Local Sourcing, Quality Ingredients Take Center Stage

November 26, 2014

featureimagestephanieizardAmericans are voicing increased concerns about the foods they put in their bodies, a message that is being heard — and responded to — by chefs and restaurateurs across the country.
Menumakers are striving to render the dining experience more transparent by addressing such consumer queries as where does their food come from, what’s in it and how is it made. At the same time, many are modifying their menus and purchasing strategies, and stepping up the use of ingredients that are of superior quality, locally sourced, pristinely fresh, free of additives and generally perceived as being more healthful.

Industry experts regard this intensifying focus on ingredients and sourcing as the direction many more restaurateurs will be taking in the future. “It’s not a fad, it’s a long-term trend,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president-foodservice strategies for WD Partners in Columbus, Ohio. “We will continue to see [the use of] better ingredients and more transparency as to where these ingredients come from.”

Local ingredient sourcing — which also encompasses the burgeoning farm-to-table movement — is gaining traction throughout the industry. Many chefs and restaurateurs are purchasing their produce, meats, dairy products, seafood and alcoholic beverages from area farmers and other local suppliers, often emphasizing the provenance of such foods and beverages on their menus or via their serving staff. A growing number of consumers have come to associate the trend with the serving of fresher, more wholesome and authentic ingredients, and now expect to find it in certain dining experiences, most notably in higher end restaurants.

“It’s increasingly important,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. in Chicago, “especially to the Millennial generation.”

Technomic cited “micro-local” as being one of 10 foodservice trends to look forward to in 2015, while “locally sourced meats and seafood” and “locally grown produce” ranked in first and second place, respectively, in the National Restaurant Association’s Top 20 trends for 2014. Hyper-local sourcing — such as from restaurant gardens — was No. 6 and farm/estate branded items was No. 10.

Datassential also finds that Americans are warming to the idea of local sourcing and the focus on better-quality products. The research firm says 84 percent of consumers believe it is increasingly important for chains to offer fresh, local, organic, and/or natural ingredients. “Instead of basics, we’re seeing more premium, interesting ingredients and flavors showing up on menus,” says Datassential senior director Jana Mann.

However, Technomic’s Tristano maintains that the local sourcing trend must gain yet even more traction before it seriously impacts most consumers’ ordering behavior. “It’s important now, but when it comes down to changing the behavior of the majority of Americans, it’s not quite there yet,” he says. “Only 40 percent of consumers indicate that local sourcing influences their behavior. It’s three to five years off before local goes from a ‘nice-to-do’ to a ‘must-do.’

“But, yes,” he adds, “we expect to see more of it.”

The trend — whose influence varies depending upon the type of restaurant — is being fueled by an increasingly food-savvy public that wants to know more about what is being served to them and is prompting chefs and restaurateurs to trade up to better-quality ingredients.

As part of the movement, some chefs have aligned themselves closely with suppliers and products they believe reflect their restaurant’s philosophy and commitment to quality food preparation. Restaurants like Savory Maine in Damariscotta, Maine, and Farmhouse Tavern in Chicago make local products the stars of their menus. Savory Maine, for instance, says 90 percent of its products are state-sourced, while FarmHouse Tavern sources its ingredients from farmers, brewers and suppliers in states along the Lake Michigan shoreline, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.

Stephanie Izard, executive chef and co-owner of Girl & The Goat and Little Goat Diner in Chicago, is a long-time advocate of farm-to-table dishes. She has partnered with Kraft Foodservice’s Philadelphia Cream Cheese and showcases the versatile dairy product in a range of sweet and savory dishes. Izard won a James Beard Award in 2013 as “Best New Chef: Great Lakes,” and is the winner of the fourth season of Top Chef, Bravo’s cooking competition show.

While local sourcing and the trend toward menuing authentic ingredients has already spread throughout the higher end restaurant community, it also is making itself felt among chain operators as well. Ype Von Hengst, co-founder, executive chef and vice president culinary operations of Silver Diner, the 15-unit regional casual-dining concept based in Rockville, Md., says he makes his menu as local as possible.

“It supports the local economy, creates jobs and often gives me a fresher, better product,” he says.

Von Hengst purchases produce and fruit from nearby suppliers in Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, dairy products from Pennsylvania, flat iron steaks from Maryland and Virginia, and fresh lamb burgers from Pennsylvania. Since Silver Diner began emphasizing better-quality local ingredients, Von Hengst says the concept has enjoyed 57 months of increasing sales. “That tells you the consumer appreciates what we’ve done with local products,” he says.

