come), but for some reason the sauce never took off.