Shake Shack, Born in a Park, Goes Public With Big Dreams

February 6, 2015

SHAKE-tmagArticleBy Michael J. de la Merced and Kim Severson

The New York Times

Copyright 2015 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2015/01/29/shake-shack-born-in-a-park-goes-public-with-big-dreams/?_r=0

Nearly 14 years ago, on something of a lark, the restaurateur Danny Meyer opened a Chicago-style hot dog cart in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, hoping to draw crowds to the park and give summer jobs to the staff at one of his nearby high-end restaurants.

That stand has morphed into Shake Shack, a burger-and-crinkle-fries empire with outposts in London, Dubai, Istanbul and Las Vegas. On Friday, it will begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange with a valuation of about $745 million, and will increase Mr. Meyer’s net worth by about $155 million.

Conceived as a homage to the friendly Midwestern fast-food joints of Mr. Meyer’s childhood, Shake Shack has become one of the most prominent purveyors of fast-casual food. That sector, dominated by the likes of Chipotle, has fundamentally reshaped the fast-food industry with its emphasis on using fresh ingredients. In short, Americans seem willing to pay more for fast food made better, so long as they are still served quickly.

The success of Mr. Meyer’s chain stands in stark contrast to McDonald’s, the global behemoth suffering from its worst slump in more than a decade. The golden-arched restaurant chain announced a change in leadership this week facing sagging sales and a flat stock price, as it struggles to adjust its well-worn menu for modern tastes.

Mr. Meyer, 56, and his team have had no such trouble. Shake Shack has resonated with consumers who grew up on fast food but are both wary and weary of it. Burgers have been enjoying a makeover that began in the late 1990s, as younger eaters have flocked to a new generation of burger chains like Shake Shack, Five Guys and Smashburger.

Mr. Meyer’s chain is part of a new crop of fast-casual restaurants that promote the authenticity of ingredients. Many have since gone public, stirring up investors’ appetites: Shares in Zoës Kitchen have doubled from the chain’s public debut, while those in El Pollo Loco are up 76 percent. The shares of another chain, Habit Restaurants, have risen more than 80 percent since their November debut.

Yet the fast-casual dining sector has become crowded, with a host of new entrants in an already competitive restaurant business. Shake Shack has tripled its store count in just two years, with 63 branches, and now Mr. Meyer and his team must prove they can manage their chain’s explosive growth and weather the public’s fickle tastes.

Shake Shack is rooted in Mr. Meyer’s own culinary experiences. Its origins lie in St. Louis, where he grew up on straightforward food served with Midwestern friendliness at restaurants like the German restaurant Schneithorst’s and Steak ‘n Shake, itself now a 500-restaurant chain.

He also came to love the frozen custard at Ted Drewes, which began selling Christmas trees and frozen custard in the 1930s. That restaurant introduced the concrete, a shake as thick as ice cream with a raft of mix-ins, in 1959; it is now a signature item at Shake Shack.

So integral is the frozen treat to the company’s identity that Mr. Meyer nearly named the hot dog cart ”Custard’s First Stand.” He acknowledges in the stock sale’s prospectus that the name was ”pretty bad.”

But Shake Shack also draws on the lessons Mr. Meyer has learned in his three decades as one of New York’s most successful restaurateurs. His career began in 1985 when, at age 27, he opened the Union Square Cafe as a kind of antithesis to New York restaurants of the time that cultivated exclusivity and excess. The restaurant’s mix of warm service, dishes made with produce bought at the nearby Greenmarket and top-notch food served more casually was groundbreaking.

Since then, hospitality has been the calling card for his empire, which has expanded to what are now fixtures of the New York dining scene: Gramercy Tavern, Blue Smoke and Maialino among them. (Those restaurants are part of a separate company, the Union Square Hospitality Group, that will remain privately held.) The restaurateur has even written a best-selling book, ”Setting the Table,” a primer on customer service.

Even in its prospectus, Shake Shack refers to its customers as ”guests.”

”The thing I learned growing up in St. Louis,” he told St. Louis magazine in 2007, ”was the power of hospitality. The enormously warm feelings of loyalty that come from feeling welcome and being recognized and having the sense that the restaurant is happy to see you.”

That combination of quality ingredients and warm service has proved profitable, though the company is still a relative minnow. Shake Shack reported $5.4 million in net income in 2013 on $82.5 million in sales. Chipotle, by contrast, reported about $327 million in net income on $3.2 billion in sales in the same year.