He says the public’s growing knowledge of food also is impacting the trend toward the use of “real” ingredients. “People don’t want to see food additives or artificial chemicals or flavorings,” he says. “So our goal is to make food as pure and wholesome as possible.”

One of Silver Diner’s top-selling dishes is a roasted vegetable salad with champagne dressing that showcases such local produce as butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and beets. “People know about better ingredients and are switching to healthier foods,” he says.

For some operators, local sourcing and the use of higher caliber, “real” ingredients can fulfill another role in a restaurant’s mission. Walter Staib, chef-proprietor of historic City Tavern in Philadelphia, says the farm-to-table movement forms an integral component in the 240-year-old restaurant’s effort to recreate authentic dishes from the American Colonial period.

“Whenever we can buy from Amish farms in Lancaster County or farms in New Jersey or other local vendors, we do,” Staib says. “Freshness and quality are very important to us.”

So is historical verisimilitude, he adds, noting that the Tavern tries to use only ingredients that might have been served in Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th centuries. For example, Staib says the restaurant uses many pounds of cream cheese, which was introduced into the region by the area’s original German settlers. In addition to being featured in such desserts as cheesecake, City Tavern offers savory dishes like smoked salmon roulade with cream cheese and knishes with cream cheese and basil.

“We’re a restaurant that relies on our reputation,” Staib says, “so for us it has always been this way. I believe that the best ingredients give you the best results … and I think the consumer is aware of that, too. We always try to use fresh products and foods that are authentic. Our reputation depends on it.”


Asian Concepts Poised for High Unit rowth this Year

November 25, 2014

New data from Technomic forecasts a 2.3-percent unit growth rate over 2013 among the 500 largest US restaurant chains.

According to a news release, this will be slightly higher than the 2.1-percent growth rate from 2012-13 and much higher than the 0.5 percent rate in 2009.

The unit growth is rising in both the full and limited-service segments. Technomic EVP Darren Tristano said fast casual concepts will continue to show high levels of unit growth, as well limited and full-service Asian concepts. Among full-service restaurant menu segments, Asian will increase units by 5.1 percent, followed by seafood (3.9 percent) and steak (3.4 percent).

Asian/noodle also leads the limited-service menu segments, increasing unit counts by 8 percent, while bakery cafes and coffee cafes will grow units by 5.2 and 4.2 percent, respectively.

Many full-service brands have positioned themselves to expand this past year. The largest growth has been at Buffalo Wild Wings, which will have added 65 units, Mellow Mushroom (32 units) and LongHorn Steakhouse (24 units), according to Technomic.

In limited service, Subway will add 908 units by year-end, followed by Starbucks (443), Jimmy Johns (350) and Dunkin Donuts (291).

Fast casual to continue double-digit sales bump
Additionally, limited-service restaurants are expected to gain a sales bump of 3.5 percent. Fast casual chains should experience a 10.8-percent increase in sales, while quick-service chains increase 2.3 percent.

Full-service restaurants will experience a 2.5 percent sales increase in 2014, similar to the 2.4 percent increase in 2013.

Fine dining is expected to continue its post-Recession rebound, with a 5.8-percent sales increase. Casual and midscale restaurant growth will be nominal, at 2.8 and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Q3 traffic gains at Mexican concepts
Additionally, research from The NPD Group analyzed Q3 consumer traffic at US restaurants, and shows an increase in the fast casual segment, as well as at coffee/donut/bagel concepts and Mexican concepts.

Fast casual restaurants posted an 8 percent gain in traffic across all dayparts compared to same quarter year ago. Visits to Mexican quick service and coffee/donut/bagel concepts grew by 5 percent, according to NPD’s foodservice market research.

Conversely, hamburger quick-service traffic, which represents the largest share of quick service visits at 23 percent, declined by 3 percent compared to same quarter year ago. Visits to both sandwich concepts and Asian quick-serve restaurants were down 1 percent.

Although total industry traffic was flat in the quarter, consumer spending rose 3 percent in the July/August/September quarter due to average eater check gains. Check and dollar gains are in line with food away-from-home inflation. Dealing/discounts are still supporting traffic with visits on a deal up 4 percent compared to a decline in non-deal visits.

“Although total traffic is flat, the visit growth in the fast casual, coffee/donut/bagel, and Mexican QSR shows that consumers still have an interest in going out to restaurants,” NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said in a news release. “Those restaurant concepts that are meeting the needs of today’s foodservice consumers will win their visits.”


