Why Chipotle’s Southeast Asian chain couldn’t make it work

March 16, 2017

By Becky Krystal
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2017/03/11/why-chipotles-southeast-asian-chain-couldnt-make-it-work/?utm_term=.7c03019833f5

All 15 locations of ShopHouse, the Southeast Asian fast-casual restaurant owned by Chipotle, will close on March 17. The closings, first reported by Nation’s Restaurant News on Thursday, left fans distraught.

But it was easy to see the move coming after Chipotle announced in October that it was halting investments in the brand. Instead, the burrito giant’s spinoff aspirations will focus on two other endeavors: Pizzeria Locale and Tasty Made, a pizza joint and a burger place, respectively. “We just didn’t believe that ShopHouse warranted continued investment,” Chris Arnold, a spokesperson for Chipotle, said in an email.

ShopHouse, which opened its first location in 2011 in Dupont Circle, offered customizable rice, noodle and salad bowls inspired by the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. It represented a glimmer of hope for diners interested in something different and at least marginally more nutritious than what was served at most fast-casual chains.

But selling Southeast Asian cuisine proved to be a losing gamble in an industry dominated by burgers and sandwiches. The top 10 quick-service and fast-casual brands, as ranked by U.S. sales in 2016’s QSR 50, an annual list published by industry publication QSR magazine, don’t include any restaurants serving Asian cuisine. The list is topped by the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, Burger King and Taco Bell.

Even when QSR broke out supposed “ethnic” brands — the label is a bit of a stretch — the results aren’t that impressive. Taco Bell was ranked at No. 5; further down the list are Chipotle (12), Panda Express (22), Qdoba (34), Del Taco (37) and Moe’s Southwest Grill (43). Only one Asian concept made the top 50: Panda Express, a chain perhaps best known for its fried, sticky orange chicken, which is a far cry from ShopHouse’s grilled steak seasoned with fish sauce, or its sweet and sour tamarind vinaigrette.

Those Southeast Asian flavors were unfamiliar to many Americans. Darren Tristano, president of market research firm Technomic, said that when the brand launched, he believed the biggest challenge would be getting consumers to see that Southeast Asian cuisine wasn’t outside the norm. “When your core focus is on that, it just makes it very, very difficult,” he said. He points to Mexican, Italian and Chinese as the big three when it comes to popular international flavors, while Japanese and Greek make the cut to a lesser extent.

In an interview last year with The Post, ShopHouse brand director and co-founder Tim Wildin said he wanted to work with traditional Asian ingredients, noting that Thai flavors in particular had a universal appeal. He acknowledged there was a bit of a learning curve when customers complained the food was too spicy. But there wasn’t necessarily a need to “Americanize” the food, he said, just a need to communicate better.

ShopHouse probably could have improved its communication in at least one other way, said Sam Oches, editorial director of Food News Media, which produces QSR magazine. He said the brand didn’t do enough to promote itself as innovative and unique, which is ironic given the way Chipotle was able to establish a reputation as a trailblazer in the industry.

ShopHouse was “pretty ahead of the curve,” Oches said, adding that Asian fast-casual restaurants are now increasingly popular with millennials.

In the last five years, several have opened in Washington, including Buredo, SeoulSpice, Maki Shop and Four Sisters Grill. Had ShopHouse debuted now, or even just a few years later than it did, it would have entered a market still lacking immediate competitors but perhaps one more receptive to its food. Oches expects that 10 or 15 years from now, the top 10 quick-service brands may not look too different from today, but the rest of the list will likely include more concepts serving Asian cuisine, which are just now scaling up to compete.

ShopHouse may also have partially been a victim of Chipotle’s greater struggles. Following outbreaks of food-borne illness at its restaurants, the company has seen a sharp decline in sales. From 2015 to 2016, revenue dropped more than 13 percent, to $3.9 billion, according to the company’s most recent earnings report, released last month. The decrease in net income was staggering, from about $476 million in 2015 to around $23 million in 2016. “It’s startling how far their fall from grace has been,” Oches said of the brand he described as once being the most bankable restaurant company in America.

