The hot pizza trend for 2014: air.
Wednesday, Pizza Hut will unveil a new lighter, airy version of its best-selling Hand-Tossed pizza, which will make its debut nationally on Thursday. So certain is Pizza Hut that the lighter crust will be a hit, that it's offering to pay for any consumer's next pizza if they don't like the new Hand-Tossed crust.
"We set out to completely blow up the notion that all pizzas are created equal," says Carrie Walsh, chief marketing officer at Pizza Hut. The new Hand Tossed crust will have "noticeable imperfections" such as air pockets that makes each pizza "truly one of a kind," he says.
The crust also is brushed with a garlic-buttery finish and topped with mozzarella. Under current pricing, the pizza sells for $10 nationally - any size.
Traditional pizza chains such as Pizza Hut are seeking ways to evolve their concepts to make them more compelling for consumers - and to try to differentiate themselves from the pack.
Pumping a bit more air into pizza can help create pizzas that look and taste more customized, a popular trend in the fast-casual pizza category. Consumer interest in pizza customization has bolstered the growth of at least a dozen fast-casual pizza chains, including Blaze Pizza. It has even recently lured Chipotle into exploring the pizza business with a Pizzeria Locale location in Denver, and possibly more to come.
"This is really a marketing ploy," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a restaurant research and consulting firm. With it, Pizza Hut is trying to mimic, in part, the success of some younger, fast-casual chains that create more customized pizzas, he says.
Tristano says that the air-filled pizza crust also looks more healthful (and may appear to have fewer calories), but Pizza Hut says this new crust actually has a slightly higher calorie count due to the flavoring brushed onto the crust - and it will not be marketed as more healthful.
Slowly, the fast-casual pizza sector - which makes the individual pizzas quickly - has lured customers into ordering more pizzas at lunch, not just at dinner.
The move by Pizza Hut comes at a time the $33.5 billion pizza industry is on a roll. Industry sales grew about 4% in 2012 and another 4%, or so, in 2013, says Tristano.
But change doesn't come easy. These pizzas are made a bit differently. Launching the new version of the pizzas required the most "intense" training program by Pizza Hut in two decades, says Walsh. Employees, he says, have a new "freedom of creativity when making our new Hand-Tossed pizza."