The Untold Truth Of Red Baron Pizza

Frozen pizzas have come a long way since their early-1950s regional roots — in fact, in March 2020 alone, U.S. frozen pizza raked in $275 million in sales, a 92 percent increase from the same time in 2019 (via CNBC). The intervening decades would see national rollouts (and frenzied purchases) of the newfangled convenience product from brands like Totino's, Mama Celeste, and Tombstone. Schwan's Sales Enterprises (now Schwan's Company) — makers of Red Baron pizza — didn't enter the frozen pizza market until 1970 when it purchased Tony's, a Kansas-based brand, by placing an ad in The Wall Street Journal.

Still, the company demonstrated a fast focus on its new category. Schwan's was providing its pizzas to schools and other venues by 1975, and its Consumer Brands division introduced Red Baron a year later, in 1976. "The quality of the new product catches on quick with consumers and grows to become the company's best-selling pizza brand," Schwan's reports. By 1979, marketing efforts for the brand even took to the skies, as the company formed its Red Baron Squadron of planes, manned by daredevil pilots.

But just as the pizza's flying namesake encountered trouble after a successful run decades earlier, eventually, the squadron of planes would experience its own difficult times.

Who was the Red Baron?

According to History.com, the original Red Baron was Manfred von Richthofen, hailed as "a German fighter pilot who was the deadliest flying ace of World War I." Flying planes painted bright red (the inspiration for his nickname), he shot down a whopping 80 aircraft flown by Allied forces over a span of mere months — a feat that was even honored by Allied forces, his former enemies, upon his death in 1918 at only 25 years old.

Though Chuck Blomberg, a spokesman for Schwan's, told The Wall Street Journal in 2015 that the Red Baron pizza logo celebrated the pilot's "attention to detail" and personification of "strength and romance," he also emphasized, "Any similarities in appearance between our baron and an actual person would be coincidental" (via Mel Magazine).

However, that didn't stop the company from piggybacking on that history by introducing the Red Baron Squadron, which tapped vintage planes as a high-flying marketing tool for the budding brand (via American Heritage). Though originally envisioned as a six-month promotional kick-starter, the planes immediately took off (no pun intended) among pizza fans and were kept in action for almost 30 years.

The Red Baron Squadron flies high before disbanding

According to Aerobatic Teams, the Red Baron Squadron helped spread the pizza gospel via four Boeing Stearman biplanes that sported red and white paint, high-horsepower engines, and a special system installed to enable upside-down flying.

In 1993, the Chicago Tribune reported that the pilots were required to receive intensive training for their rigorous show schedule — up to 60 times per year at air shows around the country. The team maintained a charitable aspect, too: In every town the squadron visited, the Red Baron brand donated a percentage of its local pizza sales to a designated charity in the community.

But the death-defying "aerobatic" feats from the Red Baron Squadron didn't always generate positive publicity. Aerobatic Teams reports that two pilots died during a dangerous maneuver in 1998, while another pilot lost his life in 1999 after a crash.

Despite Schwan's claim that it was "the longest-serving civilian aerobatic team in the United States," boasting 80,000-plus passengers over its lifetime, the Red Baron Squadron eventually lost steam. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association notes that in December 2007, Schwan's decided to "move in a new marketing direction due to changes in retail food sales" and halted the air shows.

The planes and equipment were sold via auction. But today, there's still a museum (opened in 2004) that honors the Red Baron's fleet of biplanes, now located at the Red Baron Pizza Squadron hangar at the airport in Marshall, Minnesota (via American Heritage).

Red Baron modernizes its image

Schwan's, which also owns Freschetta, still has a hit on its hands with the Red Baron brand. CNBC reported last May that it remains "one of the country's leading frozen pizza brands," raking in more than $570 million in yearly sales, according to 2017 stats. And, since Schwan's was an early innovator in selling pizzas to schools in the '70s, after 40 years of that effort, the company had sewn up 70 percent of that lucrative market.

In 2016, the company stated in a press release it was celebrating 40 years of success (and its presence in 27 million American homes every year) with a "40-week, digital-first marketing campaign" that spanned social media, bloggers, influencers, and digital and national TV ads. Then, to appeal to moms in 2017, its uber-masculine pilot mascot received a feminine makeover with the launch of The Baroness, described by the company as "a modern-day wing mom to help families manage mealtime chaos."

Though it might dwell somewhere in the middle of frozen pizza rankings by taste, it's also performed surprisingly well in some taste tests, even versus far pricier brands (via Delish). And, if nothing else, Red Baron's product selection seems to offer something for everyone — crusts in Classic, Brick Oven, and Thin & Crispy; Deep Dish Singles and Minis; French Bread Singles; breakfast-inspired Scrambles varieties, and even new sandwiches called Pizza Melts. Because let's face it: there can never be too many pizza-type options in the frozen aisle.