[A year after food safety scares, Chipotle has a new set of problems]

Jettisoning ShopHouse may be at least one way the burrito chain is attempting to trim the fat and refocus on its core business, especially considering that, at the time the company announced it was pulling back on ShopHouse, Chipotle chairman and chief executive Steve Ells said that the concept “was not able to attract sufficient customer loyalty and visit frequency to make it a viable growth strategy.”

While ShopHouse only launched a small family of locations, the expansion might have actually made success more difficult to achieve, Technomic’s Tristano said. ShopHouse may have worked best as a single location or limited regional chain, he said, especially as the fast-casual market matures, with possibly not enough customers to go around.

Instead, the brand was diluted between two coasts, with eight locations in the Washington area, five locations in California and another two around Chicago. Had it been able to establish itself as a major player with good recognition in one region, it could have performed better, Tristano said.

But the locations also speak to the demographics that prompted Wildin to pick Washington for the first ShopHouse: urban, diverse, young professionals. Limited appeal, in other words, was baked into the concept before it was barely off the ground.


Fazoli’s closes only Las Vegas restaurant

February 24, 2016
Jennifer Robison
Las Vegas Review-Journal
February 17, 2016
http://www.reviewjournal.com/business/fazolis-closes-only-las-vegas-restaurant

1004922526_fazolis_021716_3.jpgThere’ll be no more free breadsticks on North Town Center Drive.

Italian fast-food franchise Fazoli’s has quietly closed its lone Las Vegas eatery. The restaurant, behind the 7-Eleven at Town Center and Covington Cross in Summerlin, shut Feb. 8, 15 years to the day after its 2001 debut.

The closure defies broader market trends, as big, national chains including Chick-fil-A and Cracker Barrel prepare market launches for late 2016 and early 2017.

“Las Vegas is definitely a growth market,” said Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based restaurant consultant Technomic.

So why did operators shutter Fazoli’s?

Company spokeswoman Janet Ritter deferred to the franchisee, Las Vegas-based Glencoe Management, and Glencoe Management didn’t return phone calls. The company’s website said it owns 21 local Burger Kings, including one at 1280 Town Center Drive, next to the former Fazoli’s.

But Ritter said Fazoli’s, a Kentucky chain with 217 U.S. locations mostly in the Midwest and South, “would like to have a presence in Las Vegas, and we are seeking franchisees to open units in the Las Vegas area.”

The Fazoli’s closure capped a market foray that never really picked up steam.

Ritter said she had no information on number or dates of operation of prior local stores, but at least two other Fazoli’s franchises — one on Ft. Apache Road near Rhodes Ranch and another on Eastern Avenue in Silverado Ranch — opened after 2001 and closed years ago.

The 28-year-old company had as many as 300 U.S. restaurants before it began pruning locations in the recession. Each restaurant typically employs 30 to 40 people, Ritter said.

Competition has hurt Fazoli’s, Tristano said.

The U.S. market is saturated with chains, including Panera Bread and Noodles & Co., that serve pasta and pizza. Plus, Fazoli’s straddles a blurry line between fast food and the more upscale fast-casual segment, which includes operators such as Chipotle and Au Bon Pain.

“That’s not a terrible place to be. The problem is, you’re lumped in to some extent with fast food because of the drive-thru and the price points, but the quality is not at the level of a fast-casual restaurant,” Tristano said. “That’s not to say it’s not good quality, but there are so many concepts with customized, prepared-to-order food.”

It didn’t help that Fazoli’s had just a handful of local stores. A franchise needs 20 to 25 locations in a big market to build loyalty and brand awareness, Tristano said.

Still, Fazoli’s seems to have righted its ship: The company said in December that same-store sales were up in 65 of the prior 68 months, including a 3.1 percent jump year over year in November. It opened 10 new franchises in 2014 and 2015.

And restaurant operators continue to salivate over the Southern Nevada market, Tristano said.

“Las Vegas has the demographics and growth that many chain brands are looking for,” he said. “Not all of the markets in the United States are growing, but you’re seeing housing development and population growth there, and that’s a big deal. Chains tend to be prioritizing growth markets.”


