From Ginger Crust to Sriracha Sauce, Pizza Hut Tries to Save Itself by Piling On the Flavors

And you thought getting everyone to agree on a pie was complicated before.

(Photo: Pizza Hut/Facebook)

Nov 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Watching Pizza Hut try to recapture its market mojo has been a bit like watching the first half of an episode of Kitchen Nightmares—only there’s no Gordon Ramsay to punctuate things with a few choice epithets before stepping behind the stoves and saving the day.

For eight straight quarters, the nation’s largest pizza chain has been hemorrhaging sales, losing out to rivals Domino’s and Papa John’s. Thus, you can imagine there’s a bevy of Pizza Hut execs down at headquarters in Plano, Texas, who have taken to reflexively touching their necks, just to make sure the ax hasn’t fallen.

Heaven knows they’ve tried to reinvigorate the ailing brand. But the effort has at times seemed like a schizophrenic approach, one that’s ranged from test-marketing purportedly low(er)-calorie Skinny Slice pizzas to unleashing their own calorie bomb, the Crazy Cheesy Crust pizza, in the long-running fast-food arms race to concoct the most outrageous gut-busting fare.

Now the struggling chain is pulling out all the stops in a desperate bid to woo the next generation of consumers, who apparently are all waiting in line at Chipotle for somewhat healthier and somewhat more sustainable burritos. How desperate? Three words: honey-Sriracha sauce.

That Johnny-come-late-to-the-flavor-party topping is just one of six new base sauces that will be available starting Nov. 19, according to The Associated Press, along with garlic-Parmesan, “premium crushed tomato,” and tried-and-true marinara. To round out the reboot, Pizza Hut is rolling out those aforementioned Skinny Slice pies nationwide.

Although Sriracha would seem to have jumped the shark around the time it made its way into a Lay’s potato chip, its inclusion on the new Pizza Hut menu is indicative of what passes for innovation at mega chains: Exhaustively analyze the market appeal of some trend, and then spend months devising your own take on it so that by the time you roll out the product, it’s already stale.

In addition to the six sauces, customers will be able to choose from an expanded offering of crust flavors, including fiery red pepper and salted pretzel, as well as limited-edition doughs like Curried Away and Ginger Boom Boom.

To multiply the matrix of choices even further, Pizza Hut will also be adding an unspecified number of new toppings, such as banana peppers, cherry peppers, and spinach—while trying to make you think it has added even more via a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, “rebranding” its black olives, for example, as “Mediterranean black olives” and its red onions as “fresh red onions.”

To top it all off, you can also choose from four flavor “drizzles,” such as balsamic or buffalo.

The chain is going for something of an image makeover too, with an updated logo and new “uniforms” for employees. Good-bye, black slacks and polo shirt; hello, T-shirt and jeans. Eating at Pizza Hut is just like hanging out at your chill cousin's place, the one who makes those crazy pizzas.

As the AP points out, the dizzying array of choices that will now be offered at your local Hut are apparently an effort to capitalize on a larger meta-trend in restaurant ordering: Customers, especially up-and-coming millennials, want at the least the illusion that they’re able to customize their order to suit their individual tastes. This has been a key factor behind the success of newer chains such as Chipotle, according to industry experts.

Of course, when you order a Chipotle burrito, you’ve got no other palate to contend with but your own. One wonders if in its frenzy to pile on the flavors, Pizza Hut took into account the reality that ordering a pie is typically a communal experience. To dramatically expand the range of options would seem to transform that experience into an exhausting game of Diplomacy, wherein strategic alliances of taste buds are forged or broken, negotiations break down over which drizzle to choose, and a weary, hungry table settles on something everyone can agree on. Pepperoni and cheese, anyone?