Oct. 10 2016 08:00 AM

A Super Bowl product launch is the telltale sign that Pizza Hut is super serious about a product. With that being the case, the 2015 and 2016 launches were all about Super Cheese for the Super Bowl.

In the testing phase, the Stuffed Garlic Knot Pizza took seven minutes to create. With the work of in-house and partner chefs, Pizza Hut was able to get prep time down to less than three minutes from start to finish. “We have to teach our 16-year-old team member to create that pizza in a short time,” said Dominique Vitry (center) flanked by DMI’s Jodi Kahn (right) and Nitin “Dr. Cheese” Joshi.
With its 6,300 restaurants crisscrossing the nation, Pizza Hut definitely stands as a major player not only in the pizza business but the dairy ingredient business, too. So much so that the Plano, Texas-based international restaurant chain now uses 225 million pounds of cheese on an annual basis.

To comprehend that cheese statistic, it takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. If the average U.S. cow produces 60 pounds of milk, that means the 6,300 Pizza Hut restaurants across the country employ 100,000 U.S. dairy cows or 1 percent of the nation’s dairy herd. Keep in mind that this 100,000-cow total does not include any U.S. cheese potentially consumed at the franchise locations in 102 countries around the world.

While Pizza Hut has always focused on pizza and its core ingredients, the focus on cheese became even stronger when Pizza Hut entered into a relationship with Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) and the national dairy checkoff. That’s when DMI’s Nitin Joshi joined the Pizza Hut family in 2013. These days, the man known affectionately to his Pizza Hut co-workers as “Dr. Cheese” shares his passion for cheese on every potential creation.

“When the Twisted Crust Pizza was set to come out once again as a limited time offer, we had always launched it with marinara sauce,” explained Dominique Vitry, Pizza Hut’s director of culinary innovation. “However, Nitin brought up that we needed a cheese sauce, and he was out in our culinary center hawking the Cheddar Cheese Sauce. ‘Come on, try it,’ he would say to co-workers.

“The chefs tried it and said, ‘It is delicious. Why didn’t we think about that?’

“Nitin would respond, ‘That is why I am here.’

“The Cheddar Cheese Sauce did great,” concluded Vitry. “It was delicious.”

Going for Super Cheese

For Pizza Hut, its main focus is bringing value to its customers in the most enjoyable way possible. That mantra came into clear focus when the Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza — another product Joshi helped develop — was added to menus just before this year’s Super Bowl. It was so successful that this product helped push same store sales up 5 percent during the first quarter of 2016.

“What’s great about this product . . . not only the value at $12.99, but you have two knots per slice of pizza and each knot is stuffed with cheese,” said Vitry, who has been on the Pizza Hut team for nine years. “As you go out in the marketplace, you can get knots anywhere. In fact, garlic knots normally are on the menu as an appetizer, and it fills you up before the pizza even gets there. In the case of the Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza, we looked at the pizza eating experience and asked, ‘How do we design a product to be uniquely Pizza Hut?’” Vitry commented on the culinary team’s thought process.

“With that in mind, we took our delicious, tender breadsticks, cut them in half, put some cheese in there, tied them into a knot, and put the finished product at the edge of the pizza,” explained Vitry, noting the creation combined previous in-house expertise with the Stuffed Crust Pizza and Cheesy Bites.

Wiley Bates III, Pizza Hut’s global executive chef
“When it came out of the oven for the very first time, we got chills,” recalled Vitry, who had previously worked for Kraft Foods and Oscar Meyer. “We knew immediately that the Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza was going to be a big win. I wanted to eat it everyday. It was bigger than anything we had ever done. We even had to create a unique package to hold the product because of how big the knots were since each one was stuffed with cheese,” said Vitry.

“And talk about value. Our customers saw the value of basically getting a large pizza with two orders of garlic knots. It was like getting a free appetizer,” said Vitry. “Our customers loved it so much that they begged us to keep it on the menu,” she said, noting that the creation was a limited time offer. “We responded by making the garlic knots stuffed with cheese available every day on the $5 flavor menu.”

“One of the things I liked about developing the Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza was combining two Pizza Hut fan favorites — pepperoni pizza with the garlic knot,” said Wiley Bates III, Pizza Hut’s global executive chef for the past 5-1/2 years. “That addition of cheese, the indulgency, the flavor, and the presentation all makes a wow factor when you open up the box.”

Joining the permanent menu

The Stuffed Garlic Knots Pizza built upon the success of the Triple Cheese Covered Stuffed Crust Pizza also launched to coincide with the Super Bowl one year earlier. “It was a big deal on the largest pizza-selling day of the year,” noted Courtney Moscovic, public relations manager at Pizza Hut.

“The Triple Cheese Covered Stuffed Crust Pizza is all about the cheese,” said Joshi. “It’s cheese on the topping, cheese inside the crust, and cheese on the crust. There is 1 pound of cheese on the 14-inch pizza. The combination that goes on the crust includes Cheddar, Asiago, and Parmesan,” said the DMI-Pizza Hut specialist. “Determining the right balance was important as each cheese is distinctly known for its flavor,” said Joshi, noting that both the flavor and postcooking color had to be right.

“Pizza Hut had been using Parmesan in salads but not on pizzas at the time,” explained Joshi, who wanted to find ways to make greater use of an in-house ingredient. “It was challenging to bring the right flavor and color after baking. Sometimes it burns and sometimes it doesn’t have the right flavor.

“The Parmesan cheese on the Triple Cheese Covered Stuffed Crust Pizza worked out so well that it is now a permanent menu choice that can be ordered on other pizzas,” said Joshi.

The Triple Cheese Covered Stuffed Crust Pizza also follows Pizza Hut’s goal stated by Jeff Fox, who serves as chief concept and brand officer, “We all want more cheese in more places.”

There are many additional examples of positive outcomes of the DMI and the national dairy checkoff working with Pizza Hut. The Big Flavor Dipper that doesn’t have any pizza sauce, just cheese, stands out. And one of the four dipping sauces features a revamped California Ranch with strong dairy buttermilk notes or flavoring. That product came out just in time for this year’s Summer Olympics.

The Pizza Hut team not only relies on its in-house talent, but outside expertise, too. The creative menu team includes 30-plus Pizza Hut employees from three teams — culinary, product design, and food safety and quality assurance. Then there is the “League of Extraordinary Chefs” that includes 40 more specialists in cheese, meats, spices, dough, and includes additional outside partners. It’s a group Bates relies on extensively.

“This group gathers regularly, every six to eight weeks, to present concepts to improve our ‘North Star Idea,’ which is the latest product development project,” explained Chef Bates, noting that North Star Idea only came about after evaluating 40 or so ideas via consumer test panels.

“We want the in-store and at-home experience to be the same, and each experience must mimic a freshly made pizza,” said Vitry. “That is where the DMI partnership is so important.

“How do we make sure the pizza stays hot? How do we make sure the cheese stays gooey and has cheese pull?

“That’s the magic that DMI brings to our team,” said Vitry.

This article appears on pages 608 and 609 of the October 10, 2016 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.
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