The nation's No. 1 pizza chain has been testing pasta in more than a dozen markets, and at least one franchisee has said the products will go national within the next two to four weeks.
PRICED AT $4 TO $6
Pizza Hut's agency, BBDO Worldwide, New York, has created a TV campaign for the pasta line. Among the varieties, which will be priced between $4 and $6, are a chicken primavera and a marinara pasta.
The ad agency referred calls to Pizza Hut; executives at Pizza Hut couldn't be reached at press time.
Management sorely needs a new-product winner at the chain, about to become part of PepsiCo's Tricon Global Restaurant spinoff. Same-store sales at Pizza Hut declined 4% in 1996 and were down 8% for the first quarter of this year.
The main reason: Pizza Hut has been unable to repeat the success of its Stuffed Crust Pizza. Triple Decker Pizza, its most recent big product launch, didn't fill that bill.
"They've had a number of limited-run successes with new-product innovations," said Bill McDowell, senior editor at Chain Leader. "The problem is they get a tremendous sales spike when the marketing machine is turned on, but it doesn't last. They have to address the problem of their core menu offerings."
`MAKIN' IT GREAT'
The pasta rollout will be the second part of Pizza Hut's "Makin' it great, again and again" push, which includes a move to fresher ingredients such as low-fat pepperoni and fresh mushrooms.
That effort is bolstered by a $200 million-plus investment in media advertising, anchored by a TV campaign featuring David Novak, the Pizza Hut president who is now president of Tricon.
A pasta launch is "totally consistent with what David Novak's all about," said PaineWebber analyst Manny Goldman. "That's what he did with KFC-start with an upgrade, move on to focus on value and then introduce new products. What he's doing at Pizza Hut is by the numbers."
The pasta initiative also aims to exploit the burgeoning dinner and home meal replacement market still owned by Boston Market.
PIZZA SLOWS DOWN
"I think it's a very logical extension for Pizza Hut," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a restaurant consultancy. "Growth in the pizza category has slowed. Part of the reason [Pizza Hut's] evening dinner business has eroded is because of [competition from] Boston Market, and even they are struggling with a menu that's not broad enough."
He also noted that "competition from chains like Papa John's is leading [Pizza Hut] to find big, untapped dinner opportunities."
An executive at a major fast-food chain, however, said the leap from pizza to pasta isn't necessarily a logical one for consumers.
Pasta is hard to keep fresh in a quick-service environment, he said. Little Caesar's tested pasta about three years ago and ended up pulling its experiment for that reason.
"If there's any trend in foodservice today, it's the unexciting one of getting back to basics," he said. "I don't know if consumers expect Pizza Hut to perpetually change [its] menu line."