Dec. 8, 2010 -- Pizza has thrown a flying wedge at the worst recession since the Great Depression.
The recipe for surviving -- even thriving -- in the current economy may be less tax cut extension and more bubbling cheese, savory tomato sauce and chewy crust.
This year, the 65,000 pizza parlors in the U.S. are doing a booming business, with Americans ordering 5.5 billion pies every day. The slice is remarkably resistant to the recession.
"It's such a cheap meal – a large pizza for a family of four is an easy indulgence," said comfort food expert Brian Wansink, professor of marketing at Cornell University and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think."
Pizza ranks No. 5 as a top American comfort food, after potato chips, ice cream, cookies and candy, said Wansick. More men than women put pizza on their list of comfort foods since they associate meal-related foods with being cared for by a mother or wife, he said.
Soul soothing as pizza may be to people who have lost jobs and economic security, it has also served as a flotation device for big food corporations floundering in the sluggish economy. Last year, Pizza Hut introduced a $10 large pie with up to three toppings. Now Pizza Hut's business is up 8 percent in the last quarter. Domino's Pizza started offering two medium pies for $5.99 each. The company's sales jumped 11.7 percent in the third quarter.
In these lean times, smaller pizza parlors may not be seeing fat profits but they are surviving – and even expanding.
"We've opened up five locations in the past year and a half," said Brian Harley, director of operations for 99-Cent Fresh Pizza in New York City. The cost of a slice is 99 cents – far cheaper than the $1.50 fee to use a sidewalk A.T.M. to pay the pizzeria cashier.
That bargain basement price for a little slice of heaven begs the question – how's it taste?
"Does it taste cheaper? I wouldn't say this is high quality pizza. But it's not bad pizza either. I mean, you get your buck's worth. It's not the worst," Harley told ABC News.
Slice Bucks Recession
With the cost of dough, cheese and sauce, the company's profit is about 30 cents per slice, he said. Each location sells an average of 500 pies -- 4,000 slices -- per day, Harley said.
On the other end of the spectrum is the old school pie baked in the ovens of DiFara Pizzeria in Brooklyn. Topped with three types of cheese, enhanced with extra virgin olive oil, a single slice sells for $5.
Long-time owner Dominick DeMarco said his booming business hasn't skipped a beat -- even with the economy flat-lining.
"Never feel it!" said DeMarco, who said business was "very good." Asked whether he felt lucky to be doing so well in a recession, DeMarco smiled broadly and said, "Yes, I am."
Success has wended its way upward to the next tier in the restaurant business, the casual dining sector. At Uno Chicago Grill, which has expanded its menu to include "artisanal fare" like lemon basil salmon, CEO Frank Guidara said it was pizza that helped keep the restaurant chain afloat during the recession. People who want to splurge feel like they're going out to a restaurant, even if pizza is the only thing on the menu within their budget.
"Pizza in everybody's mind is affordable. As a full service restaurant, a lot of people come to us because they know we have pizza and they can afford pizza – no matter what the economy is," Guidara said.
In another sign of the times, the restaurant has taken steps to make pizza as inclusive as possible by creating an all natural thin crust pie, a five-grain pie and a gluten-free pie.