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Dish R&D: Cheesy Bites Pizza

16 May 2006

Pizza Hut doubles the finger-food fun with a new menu item that kicked off in time for the year's biggest TV event.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Nearly 26 million Americans order pizza on Super Bowl Sunday, making it the ultimate game day for Pizza Hut's Chief Food Innovation Officer Shirish Mehta and his new-product team. This year, the Yum! Brands chain hoped to score big with Cheesy Bites Pizza, a promotion introduced in late January after 18 months in development and backed by a $50 million advertising campaign.

Clued into customers' appetites for value-added crusts by the success of its Stuffed Crust Pizza, the Dallas-based company hit on the idea of circling its classic pies with 28 dough-wrapped, cheese-bite snacks. "Handheld, popable snacks are the big thing; kids especially love them. We wanted to leverage that trend in the context of pizza and our brand equity," says Mehta, who identifies such trends with the help of ongoing research gleaned from in-person interviews, focus groups, online surveys and other methods.

For a brand built almost completely on pizza, innovation most often focuses on new permutations of Pizza Hut's cheese, sauce and crust combinations. It also means developing products that aren't too complicated to work within the chain's manufacturing and restaurant production systems. Formulas that use ingredients already in regular inventory simplify the process, but stirring up excitement with a new flavor helps build sales. The Cheesy Bites Pizza introduced Pizza Hut regulars to one new item: garlic-butter seasoning that coats the cheese nuggets. Inside is the same cheese used in the chain's Stuffed Crust pizza.

"When we're developing these flavors, we think about complexity and layering," says Mehta, who chose the combination as the pizza's best complement, trumping other options such as Parmesan cheese- or oregano-seasoned blends.

Pizza Hut's hand-tossed crust, thinner than the pan variety but more substantial than its Thin 'N Crispy version, was selected as the Cheesy Bites Pizza's foundation because it has the broadest customer acceptance. Cheese and toppings are spread all the way to the edge; the bites then are created using a proprietary tool. Dipping sauces such as garlic-butter, marinara and ranch can be purchased on request.

After the Super Bowl rollout, Pizza Hut is bolstering Cheesy Bites Pizza marketing with an online component that lets Web-site visitors remix the campaign's theme song in varying musical styles.

"The Internet is a very powerful avenue for reaching a certain segment of consumers, and it's been working very well for us," Mehta says.

DISH: Cheesy Bites Pizza
COMPOSITION: Tomato sauce, pizza cheese and choice of toppings on hand-tossed crust ringed by 28 cheese-filled, dough-wrapped bites
18 months
MENU PRICE: $11.99
FOOD COST: n/a

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