Forget football. Food will also be front and center this Super Bowl Sunday -- the second biggest eating holiday of the year second only to Thanksgiving. And while chicken wings, chips and dip are game-day favorites, pizza is always in hot demand. In a survey by the National Restaurant Association, 61% of people said pizza was a "must have" item for the big event.
"It's the ultimate fun party food," says Brandon Gorin, owner of two Marco's Pizza franchises near Indianapolis. He should know. Prior to opening his stores last year, Gorin was an offensive tackle in the National Football League and took home two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots. "We're gearing up for a very big night," he says.
In fact, the Super Bowl is the biggest day of the year for most pizza franchises. Domino's, for example, expects to sell more than 11 million slices of pizza -- 80% more than a typical Sunday. Papa John's, which is the official pizza of this year's bowl, will give out free pizza and Pepsi to its rewards members if online voters successfully predict which team will win the coin toss.
Of course, pizza's appeal isn't just during football season. Overall, "these concepts are doing very well," says Keith Hudson, president and CEO of Charter Franchise Group, a Houston franchise consultancy, adding that pizza's low cost has worked in its favor in the post-recession years. Meanwhile, the top pizza chains have improved their game plans with streamlined ordering and efficient delivery systems, he adds.
Still, would-be franchisees need to tread carefully in this crowded category, starting by knowing what concepts will work best in their markets, whether it's delivery, take-out, buffet or a full-service restaurant. One thing to watch out for is excessive couponing. "If you're constantly having to get people in the door with coupons, it's a money loser," says Hudson.
Likewise, too many exotic toppings can eat into the bottom line. "The pizza concepts that have done best are the ones that don't get into too many high-end ingredients," he says.
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Prior to buying his franchises Gorin looked at everything from self-serve yogurt and gourmet burgers to kids' bounce houses, but was most impressed with Marco's menu, marketing and growth potential. "I wanted to use something where my football background would lend some advantage," says Gorin. "Pizza seemed like a great fit."
Here are the top 10 pizza chains from Entrepreneur's Franchise 500 list, as measured by such factors as financial strength and stability, growth rate, breadth, experience and startup costs.