How LaRosa’s developed the new plant-based pizzas on its menus this week

Cincinnati’s hometown purveyor of pepperoni, LaRosa’s, is going vegan.

This week, the 67-year-old pizza maker will roll out plant-based options for its pies at all 66 of its stores.

The launch has been a few years in development, as the company fielded requests from some of its customers and tested different products, trying to get as close as it could to the taste and feel of real pepperoni, Italian sausage, and provolone cheese.

“People that are on a flexitarian diet or a plant-based exploration want something that looks like the real thing,” says Connie Banning, LaRosa’s research and development chef. “They want something they can identify with.”

After a couple years of trial, Banning found suppliers who can deliver vegan pepperoni, vegan sausage, and vegan cheese that blend with LaRosa’s sauce and crusts and bake well in the pizza ovens. She also found a supplier for meatless chicken. It’s made with egg whites, but will satisfy someone on a vegetarian or flexitarian diet.

LaRosa’s pizza crusts and its sauces already qualify as vegan, the company says.
At a taste test at LaRosa’s test kitchen at its Boudinot Avenue location, the products were close in taste and texture to the real thing, especially when baked into a pizza.

The search for plant-based substitutes started with customers asking for vegan cheese, and evolved from there, says Mark LaRosa, the company’s president and chief culinary officer.

Finding the product sources was just the beginning of working the options into LaRosa’s menu, he says.

“We had to figure out if our team members can work with them in the kitchens and how our guests are going to respond,” LaRosa says.

He chose the stores in White Oak and Hyde Park, where the options have been available since March, to test customers’ reaction and to see how they performed in the kitchen. Putting pepperoni slices on pizzas is one of the most time-consuming tasks in the kitchens, Banning says. They needed a substitute that wouldn’t fall apart and could be handled quickly.

Fliers were inserted into the menus at the test stores and customers of those locations who had opted in for emails from the company received surveys seeking their reactions.

“The first four weeks we had really good sales, and we had great customer feedback,” LaRosa says. “We got hundreds of responses through the surveys and we were right on target with what our guests were asking for.”
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David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.