Monday, March 26, 2012
Pizza Hut: It's Not Just A Fast Food Pizza Place, It's A Cultural Institution (Or Metaphor!)!
Click here for a Pizza Hut gift card!
The Good: Lunch buffet is a phenomenal deal, Often have coupons/deals available, Pizza tastes good
The Bad: Drink prices are high, Regular pizza deals are not great
The Basics: A perfectly average pizza and pizza chain restaurant, Pizza Hut impresses patrons with its dazzling, inexpensive Lunch Buffet and its experimental pizzas it released on occasion!
We all have our rituals, our safe zones, our personal Meccas, places we go or things we do to keep ourselves centered. My favorite place in the United States is Salem, Massachusetts (reviewed here!) and last year was the first year in the new Millennium that I have not been there at least once. I go there yearly to center myself and it renews me. But going to Salem is a bit of a trek and I can't always afford to do that, like last year. So when I'm uncentered and I need something simple and good in my life, I go to Pizza Hut.
Now, one might wonder why I don't go to my beloved Panera Bread when I'm in such a state and the answer is simple: I love Panera Bread, the food there nourishes and enriches me and makes me feel healthy and good. But for the price of half a sandwich and a soup, I can gorge myself on a pizza and a half at Pizza Hut.
And that's what I do, on average once every other month when I am uncentered.
Damn, is it a great country we live in!
Pizza Hut has a lunch buffet, it's the gimmick of the chain. Every pizza chain has a gimmick: be it quality ingredients (Papa John's), quantity (originally, Little Caesar's offered this, now they offer immediacy) or gimmicky taste experiments (Domino's). Pizza Hut, on the other hand has mid-range pizza prices that reflect the fair quality and taste of their pizza. It's not bad by any objective standard, but in general, it's not the best food in terms of nutrition or taste (though I love monolithically salty and greasy as much as the next American!). It is, in every way, average.
Pizza Hut is a chain restaurant in the United States that has over 10,000 locations, most of which seem to be located on the East Coast. In times past, the free standing Pizza Hut locations had a distinctive blockish red roof that was recognizable at a distance and could lure consumers in. Now owned by Yum - the fast food conglomerate that spun off from PepsiCo and also owns Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silvers and Hires restaurants - Pizza Huts are present in malls, college campuses, strip malls (often as express locations offering take-out only) and the free standing restaurants that often still have the recognizable red roofs.
One of the nice things about Pizza Hut in terms of their locations is this: as someone who travels major North-South arterials from New York to Florida, I've noticed that Pizza Huts tend to advertise well on exit signs. They may not take out billboards, but when there is a Pizza Hut in proximity to an exit off major highways like 81, 95, and 84, they always seem to be on the signs! I've driven past Panera Bread locations that were visible from the highway that didn't let people know they were there by being present on one of those signs that simply advertises what Food is available immediately off the exit. Pizza Hut seems to pony up for that type of advertising expense and it's money well spent; say what you will about fast food chains, Pizza Hut is arguably one of the most consistent in terms of quality and price nationwide!
Pizza Hut is everywhere in the United States, but it is a staple of college towns.
Most locations feature booths that seat four to six people around the walls and about six four-seat tables in the middle of the restaurant with two buffet stations near the entrance and the cashier. The standard layout is designed to let customers see the lunch buffet - when it is up - upon entering and it is usually closest to the cashier. Behind that is usually the other buffet station which is a salad bar. The booths are designed - like many fast food places - to encourage patrons to get comfortable, but not too comfortable. As a result, most people eating at Pizza Hut will be in and out within an hour.
Pizza Hut's tend to employ younger people as it is not what is generally considered a glamour job. Employees at most Pizza Hut restaurants I have frequented have averaged between 17 and 30 years old. As with any chain, quality of service is rather variable. Most servers seat customers and bring them drinks and/or pizza but have very little interaction otherwise. In many locations, the servers also act as cashier and sometimes the cook performs cashier duties as well (I'm always happier when I'm eating in a state that requires rubber gloves for preparing food).
