Breaking up the pizza party

by Eric Schroeder
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KANSAS CITY — The food service pizza market, a segment where chains traditionally have differentiated themselves by the quality of their crusts and toppings or by focusing on price, is undergoing a transformation. Instead of touting their latest specialty pizzas, the three largest pizza food service chains are offering alternative dining options to traditional pizza fare and, in the process, have opened the door to more direct competition with other food service operators.

Domino’s Pizza, Ann Arbor, Mich., became the latest company to signal a shift in its menu makeup with the announcement on Aug. 18 it has added oven-baked sandwiches. The No. 2 pizza delivery chain will offer the sandwiches — baked on artisan Italian bread — in four varieties: Philly Cheese Steak, Chicken Bacon Ranch, Chicken Parm, and Italian. The suggested retail price will be $4.99, and the sandwiches are expected to be available in all Domino’s outlets by Sept. 22.

"As of today, we are the largest sandwich delivery company in the nation," said Patrick Doyle, president of Domino’s USA, on Aug. 18. "This launch springboards Domino’s into the lunch business by providing a product that is high quality, priced right and aimed at convenience-minded people without a lot of time. Or course, sandwiches are also available any time our stores are open."

Seeking to differentiate Domino’s from sandwich outlets that use microwaves or toaster ovens to warm their sandwiches, Mr. Doyle said Domino’s products will have "a huge quality advantage" thanks to high-end ovens that bake the chain’s sandwiches at 450° Fahrenheit.

While it may be "sandwich" time at Domino’s, it’s turning into "pasta" time at Pizza Hut, Inc., Dallas.

With more than 10,000 restaurants worldwide, the world’s largest pizza restaurant company made headlines this year when it announced on April Fool’s Day that it would change its name to Pasta Hut from Pizza Hut. Although the prank received a lot of attention in the media, the company’s decision to reinvent itself is anything but a joke.

The company’s Tuscani Pastas are available in two styles: Creamy Chicken Alfredo and Meaty Marinara. Both feature Rotini pasta and a blend of sauce and cheese. Each 3-lb serving of Tuscani Pastas costs $11.99 and includes five baked breadsticks.

Pizza Hut further broadened its product portfolio with the late July introduction of "the Natural," a new pizza made from all-natural ingredients. The pizza contains a multi-grain crust, organic sauce and natural toppings. Adding to the product’s natural appeal, the pizza is served in boxes made from up to 75% recycled material.

While it may not have pasta or oven-baked sandwiches on its menu, Louisville, Ky.-based Papa John’s International, Inc. has been equally adept at expanding its offerings.

In May, Papa John’s became the first national pizza chain to add a 100% whole wheat crust to its menu. Each serving of the crust contains 40 grams of whole grains, more than 80% of the recommended daily intake for whole grains.

Even while moving to deliver on the health front, Papa John’s has taken steps to provide options for the sweet tooth. In late July, the restaurant chain introduced Chocolate Pastry Delights, a pastry filled with Nestle Toll House chocolate, white icing and served warm. The new item joins an existing dessert lineup that includes Cinna Swirl Sweettreat, Apple Twist Sweettreat and Cinnamon Sweetsticks desserts.

The trend toward expanded menus at the key pizza chains does not appear likely to dwindle.

"As pizza players are seeing increasing cross-segment competition from both full-service restaurants (appetizers), sandwich shops offering pizza (Subway) and supermarkets prepared foods (Whole Foods), traditional pizza chains are expanding their menu to remain competitive and service consumers more broadly," said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic, Inc., a tracker of trends within the food service industry. "With menu expansion into chicken wings, pastas, salads, desserts and more recently sandwiches, pizza delivery chains are providing more convenience to consumers and more reasons for loyal customers to use their restaurants.  With Jimmy Johns success with ‘freaky fast delivery,’ pizza chains will have to work harder to maintain their advantage in the delivery market."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 2, 2008, starting on Page 20. Click here to search that archive.

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