Buffalo Wild Wings Soars Under Sally Smith

November 24, 2014

By Nancy Gondo, Investor’s Business DailyUntitled-1

When Sally Smith worked as a waitress during college, she had no idea that she would one day run a big, national restaurant chain.

“It was really hard work — balancing, having four or five tables, so time management, remembering things — that hospitality component,” she told IBD. “It was not for a long period of my life, but having that, I have a lot of empathy for what happens at every restaurant.”

That experience has been one of the factors helping her lead Buffalo Wild Wings from a 35-restaurant chain 20 years ago to a 1,050-location behemoth in America, Canada and Mexico, with annual revenue of nearly $1.5 billion.

The stock has rocketed alongside that growth — by a stratospheric 1,300% since its IPO in 2003.

“Sally has maintained a consistent performance and track record in an industry where executive leadership turnover has been very high,” said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at food-industry tracker Technomic. “Retaining key leadership team members and with consistent strategic planning and execution, she has built a solid foundation for success and continued expansion and sales growth opportunities.”

How has she kept the Minneapolis-based chain on a growth track?

Smith, 56, looks way down the road. She figures out what the sports-bar company needs to do in order to keep expanding over the next three to five years vs., say, three to six months.

 

Hello Columbus

Buffalo Wild Wings opened 32 years ago in Columbus, Ohio, and has been public for 11 years.

The restaurants are part sports bar, part casual eatery, with TV screens showing sporting events from around the globe.

And it still considers itself a growth play.

“We’re not a dividend payer, we’re not doing stock buybacks right now, but rather, we’re investing in our growth,” Smith said. “When we were smaller, it certainly was a lot easier because it’s a lot easier to double when you have $10 million in sales vs. a billion in sales.”

Amid that challenge, Buffalo Wild Wings is a force in the restaurant industry. After Smith joined in 1994 as chief financial officer, she closed underperforming units, changed the chain’s name from BW3 and updated the logo.

She took over as CEO in 1996. Under her reign, Buffalo Wild Wings has expanded to all 50 states and across both borders, broadened its menu and added technology for ordering and entertainment.

She also brought structure to what had been a rather rudderless company.

“We were so small that it really had no infrastructure. In a way, it was like starting a business,” Smith said. “We didn’t have a marketing department, we didn’t have a talent management department.”

Smith also helped set up an advisory council for franchisees. Her prior experience at Dahlberg, maker and franchiser of Miracle-Ear hearing aids, helped her define what kinds of franchisees Buffalo Wild Wings wanted to attract.

Growing up in Grand Forks, N.D., she didn’t know what career path to take. But she always heard her father, who worked in banking, talking shop at home. So business became quite familiar to her.

In her first job as a 16-year-old, Smith filed checks for a bank and performed bookkeeping duties, rising to become a teller.

She enjoyed economics classes in high school and the University of North Dakota. Seeing her prowess with numbers, a professor suggested a career in accounting.

Smith went for it, joining the accounting-consulting firm KPMG.

That move turned into an 11-year post with Dahlberg, where she served as chief financial officer. After the firm was acquired, she stayed on for a year, then heard from Buffalo Wild Wings, which was still called BW3. She was all in.

It turned out to be the right decision — for Smith and the wings-and-beer chain.

After setting up infrastructure and steering the company onto a growth path, Smith took B-Dubs (a moniker it sports on its website) public in 2003, raising more than $50 million in the initial public offering. As shares continue to advance — up 10% this year — the company has scored compounded annual revenue growth of 27% and net income growth of more than 34% the past decade.

With a 98 Composite Rating, Buffalo Wild Wings is a leader in IBD’s Retail-Restaurants group. Its five-year earnings growth rate and sales growth rate are 23% and 25%, respectively.

 

Cheers

“Her leadership has shaped the brand by remaining true to who they are and where they came from,” Tristano said. “By expanding the menu to be more relevant (burgers), and by keeping pace with technology and entertainment platforms, BW3 has continued to shine in an industry that has been struggling with low growth and weak performance since the recession.”

Aside from her nine-month stint as a waitress 15 years prior to joining the company, Smith didn’t have direct restaurant industry experience. But she has excelled by drawing on her financial background, speaking with other industry executives and studying what has worked for them.

Smith has what she calls a collaborative management style. When she meets with team members, she tells them that there’s enough work for everybody. Teamwork, not territorial behavior, helps advance the company.