Honestly, I have never had a rude server at a Pizza Hut. In fact, they have gone out of their way in my neck of the woods to make me feel comfortable, especially when I go to a Lunch Buffet and find the place overrun with high school students or other children. I tend to be rather patient with workers in this type of environment and while I have seen a Pizza Hut understaffed and its worker harried, I've never had anything but decent service at the Pizza Hut locations I have been at (and I've been to at least fifty in my assorted travels).
As its name implies, Pizza Hut is a restaurant that primarily serves pizza. As a result of the desire to grow and compete, most Pizza Hut locations offer wings, breadsticks and baked pasta dishes (essentially pasta with sauce with a layer of cheese on top, sometimes with various meats baked in with the sauce). For limited times, periodically Pizza Hut offers calzones for approximately $6.00. Given that they are essentially a small pizza rolled up and stuffed with cheese, this is actually a great deal (especially when they do a 2/$10.00 promotion!) and despite the fact that most of what Pizza Hut serves is a variety of bread products, meals like the pasta bakes and the calzones can manage to be quite filling. When Pizza Hut offers their calzones (with a great market-research-tested name, the P-zone!) they tend to be a favorite as they pack the calzones with a ton of hot mozzarella and whatever "toppings" one requests. The meatlovers p-zone is actually quite filled with Italian sausage, ham, bacon, and pepperoni. The calzones are brushed with an oil that has spices (I recognize oregano, so it's probably just italian seasoning), so they might be considered a little messier than some people want. When I go to Pizza Hit, I am anticipating a little bit of messy, so it is expected more than unwelcomed.
As far as the pizzas go, Pizza Hut makes a decent pizza. Pizzas come in the standard, small, medium, and large which tend to range from 16" in diameter up to 20". Pizza Hut offers the standard bevy of toppings from extra cheese, pepperoni, Italian sausage, ham, bacon, green peppers, red peppers (most locations), onions, tomatoes, and black olives. For the more adventurous, most locations have the options of anchovies and lately the chain has been experimenting with Buffalo wing chicken (as opposed to the barbecue chicken they offered back when I was in college)! Pizzas range in price from approximately $10 for a small one-topping pizza to $17.00 for a large "lovers" line. Extra toppings average $1.25/topping.
The "lovers" pizzas include the meat lovers, cheese lovers and veggie lovers. These pizzas are designed to please people who like a lot of one thing. So, for example, the meat lovers line includes all of the meats (save the anchovies and chicken) that Pizza Hut offers as separate toppings and the pizza comes with the toppings piled on. The advantage to a lovers line pizza is one saves money on the pizza over ordering the toppings separate.
Pizza Hut also offers options of various crusts from their standard pan pizza to a thin crust to a deep dish pizza style. The pan pizza tends to come brushed with oil on the crust, so health conscious people may want to to with the thin crust instead as that has the dryness of matzos and it often seems a bit healthier that way. At various times, Pizza Hut experiments with stuffed crust pizzas; putting extra cheese or sauce in the outer "lip" that defines the edge of the pizza. These experiments vary pizza by pizza. A cheese stuffed crust pizza is a wonderful idea, so long as there's a good amount of cheese packed into the crust. Otherwise, it's just a gimmick and a disappointing one at that!
Pizza Hut uses a pretty mild pizza sauce. It is a little sweet, but it is one of the more unobtrusive pizza sauces from the major pizza chains. It does not taste strongly of tomato and it generally does not distract from the flavor of the toppings, though when there is very little sauce - a sauce weak spot - it is entirely possible that the flavor of the bready crust will overwhelm the sauce.