Still, its success has helped bolster the fortunes of Shake Shack’s owners and close partners. Beyond Mr. Meyer, the top shareholder is Leonard Green & Partners, a Los Angeles private equity firm that invested in the company in 2012. The firm’s partner now on Shake Shack’s board, Jonathan D. Sokoloff, was introduced to Mr. Meyer through top executives at Whole Foods, in which Leonard Green once held a stake. They initially met over dinner at Gramercy Tavern.

Responsible for helping propel the growth of Shake Shack, Leonard Green’s holding in the company is now valued at roughly $193 million.

Shake Shack has even helped transform Pat LaFrieda, which manufactures the company’s secret burger blend, from a local artisanal butcher into a nationally lauded purveyor of quality beef.

But Shake Shack’s ambitious expansion plans — the chain plans to open at least 10 company-owned restaurants in the United States each fiscal year — may threaten the high level of hospitality the company is known for.

Mr. Meyer’s original network of restaurants was opened within a tight radius within New York City, so that the restaurateur could walk between them and ensure that each was up to par. That hasn’t been possible with Shake Shack for some time, and its increasingly far-flung locations risk eroding that quality of service.

Already, its Manhattan-based locations are more profitable than its other branches, reporting 31 percent operating profit margins compared with 21 percent for non-Manhattan restaurants.

Another potential problem is that the so-called ”better burger” slice of the fast-casual market is getting crowded, according to Darren Tristano, an analyst at the research firm Technomic. While the market may grow from $3 billion to $5 billion, he argued, it won’t grow much more — and consumers may slowly lose their hunger for burgers.

”I wouldn’t necessarily call them unique or the best, but they are a very well-positioned burger concept with good service,” Mr. Tristano said. ”They’re not that much different from regional players.”

But Shake Shack is wagering that hungry customers will beg to differ.

”When Shake Shack opened up a block from my house,” the chef Anthony Bourdain said in 2011, ”I dropped to my knees and wept with gratitude.”

This is a more complete version of the story than the one that appeared in print.


Pizza Hut Risks Becoming ‘Pizza What?’ with Bold Rebranding Effort

December 31, 2014

© 2014 Central Penn Business Journal. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

Go big, or go home.

It’s a catchy phrase. It glorifies the daring move, making a splash, going all in for the win. It even concedes that it might not work. And it’s a risky strategy for an established brand like Pizza Hut.

Here’s a quick summary: Pizza Hut same-store sales have declined for two years. Its parent company, Yum Brands, has seen growth for its Taco Bell and KFC units, but Pizza Hut hasn’t kept up. Archenemy Domino’s seems to be eating Pizza Hut’s lunch with decent sales increases, even though it does not have a sit-down casual dining option.

So, Pizza Hut has launched a rebranding effort that consists of a new logo (more on that later), a completely revamped menu, with a much wider range of toppings and crust flavoring options, and a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign called the “Flavor of Now,” in which its new pizza combos are tested by Old World Italians and flatly rejected as “not pizza.”

Pizza Hut seems to be counting on millennials to bite on the classic reverse psychology presented in the spots as a joke.

“This is the biggest change we’ve ever made,” Carrie Walsh, chief marketing officer of Pizza Hut, said in an interview with USA Today. “We’re redefining the category.”

But, in changing so much about the brand in one fell swoop, is it trying to do too much? After all, this isn’t just adding stuffed crust as an option. This also takes away a great deal of what makes the brand familiar to its core audience.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, the restaurant industry research firm, responded in the same USA Today story in this way: “Pizza Hut may be doing too much too quickly. It would appear that the brand that has lost touch with the consumer is trying to change too much overnight.”

All told, Pizza Hut will add 11 new pizza recipes, 10 new crust flavors, six new sauces, five new toppings, four new flavor-pack drizzles, that new logo, new uniforms, a new pizza box and a partridge in a pear tree.

That Pizza Hut is going big, there is no doubt. But there are risks, starting with its core customers. This isn’t New Coke, but will its loyal customer base be thrown by so much change?

While I’m not sure Old World Italians would think that Pizza Hut’s previous offerings were any more worthy of their blessing, it is a product that’s been more or less established for decades. So, there is some risk that the new menu, which replaces some items, will alienate a percentage of its customers and drive them to try other options.

Let’s say that number is 5 percent of sales. That’s a big chunk to overcome with sales from new customers just to break even on this venture.

