If diners like what they see at the new Pizza Hut opening Wednesday in York, Neb., it may mean changes for the chain nationwide.
The York location was built to test a pizza-by-the-slice concept that Pizza Hut hopes can boost sales and help it compete against newcomers like Chipotle's Pizzeria Locale and local by-the-slice sellers Valentino's and Casey's.
“We're excited to be part of the test,” said Dave Staab, president of Grand Island, Neb.-based Staab Management, whose family has operated Pizza Huts since 1965. Pizza Hut will be carefully studying sales at the new restaurant and will interview diners about their experience and the likelihood they will return, he said. The chain's other test location will be in Pawtucket, R.I.
The new York restaurant replaces two older-style Pizza Huts that have recently closed: A traditional restaurant with a buffet, and a second store just for carryout and delivery. Pizza Hut has been focusing on developing smaller format carry-out stores as its sales have been choppy. In the first three quarters of 2013, sales fell slightly at locations open at least a year.
The new location, south of York's downtown in a renovated former Dairy Queen, will feature big slices hot out of an old-time brick oven, a selection of craft beers and fresh salads and pastas tossed to order. Similar to Panera or Chipotle, customers will walk up and order food, then have it brought to them by employees.
Staab called it “theater,” saying, “We're sauteeing pastas right in front of the customers.” He emphasized speed and said the ability to customize an order, starting with a single $3 slice, delivers greater value than the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet that may leave some customers feeling they couldn't eat their money's worth.
He also said the experience will be fast — just three to four minutes for a custom slice. “The customer of today is really looking for quality and speed,” Staab said.
Established restaurant chains are scrambling to reinvent themselves to keep pace with a rapidly changing industry. The challenge: figuring out how to serve food quickly, while also improving perceptions about their food.
Rival Domino's has been selling pizza by the slice at some of its newly designed stores, a spokesman said. Pizza Hut's parent company, Yum Brands, is testing a more upmarket concept with its KFC chain called “KFC eleven.” And McDonald's, the world's biggest hamburger chain, is testing a “build-your-own burger” concept in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
At York's Pizza Hut, the full menu will still be available for those who don't mind waiting seven to 10 minutes for a whole pizza.