Just Top it With a Hot Dog? One Surprising New Trend

June 15, 2015

102751830-hot-dog-bites-pizza.530x298Katie Little
http://www.cnbc.com/id/102752349

Ketchup, mustard or both?

The most difficult part of preparing a hot dog used to be picking the toppings. But in today’s mashup-loving food world, the hot dog is the topping.

On Thursday, Pizza Hut plans to debut a new spin on the summer staple—a pizza with 28 bite-sized hot dogs baked into the crust and served with a side of mustard.

“I think people love hot dogs. In our case, people love pizza, and they’re willing to mash up foods more than ever,” public relations director Doug Terfehr said in a phone interview.

Pizza Hut is hardly alone at finding new ways to incorporate hot dogs into their menu. In the burger world, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are selling what they call the “most American burger ever.” It’s a Black Angus beef patty topped with a split hot dog and potato chips.

In October, Wayback Burgers debuted the limited time Frank-N-Burger, which included two beef patties, a hot dog, American cheese and barbecue chips on top.

Abroad, KFC released the Double Down Dog, a hot dog wrapped with a fried chicken bun, in the Philippines earlier this year.

Even at the baseball field, where the hot dog is practically an institution, the humble frank is getting revamped. A minor league team in Delaware came up with its own spin on the meat—a hot dog sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts and topped with bacon and drizzled with raspberry jam.

While these wacky creations are still few in number, they come amid signs the hot dog market is warming up.

Between 2013 and 2015, the appearance of hot dog entrees on menus rose 5 percent, according to Technomic’s MenuMonitor, while the number of hot dogs served at restaurants rose nearly 3 percent in the two years ended in March, according to market research firm NPD Group.

So what’s driving restaurants to release these wacky hot dog mashups?

“These products do not have to be profitable for them to be successful,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic.

Instead, they are meant to capitalize on buzz marketing and spur people to think about the restaurant and then visit, he added. They also play off two broader themes in the food space: an overarching mashup trend and more interest in the hot dog.

At Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, the idea of a burger topped with a dog has been in the works for about a decade.

“It’s kind of a Fourth of July picnic on a bun,” said Brad Haley, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chief marketing officer.

“We’re not into doing burgers just for kind of the buzz factor. They have to taste good and sell well—otherwise we wouldn’t do them.”

If that is the case, expect more hot dog mashups on to pop up on menus.

“I think this is an industry where if something is successful, it becomes a trial for other brands,” Tristano said.


You’ve Probably Never Heard of America’s New Largest Pizza Chain

March 30, 2015

Hunt Brothers rules rural pizza market from lowly gas stations

Associated Press
Business Around the Region
http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/business/aroundregion/story/2015/mar/22/hunt-brothers-rules-rural-pizza-market-lowly-gas-stations/294616/picture

ANDERSONVILLE, Tenn. –If you’re looking for pizza along the Andersonville Highway between the Museum of Appalachia and a mountain lake created by the Tennessee Valley Authority, your best bet may be the same place where you buy your bait and fill up your car.

Hunt Brothers Pizza is quietly winning over the rural South by slipping into places big-name pizza chains probably couldn’t survive. It has installed its pizza ovens at so many gas stations and convenience stores that it has more U.S. locations than either Domino’s or Pizza Hut.

Located across from a pasture, the Rightway Foodmart in Andersonville sits a little too far from the interstate to get the type of traffic that could support a free-standing fast-food outlet. But it draws plenty of customers who fish or boat on nearby Norris Lake to its pared-down pizzeria, which requires just a few feet of counter space. And the pizza inspires strong loyalty.
“It beats Pizza Hut and Domino’s,” said 23-year-old Brittany Bunch, who buys Hunt Brothers about once a week during breaks from her job at a water damage company. “It’s just got more flavor. It seems like, with the others, you’re getting cardboard.”

While Hunt Brothers may be unknown in many households, it runs television ads during NASCAR races and cable outdoors shows. For several years, it has sponsored Kevin Harvick, who won the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup.