The second risk is that, with so much change, will it be possible to tell what’s working and what’s not? The chain has more than doubled its available ingredients at all of its 6,300 locations. Will it be possible to tell which combinations are working well when there will be so many possibilities? Maybe not.

But maybe it won’t matter. If the pizza-makers at the country’s leading pizza chain can manage all the extra ingredients and make what will be essentially custom pizzas for anyone who wants one, Pizza Hut could be on to something. Personalized menu items are working for Chipotle and Panera, so why not take a shot at riding the wave? It can always moonwalk its menu back to where it came from if it doesn’t move the needle. It’s got Pizza Hut Classics in its back pocket just in case, right?

Now, about the new logo. It’s great to signal a rebranding effort with an updated logo. People take notice. It makes them curious. And this one uses a mark that resembles a pizza, or, more accurately, the sauce of a pizza, which puts the product front and center.

The part that gets me is that the roofline “hut” image from the old logo has been dropped in the middle of the sauce. Now it looks like a hat, not a roof. Unless it’s supposed to be one of the new toppings, it just looks like pieces of the logo have been redistributed.

Pizza Hat, anyone? Or Pizza What? In a few months, we’ll know whether this little pizza rebrand went to market or if it went all the way home.

But there are risks, starting with its core customers.


Carl’s Jr. Revolutionizes Fast Food with New All-Natural Burger

December 15, 2014

(c) 2014 Business Wire. All Rights Reserved.temp_image_445085_3

New All-Natural Burger features the first all-natural, no added hormones, no antibiotics, no steroids, grass-fed, free-range beef patty from a major fast food company

Today, Carl’s Jr.(R) announced the All-Natural Burger, featuring an all-natural, grass-fed, free-range beef patty that has no added hormones, antibiotics or steroids. With the introduction of the All-Natural Burger, Carl’s Jr. is the first major fast-food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty on the menu. The All-Natural Burger will be available in participating Carl’s Jr. locations beginning Wednesday, Dec. 17 and features the charbroiled, all-natural beef patty topped with a slice of natural cheddar cheese, vine-ripened tomatoes, red onion, lettuce, bread-and-butter pickles, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, all served on the brand’s signature Fresh Baked Buns.

The Carl’s Jr. All-Natural Burger features an all-natural, grass-fed, free-range beef patty that has no added hormones, antibiotics or steroids. With the introduction of the All-Natural Burger, Carl’s Jr. is the first major fast-food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty on the menu.

“We’ve seen a growing demand for ‘cleaner,’ more natural food, particularly among Millennials, and we’re proud to be the first major fast food chain to offer an all-natural beef patty burger on our menu,” said Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl’s Jr. “Millennials include our target of ‘Young Hungry Guys’ and they are much more concerned about what goes into their bodies than previous generations. The new All-Natural Burger was developed specifically with them in mind. It features grass-fed, free-range beef that’s raised with no antibiotics, no steroids and no added hormones. The charbroiled All-Natural Burger also has a slice of natural cheddar cheese, vine-ripened tomatoes, lettuce, red onion, bread-and-butter pickles, the classic trio of condiments – ketchup, mustard and mayo – and it’s all served on one of our Fresh Baked Buns that we bake fresh inside our restaurants every day. Whether you’re into more natural foods or not, it’s simply a damn good burger.”

“Greater awareness for health and wellness is driving the growth in healthful menu items, yet our research indicates that the majority of consumers still opt for more indulgent food,” said Darren Tristano, EVP of Technomic Inc. “The push and pull between healthfulness and indulgence makes an All-Natural Burger on-trend. All-natural products also have a ‘health halo’ impact and often help consumers feel confident that they are getting a product better for them and from a source they can feel good about.”

The new All-Natural Burger is available as a single all-natural beef burger for $4.69, as a double burger for $6.99, and may be ordered in a combo meal with fries and a drink. Guests may also substitute the all-natural patty on any burger on the menu for an additional charge. Prices may vary by location. For a limited time, visit carlsjr.com/coupons to download a coupon for $1 off any All-Natural Burger combo meal, valid at participating locations.

The new burger will be supported by an advertising campaign created by Los Angeles- and Amsterdam-based creative agency, 72andSunny. The first of two TV spots will begin airing on Dec. 29 with an additional commercial to debut Feb. 2015 during the super big football game many will be watching.


A Big Production

December 12, 2014

Legacy chains employ large-scale marketing stunts to generate long-term buzz.tim-hortons_2

This summer, Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons made quite the splash: The brand covered one of its Québec locations in blackout materials to promote its new dark roast coffee. Equipped with night-vision goggles, employees handed guests samples of the brew, and the action was all captured in two-minute videos, later posted on YouTube to the tune of 2.6 million–plus views.