“I think the more people that can be exposed to other areas, not just their own, they each would have a much better understanding of what everybody is trying to achieve,” she said. “So I’m big on collaboration and working together to solve a problem, whether it’s in your specific area (or not).”

 

One For All

When Smith goes on the road, she visits restaurants and interacts with management and employees to find out everything from what’s working to details about hiring and distribution to what would make the job easier or more fulfilling.

“I’ve always been a curious person,” she said. “I do a lot of reading, and I have since I was very young. So being able to ask questions helps me learn, and I think sometimes you ask questions to help the other person learn.”

Clearly, exploring fresh possibilities matters to Smith. While advising college students interested in a career at the executive level, Smith encouraged them: “Don’t be afraid to take a lateral move to learn another aspect of the business, or a lateral job. It isn’t all about up, up, up. And don’t be afraid to take a job that’s undefined. Most of mine have been.”

Take her start at Dahlberg. Her position was new, and it was a small company. Then there’s Buffalo Wild Wings, which was a fledgling, local firm when she joined.

On the personal front, Smith dives into newspapers’ business and technology sections, belongs to a book club, bikes, golfs and enjoys cooking with her two kids.

What’s next for Buffalo Wild Wings? Smith still sees big opportunities in America in terms of unit growth and individual restaurant growth. She also sees international expansion, with plans to reach the Middle East and the Philippines.

Technomic’s Tristano would agree. “BWW likely has greater opportunity to expand outside the U.S., in North America and other major international food-service markets across the globe,” he said. “There continues to be strong opportunities for expansion in the U.S. in smaller suburban and rural markets where wings and sports are in high demand.”

Meanwhile, said Smith, “I love going into the restaurants and hearing that someone’s been with us for five years or seven years, or they’ve been on 10 new-store-opening teams, or that they love working at Buffalo Wild Wings.”


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.


Liquid Assets: Variety and Customization

November 20, 2014

Result from the Beverage Consumer Trend Report
By Darren Tristano

When it comes to beverage purchases at restaurants, Technomic generally finds that an appealing taste and flavor is most important to consumers. But a good number of people (40%) cite a wide variety of options as important, according to the recently released “Beverage Consumer Trend Report.”

More than two fifths of consumers (46%) say full-service restaurants should offer greater beverage variety, which is a slight increase since 2010 (42%). And 40% of consumers want a wider variety of beverages at fast-food concepts. Notably more consumers aged 18–44 than their older counterparts say both full-service and fast-food restaurants should offer greater beverage variety.

A smaller percentage of consumers (12%) say the ability to customize their beverage is important. Again, that percentage skews higher for younger consumers.

Foodservice operators are learning that offering a wide variety of beverage options can help meet consumer needs for different items, flavors and occasions, and can satisfy a more diverse customer base. Additionally, offering new, unique and customizable beverages can help drive traffic among younger consumers.

Beverages that consumers can’t get elsewhere or make at home may be especially appealing and can likely drive restaurant traffic or tempt customers to purchase beverages with their meals. For example, consumers who drink lactose-free lattes or enjoy a soy-milk flavor may choose Starbucks over Dunkin’ Donuts, since Starbucks offers soy milk and Dunkin’ Donuts does not.

At restaurants, consumers often have the ability to customize their beverages in a variety of ways. For example, customers can create their own soft-drink flavors with Coca-Cola Freestyle and Pepsi Spire soda machines or add protein and vitamin enhancements to smoothies. A fifth of consumers overall (19%), and 31% of those aged 18–34, say they have added a “boost” or “flavor shot” to a beverage in the prior month.

Some consumers also customize beverages at home, even more so today than two years ago. More consumers today (21%) than in 2012 (17%) say they often add flavor to their beverages at home. And, again, interest in adding beverage flavor is highest among those aged 18–44.

Foodservice operators face competition from retail products that enhance non-alcoholic beverages for home consumption by offering options that are hard to find at retailers or stock at home, such as “mocktails,” which require a range of oftentimes premium ingredients and preparations.

Consumers, particularly young consumers, indicate substantial interest in adding boosts and flavor shots to their beverages. If it fits with the concept, operators may also offer enhanced smoothies, with add-ins such as protein, probiotics, immunity or weight-loss boosts; specialty coffees with chef-crafted flavor blends; and soft drinks, such as iced tea, lemon-lime sodas and aguas frescas with seasonal fruit juices.

Darren Tristano is executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information or to order the “2011 Burger Foodservice Consumer Trend Report,” visit http://www.technomic.com.


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.”