On a recent morning at 10:40 a.m., Rightway owner Roy Bruce started sliding pizzas for the lunch rush into a conveyor-belt oven. Each pie starts out frozen, a crust with sauce and a layer of cheese. Employees can add fresh pepperoni, extra cheese and other toppings. The result after about 5 minutes in the 525-degree oven is a bubbling-hot pizza with browned toppings that tastes comparable to the big delivery chains’ pizzas.

In an hour, Bruce sold that first pizza and another one in two-slice $2.99 “hunks” from a countertop warming display near his cash register. Nearby, sits a display of fishing hooks, bobbers and jars of bait. Pizza customers included a UPS delivery driver, a woman on her way to lunch with her daughter and a guy in camouflage who confessed he was just coming from the liquor store.

In a typical Hunt Brothers arrangement, Bruce said he paid about $10,000 for his oven, freezer, display case and other equipment and now just pays the Nashville-based company for the pizza ingredients. Hunt Brothers doesn’t charge franchise fees or require a contract.

The privately owned company fine-tuned this approach starting in the early 1990s when four brothers who’d worked separately in the restaurant industry joined forces to sell pizzas to convenience stores. Hunt Brothers had 750 locations by 1994, said Keith Solsvig, its vice president for marketing.

“Convenience stores in rural areas were the hub,” Solsvig said in a phone interview. “A lot of people coming and going. And a lot of these smaller towns, they didn’t really have a lot of other restaurants or other places to eat.”

Hunt Brothers now has 7,300 locations in 28 states, with some sites the only dining options for miles. Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas each have more than 700 locations, Solsvig said. Not all locations are isolated, with Hunt Brothers also found at busy highway interchanges. And it’s moved into some urban areas, such as Memphis.

The convenience store model is different from a free-standing restaurant, and a Hunt Brothers outlet is likely to bring in far less than the more than $700,000 an average Domino’s makes a year, said Darren Tristano, a restaurant industry analyst with Technomic.

Tristano noted that 7-Eleven offers pizza in some of its 7,800 U.S. locations and that Little Caesars has also had success in rural areas.

While Hunt Brothers declined to discuss company finances, Bruce says he sells about 500 pizzas a month, much of it by the hunk. Combined with drinks and other convenience items, he estimates pizza customers spend more than $10,000 each month in his store.

Tristano says the simplicity of the setup has helped the company grow. Bruce agreed.

“In a convenience store, you’re doing the register, you’re doing gas. You’re doing so many different things,” Bruce said. “It’s hard to be able to do pizza from the ground up, making the dough and the whole thing.”

Fred England, a food vendor at a furniture factory about 30 miles east of Andersonville, added a Hunt Brothers to his lunch counter about a year ago to keep his customers from looking elsewhere for their pizza fix.

“The problem I had was all these other places were delivering pizza, so I had to come up with something,” he said while stopping at Rightway to chat with Bruce.

Angela Moles came in to get three hunks of pepperoni pizza and drinks to take to lunch with her daughter. The 35-year-old Andersonville resident said she buys Hunt Brothers about twice a week.

“I love it,” she said. “I usually don’t get other pizza.”


Strategic Pizza Infrastructure Goes High-Tech

March 5, 2015

BN-HF942_0304_c_G_20150304135445http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2015/03/04/strategic-pizza-infrastructure-goes-high-tech/?mod=wsj_ciohome_cioreport

Stuffed crust isn’t the only battle ground for Domino’s Pizza Inc. and Pizza Hut. The chains are promoting smartwatches, connected cars, retinal scanning and other interactive technology for order and delivery – and learning what works and what doesn’t in customer experience.

Ordering pizza is a time-honored proof of concept for new technology. The very first retail purchase on the Web was a Pizza Hut pizza, the company claims. Now it and Domino’s are experimenting with just how much change customers can tolerate as technology remakes the noble task of ordering a pepperoni pie. Domino’s, for example, lets customers order in Ford Fiestas with voice commands and on Pebble smartwatches with a touch interface. Pizza Hut lets gamers order through their Xbox and in the United Kingdom is testing retinal scanning technology that detects where a customer’s eyes rest on a digital menu board and adds toppings accordingly.