Tim Hortons’ head marketer, Peter Nowlan, found the experience a big success for the chain. “The dark roast is Tim Hortons’ first new blend in the company’s 50-year history, and we wanted to put it to the ultimate test: allowing guests to try it in the dark, limiting their sense of sight, and enhancing their senses of taste and smell,” he says.

Large-scale marketing stunts like these are few and far between, but when a quick-service brand does employ them, consumers take note.

“Many brands, especially older legacy brands, have to work harder to stay relevant to a younger generation of less loyal customers constantly looking for what’s cool and what’s next,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic. Whatever the expense to companies may be, the resulting public-relations blitz usually pays dividends, he adds.

Advertisers today are focusing heavily on social media and buzz marketing, so anything a brand does locally on a grand scale will likely be shared and tweeted to people far and wide, Tristano says. “This reminds consumers about brands and their role within the restaurant industry,” he says.


Should Domino’s and Papa John’s Fear Pizza Hut’s Big Menu Changes?

November 21, 2014

Until now the differences between Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM) Pizza Hut, Domino’s (NYSE: DPZ), and Papa John’s (NASDAQ: PZZA) have been mostly a matter of personal preference. Aside from the occasional special offer or novelty pie, all three chains offer a basic take on pizza.

That has changed as Pizza Hut, the lagging member of this trio of mediocre national pizza purveyors, has radically overhauled its menu. The company, which in recent years has resorted to stuffing cheese into its crusts, has added a wealth of new choices built on the idea that customers want customization. It’s pizza on the Chipotle model with choices including 10 different crust flavors, six sauces, and a variety of new toppings.

Favorites like the Meat Lover’s Pizza will remain, but customers will now be able to order it with a variety of enhancements. So, for people who want their pepperoni and sausage with honey Sriracha sauce and “Ginger Boom Boom” or “Curried Away” crust, Pizza Hut will have it for them.

Why is Pizza Hut doing this?
Pizza Hut has reported sales declines for each of the last eight quarters and this new menu is an attempt to turn things around. “This is the biggest change we’ve ever made,” Chief Marketing Officer Carrie Walsh told USA TODAY. “We’re redefining the category.”

Pizza Hut needed to do something; as it has struggled, Domino’s and Papa John’s have been chugging along nicely. In the third quarter Domino’s posted 7.7% domestic same-store sales growth year over year and growth of 7.1% internationally, marking the 83rd consecutive quarter of international same-store sales growth. In its third quarter, Papa John’s posted a 7.4% gain in its North American stores while gaining 5.5% internationally.

Will it work?
One industry analyst told USA Today the chain might be trying to do too much too fast. “It would appear that the brand that has lost touch with the consumer is trying to change too much overnight,” Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, was quoted as saying.

Pizza Hut might be aiming to please customers with a shift to Chipotle-like customization, but it’s going to be a challenge for a Yum! Brands property to gain a similar reputation. Chipotle has succeeded not just because it offers customization, but because it has a well-known commitment to quality food. Neither Pizza Hut nor sister chains Taco Bell and KFC have reputations based on offering good food. Pizza Hut may find that simply adding trendy flavors like Sriracha may not be enough to win quality-conscious millennials.

On the plus side, the chain will be adding new toppings including banana peppers, cherry peppers, and spinach. On the negative, filed under “please don’t insult our intelligence,” the pizza purveyor will be renaming a number of its standard toppings, ostensibly to make them more appealing. The customer who cares where Chipotle sources its beef from may not be fooled by Pizza Hut renaming black olives as “Mediterranean black olives” or red onions being dubbed “fresh red onions,” even though nothing has changed.

Can Pizza Hut be reinvented?
While Domino’s rebuilt its brand by revamping its pizza a few years ago, the company just improved its recipe, it did not radically change its menu. What Pizza Hut is doing amounts to a massive change in direction, an attempt to differentiate itself from its two major competitors.

Pizza Hut’s moves might even send some of its customers running for its rivals. Though the chain will still be selling “normal” pizzas, it runs the risk of confusing people who just want a plain old pepperoni pie and do not want to have to wade through a wealth of options. Those customers may well switch to Domino’s or Papa Johns.

