Pizza Hut Strikes Gold with Heritage Appeal and Modern Innovations

    The brand has spent the past several years maximizing its nostalgia with craveable food choices. 

    Fast Food | July 11, 2023 | Ben Coley
    A picture of the Big New Yorker Pizza.
    Pizza Hut
    The Big New Yorker was widely requested by customers.

    Pizza Hut U.S. president David Graves has worked with a handful of concepts he would describe as a heritage brand, his current company being among them. 

    That equity has been a goldmine for the chain in recent years, particularly around food innovation. Pizza Hut has gotten in the habit of playing the hits, but in a way that still feels modern and reaches millennial and Gen Z consumers who will carry the restaurant for the next six decades or so. 


    "There's a lot of brands out there that have been around for a really long time," Graves says. "You don't think about them as old, right? You think about them as timeless, loved brands. Those exist in the restaurant space, they exist in apparel, I mean they're in technology. They're all across the board. And they're brands that innovate consistently. They know what makes their brand special."

    Pizza Hut starts by going after what customers are asking for. Graves recalls hearing stories of guests' experiences with the chain, including playing Pac-Man while waiting for food to arrive. To relate back to this nostalgia without feeling outdated, Pizza Hut in spring 2021 released a Pac-Man augmented reality feature in which customers could use a QR code on the pizza box to play the classic arcade game on their phone. 

    Earlier this year, the brand's Big New Yorker—launched 24 years ago—returned to the menu because it was the most-requested item that guests wanted back. The chain noted it saw social media accounts, Reddit threads, and a petition with thousands of signatures to get the Big New Yorker back on a plate. The menu innovation helped fuel an 8 percent rise in U.S. same-store sales during the first quarter and 10 percent growth in systemwide sales. Yum! Brands CEO David Gibbs said during the company's earnings call in May the Big New Yorker drove positive transaction growth by appealing to new and repeat customers. 

    READ MORE: QSR’s Transformational Brand of 2021: Pizza Hut Finds its North Star

    Pizza Hut maximized the product even further by announcing it would conduct deliveries to New York subway stations for a limited time in partnership with the upcoming "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" movie. Pizza Hut will make a series of cameos in the film, which is targeted toward older audiences who grew up watching the turtle superheroes and younger viewers attracted to the clever animation and action sequences.

    "We can bring back things that customers loved and give them a chance to enjoy them," Graves says. "But it's really all about knowing what the customer really wants and serving them craveable food."

    Also fueling sales in the first quarter was Menu Melts, a handheld item that's two slices of folded baked pizza. It was a remake of the P'Zone, which Pizza Hut took out of restaurants in 2021. The brand went to customers and asked what would make a better handheld. The product targets the individual occasion, a market that's "multiples larger" than the pizza segment, Graves says. 

    It was also a value play at $6.99. So was the Big New Yorker, which offers a 16-inch pizza with six foldable slices at $13.99. But that doesn't mean Pizza Hut is looking to be the cheapest chain on the block. It prefers the classic barbell strategy so it can appeal to all customers—indulgent and value-conscious. 

    "You've got to do it through a lens of store-level profitability for franchisees," Graves says. "So if you move all of your sales into one end of that barbell, that won't be good for profitability, and ultimately, we need strong profitability at the restaurant level to do all the things that we want to do—technology and drive more innovation and upgrade the restaurants. And so it's all about how do you give different things and cater to different folks and do that in a way that enables profitability at the restaurant level."

    The executive also spoke to Pizza Hut's power to democratize certain food trends, like Detroit-style pizza. The innovation—made in a rectangular pan with a crispy crust—was founded by Buddy's Pizza in 1946. Two years ago, Pizza Hut decided to roll out its own version based on its growing popularity nationwide and pleas from customers. The chain said it spent more than a year developing its recipe, with more than 500 iterations and tests across the Midwest. 

    "Our advantages are scale," Graves says. "We push that idea out there, and if you just look at the Google search and trends for Detroit-style pizza, it really started a conversation, and all the Detroit-style pizza places flourish and it drives sales for us as well. And so that's what I mean by democratizing trends. It's like we have a reach that we can talk about some of these things and bring them to everyone. And actually it really opens new conversations, whereas if you talk about Chicago-style deep dish or New York-style, probably people know that a little bit more."

    The constant innovation is paired with cutting-edge technology, which is on brand for Pizza Hut since it was the first to receive an online order in 1994. For customers arriving at stores, the company added the Hut Lane for contactless carryout. And to mitigate the pressure of finding delivery drivers in a tight labor market, Pizza Hut works with third-party aggregators to provide greater access and attract incremental customers. The chain is also leveraging Dragontail, an AI platform that streamlines the food preparation process from order to delivery. It touches kitchen flow, dispatching drivers, optimizing delivery routes, and customer order tracking. 

    In 2022, Pizza Hut opened a net of 13 units in the U.S. after shuttering a net of nearly 900 restaurants during the previous four years. Much of those closures were part of the brand's strategy to move away from dine-in locations in favor of off-premises-based stores. To Graves, it proves that if Pizza Hut builds in the right location and operates the right way, success will come. 

    "American customers are telling us they want Pizza Hut and so we want to make sure that we're as easy to access as ever before," Graves says. "We had a positive year of development last year. We're excited to continue to maintain that momentum— expanding Pizza Hut, making it available to everyone, and letting them get our great craveable products."