Inside Pizza Hut's test kitchen: Our taste-test of really weird pizzas
Willie Grace | 12/3/2014, 1:53 p.m. | Updated on 12/3/2014, 1:53 p.m.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Pizza Hut executives are brave: They invited an Italian-American weaned on the best pizza in Queens and Brooklyn to try its new menu.
Inside the Pizza Hut test kitchen, the company lined a long table with about 11 new pies. They looked appetizing, but that didn't stop my stomach from churning over the prospect of tasting pizza topped with honey sriracha, barbecue sauce and curry. As it turned out, they were tasty enough, and I could have had another slice of "Curried Away."
Pizza Hut hopes many others have the same (mostly) positive reaction to its new menu. It's still the No. 1 pizza maker in the U.S., but Domino's and Papa John's are creeping up, and there are new threats too.
"Not only is Pizza Hut facing competition from traditional players but it's also up against newer ones,'' said Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy.
Hottovy says the evolution that swept burgers and tacos is now happening with pizza. Hottovy cites Blaze, whose tag line is Fast-Fire'd Custom Built Artisanal Pizzas. Even Chipotle is getting into the game with Pizzeria Locale. It only has two locations so far, but that's bound to grow.
Some analysts argue that Pizza Hut waited too long to roll out the new menu and start courting millennials. Over the past two years, competition has intensified. Both Dominos and Papa John have rolled out self-deprecating ads, investments in mobile ordering and off-the-wall creations (think Papa John's "Frito Pie.")
But Pizza Hut seems to be pushing a more modern theme: Fresh and unique-sounding ingredients like spinach and Peruvian cherry peppers. And it's not just cheese on the crust, it's toasted Asiago.
Pizza Hut has been planning its response for a while now. Nearly three years to develop perfectly imperfect dough. About 12 months testing toppings from chorizo to sriracha. Countless miles traveled in search of the right ingredients.
Last month, Pizza Hut revealed a new menu and logo then launched a new website and mobile app for deliveries. The company is also spending money to air ads during the football season to get the word out.
"It's hands down the biggest thing we've done in 56 years of operating the brand," said Jared Drinkwater, vice president of marketing.
Pies named "Cherry Pepper Bombshell," "7-Alarm Fire," and "Cock-A-Doodle Bacon" mark a departure from the company's traditional "Meat Lovers" (still available), but the new offerings are critical.
"I felt 'Oh my god,' this is going to be too scary," said Wiley Bates, the company's head chef. "[But] the fiery pepper blend we put on our pizza, they absolutely love that."
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