The potential gain however is not in stealing traditional, undiscerning pizza eaters from its rivals, it’s a bigger growth strategy of winning over fast-casual diners not necessarily looking for pizza. Domino’s and Papa John’s have largely penned themselves in to a specific audience — people who want familiar pizzas cheaply.
Pizza Hut is looking to break the mold and widen its potential customer base — a move that could push it ahead of its rivals. That is a huge risk because the company could scare away its existing customers while failing to win new ones. For this to work the brand has to win customers not just from its pizza rivals, but from fast-casual restaurants including Chipotle, which have a higher perceived quality.

To do that, Pizza Hut needs to up its game. It’s one thing to offer more choice, but a lousy salted caramel organic beet pizza with an artisanal cheese crust won’t be successful just because it has a lot of trendy words attached to it.

To make this new offering, which rolls out Nov. 19, work, the company is going to need to actually deliver quality pizza that people want to come back for. Fancily named olives and balsamic drizzles won’t be able to disguise a mediocre pie.


Pizza Hut Revamps Menu, Brand

November 19, 2014

pictureBruce Horovitz, USA TODAY

Pizza Hut is rebooting itself for a new generation of pizza eaters.

Following two years of disappointing sales as consumers sought even more exotic flavors and personalized options, the world’s largest pizza chain on Monday will announce plans to turn upside down almost every facet of its identity.

Pizza Hut will focus on dozens of new flavor options as it mounts the 56-year-old brand’s biggest-ever redo. It will add 11 new pizza recipes, 10 new crust flavors, six new sauces, five new toppings, four new flavor-pack drizzles, a new logo, new uniforms and, yes, even a new pizza box.

For those keeping count, the chain is more than doubling its available ingredients at all 6,300 U.S. locations beginning Nov. 19.

“This is the biggest change we’ve ever made,” Carrie Walsh, chief marketing officer, says in a telephone interview. “We’re redefining the category.”

The ongoing tailspin — eight consecutive quarters of same-store sales declines — recently resulted in a management reshuffle. David Gibbs, who has been U.S president, was named CEO last week. He was not available for this story.

Even the chain’s sister brands at Yum Brands — Taco Bell and KFC — generally have been growing, but Pizza Hut seems to have hit a wall. Will these changes be enough to heal an ailing brand? Or, perhaps, are they too many, too late?

“Pizza Hut may be doing too much too quickly,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, the restaurant industry research specialist. “It would appear that the brand that has lost touch with the consumer is trying to change too much overnight.” He suggests a more gradual approach because, among other things, all of these changes could particularly confuse the chain’s traditional customers.

Not so, says Walsh. Pizza Hut researched “hundreds” of ingredients, she says. “These are the ones customers told us they want.”

It’s not the first time a major pizza chain tried to quickly reinvent itself. Back in 2009, Domino’s, which had taken plenty of public grief for the taste of its pizza, changed everything in the recipe of its core pizza. New sauce. New crust. New cheese. It turned out to be a hit.

In this case, however, Pizza Hut is not changing its core recipe. Instead, it’s adding many, many more choices.

How many? Who’s counting. But consider this: There will now be about 1,000 ways to customize something as basic as a pepperoni pizza at Pizza Hut, says Walsh.

Among Pizza Hut’s new offerings, it’s going from:
• One crust choice to 10, including salted pretzel and honey sriracha.
• One sauce choice to six, including garlic Parmesan and Buffalo.
• Zero “premium” toppings to five, including sliced banana peppers and Peruvian cherry peppers.
• Zero “drizzles” to five, which are basically sauces like Buffalo and balsamic that are lightly drizzled on the top of the pizza after it’s baked.
• Six special recipes to 22, including 7-Alarm Fire (loaded with peppers and jalapeno) to Giddy-Up Barbecue Chicken (with chicken and bacon and barbecue sauce.)

It also will nationally roll-out a so-called Skinny Slice pizza line — with five offerings at about 250 calories per slice.

To announce the change, the chain will launch its largest-ever advertising campaign dubbed “The Flavor of Now,” says Walsh, though she declines to provide details. There’s even a possibility that the chain, which hasn’t advertised during a Super Bowl in 15 years, is considering such a move for the upcoming big game on Feb. 1.

“We’re looking,” says Walsh. “This change deserves a big statement.”


