Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Pizza Hut to Become Pasta Hut?

Pasta HutPizza Hut wants folks to start thinking of it also as something a tad more squishy: Pasta Hut.

The nation's largest pizza chain on Tuesday unveils plans to start delivering pasta on April 6 — something no pizza chain does nationally. The move comes as sales in the $37 billion pizza business are slowing with the overall economy.

"If we do it right, pasta could become as big a business as pizza," says Brian Niccol, chief marketing officer. For consumers, "It changes what foods they can get delivered."

Its new Tuscani Pastas will come as Creamy Chicken Alfredo and Meaty Marinara. The price for the pasta is $11.95, the same as a large pizza with one topping, and Pizza Hut says they'll feed a family of six. The pastas are baked in the pizza ovens and come with five breadsticks.

Even as burger and chicken chains have expanded menus in recent years, few pizza chains have. After success with delivery of its WingStreet chicken wings, Pizza Hut not only is embracing pasta, but would consider modifying its name if pasta is a hit, Niccol says.

He says pasta could be 15% of Pizza Hut's business within a year. And that's without hurting pizza sales, according to pasta tests in Kansas City and Tampa.

Industry experts say pasta is tricky. "The hardest thing is keeping delivered pasta hot," consultant Linda Lipsky says. And while cold pizza is edible, even enjoyed by many, and reheatable, cold pasta is less appetizing, she says.

Pizza Hut executives say the delivery pouches that keep pizza hot will keep pasta hot. They also note that since the pasta comes in the aluminum pan in which it's baked, the food is easily removable to reheat.

Pizza Hut's strategy: to be a player in "home meal replacement." Its WingStreet wings will be delivered from 2,500 of the brand's 6,500 U.S. locations by the end of 2008, Niccol says. Now, it wants a slice of the $13.7 billion restaurant and take-out pasta business.

"We asked ourselves, 'Why aren't we doing it?' and couldn't come up with a good reason," Niccol says.

Lipsky says pasta could be a hit — or a major miss. Done right, pasta delivery could give Pizza Hut a competitive edge, she says. But, she warns, proper pasta consistency can be very tricky. "An extra minute cooking, and you've got mush."

Pizza Hut pasta will be baked, not boiled, Niccol says, and the ingredients — from noodles to sauce to cheese — will be supplied to locations frozen, and be thawed for use.

Rivals say they're unimpressed.

While Domino's delivers pasta in South Korea and Malaysia, it has no plans for it here, says J. Patrick Doyle, president of Domino's USA. "Pizza Hut is evolving into casual dining."

Papa John's also has no pasta plans, says William Van Epps, the company's U.S. president. "As our founder once said. 'The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.' "

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