“Pizza companies are paving the path for technology in other kinds of restaurants,” says Darren Tristano, an analyst at Technomic Inc., a food industry consulting firm.

And both companies watch the tech moves of one another — and those of other retailers – closely. Domino’s CIO Kevin Vasconi says customers will jump to Pizza Hut or another competitor the moment an ordering system hiccups. “If you’re on Dominos.com and not having the best experience, it’s not hard for you to go to one of our competitors,” Mr. Vasconi says. “We want to not only have best experience in your car, but on your watch and in other venues, too.”

Pizza Hut is building an in-car ordering and payment system with Accenture and Visa Inc., which announced the project Monday at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Testing is expected to start this spring. The system’s beacon technology can alert restaurant staff when the customer pulls into the parking lot, says Carol Clements, U.S. CIO for Pizza Hut, which accounted for $1.1 billion of the $13.3 billion in sales reported last year by parent company Yum Brands Inc.

Anticipating customer behavior influences where Pizza Hut invests, Ms. Clements says. Aside from drivers, IT is the fastest growing part of the business. Pizza Hut wants to add 100 people, including contractors, to its 160-member technology and digital staff, focusing on analytics talent and mobile developers to build out tablet and self-service kiosk apps. But not every new technology is ripe, she says, including wearable devices. “When you’re ordering a pizza, there’s a lot of information we need. Whether we can do that on a little, 2-inch by 2-inch watch in a way not frustrating for customers, we’ll continue to evaluate.”

At Domino’s, tech investments must pay off in sales, conversion rates or new-customer acquisition, Mr. Vasconi says. About half of its $2 billion in 2014 sales came from digital platforms and half of that was from mobile devices, he says. At 200 people, IT is one-third of the company’s corporate staff and they want to hire 50 or 60 more this year. Domino’s measures itself against Pizza Hut and other competitors, looking at website load time, number of steps to order and user-interface design. But Mr. Vasconi also studies innovators outside the pizza business, including Zappos.com and Uber. (He promises no surge pricing on pizza.)

A partnership with Ford Motor Co. to use the Sync AppLink connectivity system lets drivers in Fiestas, Mustangs and other cars order Domino’s with voice commands. But it’s not a high-traffic ordering vehicle, Mr. Vasconi says. ”Customers say it’s a great idea but they’re not going to use it every day.”

Still, it’s one more avenue for orders, and being everywhere can increase customer loyalty, Mr. Tristano says. “People want the ultimate convenience of being able to get what they want when they want it.”


Uno Chain Putting Pizza First Again

March 2, 2015

tlumacki_pizzeriauno_business375-001Pizza First ; Uno, once deemed the healthiest chain restaurant in America, ditches its nutritionist and goes back to its high-calorie roots to stand out from its rivals

By Taryn Luna Globe Correspondent
http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/02/27/uno-chain-putting-pizza-first-again/Idbh31HEj5KahzIpPxZk7I/story.html
© 2015 The Boston Globe. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

Uno Pizzeria and Grill, the deep-dish pizza restaurant chain that switched years ago to a menu emphasizing pages of healthy food, is returning to its cheesy roots. Calorie counters beware.

In 2008, the West Roxbury company had happily embraced a new title, bestowed by Health magazine: healthiest restaurant chain in America.

Now Uno’s traditional fare — including its 2,300-calorie Chicago Classic individual pizza — is back near the front of the menu.

Said Dee Hadley, chief marketing officer at Uno:

“If you came into our restaurant and tried to find pizza on our menu, you would have had a hard time because we hid it in the back. It’s about going back to what made the brand great to begin with.”

Hadley and a new team of executives have spent more than $10 million to remodel dozens of restaurants and start a rebranding campaign. The goal is to emphasize Uno’s pizza heritage, a way to stand out in a waning casual dining business teeming with big competitors like Applebee’s, Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday, TGI Friday’s, and Red Robin.

