Pizza Hut, Papa John's, and Domino's Are Pushing Pizza Boundaries

Pizza companies have consistently moved away from traditional pies in an attempt to get attention and sales. Image source: Pizza Hut.

There used to be a time when it was enough for a national pizza chain to offer just regular pizza, and not even very good pizza.

Being open late, delivering, and having cheap prices made it perfectly OK to offer the standard menu of pepperoni, sausage, various vegetables, and the other staples that have traditionally topped pies around the country. Recently, however, increased competition amongYum! Brands' (NYSE: YUM) Pizza Hut, Papa John's (NASDAQ: PZZA), and Domino's (NYSE: DPZ)has forced innovation that sometimes borders on the absurd.

One of the chains has responded by pushing pizza to places it maybe should not go, while another has worked on improving the ordering experience, perhaps also past the point where it even makes sense.

What is Pizza Hut doing?

After a brief push toward customization and high-quality ingredients with its "Flavor of Now" menu -- an effort that failed to grow sales -- Pizza Hut has fallen back on using tactics borrowed from fellow Yum! Brands chain Taco Bell, which has found success by creating attention-getting tacos, burritos, and other items with popular snack chips including Doritos and Fritos.

Instead of adding Funyuns and Pringles as toppings, Pizza Hut has decided to focus on stuffing more ridiculous things in its crust. In the past, this has included hot dogs, while the current menu includes both bacon-stuffed crust and something called "Grilled Cheese Stuffed Crust," a monstrosity that, according to a Sept. 19 company blog post, features "extra gooey cheddar and mozzarella cheese stuffed in and baked onto the crust." The pizza is then finished with a breadcrumb and melted butter topping.

What is Papa John's doing?

In a move that seems downright pedestrian when you look at what its rivals have been doing, Papa John's has introduced pan pizza. Calling the addition "one of its biggest product innovations in a decade," the company makes its new Chicago-style pies with never-frozen dough along with "a seasoned hearty tomato sauce" and the customer's choice of toppings, according to an Oct. 10 press release.

"We've been working for a year and a half on this Pan Pizza to get it absolutely perfect for our pizza fans," said Steve Ritchie, president and COO of Papa John's, in the press release. "We wanted this pie to follow our quality ingredient promise but with a unique edge. This brought us to create a new, fresh pan dough and sauce to give our customers more of what they want and love."

This move, while less attention-grabbing than what some of its rivals have done, has been in line with Papa John's recent focus on pushing its "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza" tag line, by working on using "clean" ingredients. The new pan pizza is surprising only because the company waited so long to offer something that Domino's has sold for years, but it's a smart move that should bring in some customers.

What is Domino's doing?

In recent years, Domino's has focused on making its pizza very easy to get. Some of these advances have been impressive -- the Pizza Tracker, for example, which lets people follow the progress of their order, can be quite useful. Others have bordered on the silly, such as Dom, the company's voice assistant, and ordering via texting emojis, which may take a good thing too far.

The epitome of that may be the company's creation of zero-click ordering.

"We think about how to make digital ordering better all day and all night," said Domino's Chief Digital Officer Dennis Maloney in a press release earlier this year. "Zero-click ordering is a dream come true for us. I'm not saying the idea came to me in a dream (and I'm not saying it didn't), but I challenge someone to dream up an easier way to order."

The zero-click process works by people creating a standard order in a special app. By opening the app, which seems like something that might sometimes happen by accident, the saved order is ordered without a single click (aside from the one to open the app). There is a 10-second countdown timer before the order is actually placed (to help avoid mistakes), but the potential for pocket pizza ordering still seems high.

Why is this happening?

For these companies, it's all about getting attention. Like a teenager getting a new piercing or a child drawing on the wall, these pizza chains simply want the public to look at them. Pizza Hut has accomplished that by pushing the bounds of good taste. Nobody was clamoring for bacon-stuffed or grilled cheese crust, but offering it gets people to try it, if only to say they did.

Similarly, Domino's has used silliness to bring attention to its actual improvements in ordering. A no-click system, a voice assistant, and emoji ordering are gimmicks that few people will use often, but the company has refined its app and website, making normal ordering easy. Domino's knows that picking up a phone to order a pizza is not that hard, but by highlighting the edges of its innovation, it's actually drawing people to its practical innovation.

Papa John's has taken the opposite approach from its rivals. The company has doubled down on its "Better Ingredients, Better Pizza" message while introducing a new form factor, pan pizza, which should lead to some sampling. That's a very restrained approach in a market that has rewarded outrageous behavior, but if people actually like the pan pizza, it may be the most sustainable of the tactics used by the three pizza leaders.

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Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He has a gluten allergy and misses good pizza. The Motley Fool owns shares of Papa John's International. The Motley Fool is short Domino's Pizza. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.