What Pizza Hut’s Radical New Menu Actually Tastes Like

November 18, 2014

Depends how you feel about honey sriracha crust and balsamic drizzlesPizza Hut Menu Launch Press Event in NYC
The half-dozen servers were dressed in all black, down to the sleek leather gloves they wore as they doled out slices of Pretzel Piggy, Old Fashioned Meatbrawl and Cherry Pepper Bombshell. On the side: balsamic, buffalo, BBQ and honey sriracha sauces, or in Pizza Hut’s new parlance, “drizzles.” All of it was surrounded by a new logo, new delivery boxes, new casual-looking uniforms, and a new motto: “The Flavor of Now.”

This is the new, at times unrecognizable, Pizza Hut. Or, at least, it was the one shown to members of the media Monday afternoon to mark what David Gibbs, the company’s newly installed CEO, calls “one of the biggest moves we’ve ever made in our history.”

On Nov. 19, Pizza Hut will essentially relaunch its entire brand, changing the food it serves, the way its ordered and even the company logo. There are 11 new signature pizzas, six new sauces, 10 new crust flavors and four drizzles — enough options to allow for 2 billion unique pizza combinations. For the company known for trencherman staples like Stuffed Crust, Meat Lover’s and Supreme, the new menu is the fast-food equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

“It’s a fear of irrelevance,” says Darren Tristano, a food industry analyst at Technomic. “But the potential to negatively influence their current customer base is certainly there.”

It’s a risk Pizza Hut is willing to take, though they’re hedging bets by keeping those old favorites on the menu. Sales at the nation’s largest pizza chain have been dropping for two years, as Domino’s, Little Caesars and Papa John’s—the No. 2, 3 and 4 chains, respectively—have cut into Pizza Hut’s business. Regional build-your-own pizza chains like Blaze and Pieology and customization-heavy fast-casual brands like Chipotle are also luring diners from the pan pizza depot.

“America’s tastes are changing,” Gibbs says. “People are interested in bold new flavors. It’s a pretty natural move to be the one to take the pizza category where nobody’s taken it before with all these new flavors and ingredients.”

Domino’s offered a template in 2009, when the company admitted that its sauce and crust weren’t that great and invited customers to taste the new version. They bolstered their campaign with an updated social media presence and smoother online ordering to cater to millennials. Sales have soared since, which is as much a reason for Pizza Hut drizzling hot sauce on garlic crusts as anything.

So what does the “flavor of now” taste like? Thankfully, better than it sounds (The Cock-a-Doodle Bacon. Why?).

We started with Pizza Hut’s new asiago breadsticks alongside four dipping sauces: balsamic, BBQ, buffalo and honey sriracha. They’re miles from your basic marinara or cheese sauce, but not necessarily for the better. Whether dipping in the sweet but mild balsamic, tangy, molasses-heavy BBQ, unmemorable buffalo or lightly spicy honey sriracha, my asiago sticks longed for a red sauce.

The newfangled pizzas tended to come together better. The Cock-a-Doodle Bacon pie is spread with a creamy garlic parmesan sauce topped with grilled chicken and bacon. The riff on Alfredo is rich enough that you don’t miss the marinara.

The Old Fashioned Meatbrawl is a reasonably restrained update on the classic topping: the meatballs are small enough not to dominate each bite, and a garlic crust adds an extra salty pop.

Cherry Pepper Bombshell is also better than it sounds. The cherry peppers and balsamic drizzle add a sweet punch that goes well with meaty salami. But the shower of fresh spinach on top didn’t add much. It felt similarly unnecessary on the Pretzel Piggy, which is one of the most convoluted combinations on the new signature menu. A salted pretzel crust with the creamy garlic parmesan sauce from the Cock-a-Doodle is topped with bacon, mushrooms and spinach and then finished with a balsamic drizzle. It worked, kind of, though you’d need to be in a particular kind of mood to take one down solo.

The custom crusts are Pizza Hut’s attempt to make choosing your dough as common as picking your toppings. Of the two new ones I tried, the Ginger Boom Boom crust—with regular cheese and marinara—was subtle, a bit garlicky, with only a mildly taste of ginger. The honey sriracha crust (with a pepperoni topping), meanwhile, was sticky and a bit too overpowering.

So is this really what millennials crave? Maybe. Pizza Hut will likely cast off a kicked-up drizzle, flavor-dusted crust or meatbrawl pie if it turns out it isn’t selling. Besides, it’s not as if Pizza Hut is a sauce and dough purist.

“We’ve always been the one taking the category to new places,” says Gibbs, Pizza Hut’s CEO. “Yes, the younger customers are more interested than the older demographics in experimenting with flavor. But I think across all demographics, there’s something on the menu for everybody.”


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