Uno was founded in Chicago in 1943, serving thick-crust pizza that curved up the sides of its deep metal pan. The pizza was so unusual that the original owners, Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, gave away samples to entice people to try it, Chicago historian Tim Samuelson said.

It paid off, and the restaurant became wildly popular.

In 1979, a Boston restaurateur, Aaron Spencer, became the first franchisee and opened an Uno on Boylston Street. Spencer continued to expand the chain in Boston and beyond. Over time, Uno grew to more than 200 restaurants.

But the company began to distance itself from its pizza roots in the early 2000s. Like many other casual restaurant chains, it expanded the menu to appeal to as many customers as possible, said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president at the food industry research firm Technomic in Chicago.

In an increasingly health-conscious time, people weren’t flocking to Uno for pizza that often topped 1,700 calories for an individual serving. Every restaurant, from McDonald’s to Applebee’s, looked for ways to cut calories.

Around 2005, Uno began a campaign to cultivate a healthier image. The brand, which had already changed its name to Uno Chicago Grill from Pizzeria Uno, eliminated trans fats from the menu and listed ingredients and calories on touch-screen kiosks. The new menu featured pages of salads.

Uno hired a full-time nutritionist and started a nutrition advisory board, which included a cardiologist from Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Creating a menu with delicious health-conscious options is one of our priorities,” Frank W. Guidara, then Uno’s chief executive, said a few years into the process. In an April 2006 Boston Globe article, Guidara said sales were up almost 2 percent because of the changes.

But the menu changes turned Uno into another Applebee’s, with a broad range of dishes and no emphasis on anything, Tristano said. At one point, the menu stretched to 22 pages. The restaurant’s deep dish pizzas appeared on page 18.

“They really changed the menu and mimicked what other casual restaurants were doing,” Tristano said. “Today we’ve learned that menus are too big, and casual dining brands are too ubiquitous.”

Uno discovered that the hard way. The company faced heavy debt and declining sales during the recession, when people ate out less frequently. Uno suffered net losses of $22 million in 2009 and filed for bankruptcy protection the following year.

Now, a new team of executives is trying to move forward with more than a nod to the past. The main objective: Give customers what they want.

Hadley said that when she joined in May 2013, the company went back through consumer studies for the prior five years to understand what people liked about Uno. Not surprisingly, the answer was deep dish pizza.

“We’ve really made a commitment to send a message to our consumer base that we’re bringing back the soul of the brand that we’ve lost,” Hadley said.

The first step was to rename the restaurant Uno Pizzeria and Grill, followed by a redesign of the restaurants. About 40 of the chain’s 82 corporate-owned restaurants have been remodeled, starting last year, at a cost of $100,000 to $200,000 per eatery, Hadley said.

At an updated restaurant in Braintree, the yellow and white checkered tablecloths and Tiffany pendants that dangled from the ceiling have been replaced with wood tables and modern light fixtures. Construction crews removed a wall in the bar and took down glass partitions in the dining room for a more open-concept feel. The restaurant added a new bar top and high tables, doubling the size of the bar.

Daily specials are written on chalkboards, and simple art adorns the walls with phrases like “We owe it all to a man and his pan.”

Uno says the remodeling is starting to pay off. Updated restaurants have experienced a 10 percent sales growth, she said.

The timing isn’t ideal for a return to high-calorie pizza fare, however. The federal government will require chains to list calorie counts on their menus by the end of this year.

Some diners won’t care. But others may choose smaller portions or different dishes when they realize the high calorie count of a favorite item.

“The calories on the menu will be really an eye-opener to the consumer,” said Joan Salge Black, a professor in the nutrition program at Boston University.

While gluten-free and low-fat items haven’t disappeared from the Uno menu, the nutrition advisory board isn’t active, and Uno no longer employs a nutritionist.

“We want to make sure healthy choices are available, but if you’re looking for those things you’re not thinking about us,” Hadley said. “Strong brands have to stand for something that is different from the rest of the pack. Our heritage is deep dish pizza.”


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.


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.”