My favorite pizza type is a meat lover's pizza. When it comes to pizza, I love stacking a pizza high with every type of meat imaginable. Pizza Hut, I have found, offers a remarkable sense of consistency when it comes to making meat lover's pizzas. As a result, virtually anywhere I go in the United States, I can count on being able to find a pizza that is loaded up with a decent amount of Italian sausage, ham, pepperoni, and bacon for a more or less standard price. The impressive thing about Pizza Hut pizzas is this: even their thin crusts have integrity to them. Their standard pan pizza crust is a fairly chewy, lightly sweet bread crust which holds up fine, no matter how many toppings. But the thin crust pizza is one that lives up to its name. It is not an inapt analogy to compare the thin crust pizza with matzos; the edges pretty consistently crack apart and if one wants to bend the pizza, the pieces snap as opposed to pulling apart. But the thing that's impressive is when I order a meat lovers with a thin crust - which I do because I want to taste the meat and cheese, not the sauce and the crust - no matter how piled on the toppings are, the slices generally hold their structural integrity. It's hard for me to not be impressed with that.
The salad bar is usually open whenever the Pizza Hut is open and it tends to offer a very standard tossed salad with all the typical garnishes in little vats nearby like tomatoes, cucumbers and purple onions. In addition to the addition vegetables, there are croutons, bacon bits and other toppings like that and an average of six different salad dressings available. There are usually the salad bar bonus items, like cottage cheese, pudding and sometimes hard-boiled eggs. The salad bar is adequate; it has an "out of the bag" feel that is salad bar generic and I suspect that the salad bar appeals more to those coming to Pizza Hut accompanying those who are there to enjoy themselves as opposed to people coming to the restaurant in the spirit of the Hut. Nothing from the salad bar is going to light anyone's life on fire and salad connoisseurs are likely to leave very disappointed.
What makes Pizza Hut exceptional is the two hours a day that they perform the Pageant Of American Consumerism known as the Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet. For those who have not had the pleasure, the Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet (it is, quite seriously, worth capitalizing) is a uniquely American concept whereby from 11:30 - 1:30 (your Pizza Hut's hours may vary - call ahead to make the best use of your time!) a pizza bar is set up which features six to eight pizzas at a buffet station. The pizzas range from the standard pepperoni to the macabre - in college Pizza Hut experimented with a barbecue chicken pizza (barbecued chicken topping, I swear it was Monterey Jack cheese instead of mozzarella but that could be the years of idolizing this experiment talking, and a barbecue sauce instead of standard pizza tomato sauce, yum!) - and everything in between. They tend to try to mix it up by including various crust types, there is usually at least one option loaded with various vegetables, white pizzas, deep dish, and dessert pizzas, you name it. For $5.99 (the latest price as I write this) consumers get a two hour feeding frenzy where they do not control the choices offered, but there is as much pizza as everyone in the Pizza Hut can consume! As well, there are breadsticks - standard and cinnamon dessert ones - and usually a pasta bake dish as well. Since going up to $5.99, the salad bar has been included in the Lunch Buffet, but it's just empty calories and filler that distract from the main course! Patrons simply return time and again to the serving station and take slices of pizza from the pizzas that are there and come back when their plates are empty! Servers restock the pizzas as soon as the kitchen makes more and there is an open spot (during packed days, the Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet becomes a feeding frenzy whereby Americans are reduced to sharks competing for piping hot pizza slices).
Yes, the Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet is an institution of gluttony, but it's reason enough not to expatriate in these fractious times. The Pizza Hut lunch buffet is a win/win/win situation. Patrons who go get a lot of food for not a lot of money (my personal record is seventeen pieces of pizza with three bread sticks and a serving of pasta, which would impress those who have seen me as I'm a rather thin person!) and one is encouraged to just eat whatever's there because the kitchen needs room to put out the next pizza! Pizza Hut gets great market research; they can tell exactly what sells because if people won't eat it during the inexpensive lunch buffet, it's gotta' be a dog! And furthermore, Pizza Hut gets patrons to pay for their advertising. The Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet is essentially a glorified advertisement where patrons pay to sample as much pizza as they can cram in in as little time as possible (most people finish within half an hour, allowing for new customers to be seated fairly regularly) and they are likely to try things they might not ordinarily sample. As a result, Pizza Hut later sells things like dessert pizzas (think a pizza with pie filling and icing as a topping) to customers who tried them at the lunch buffet. And if they would ever offer their barbecue chicken pizza again (not that foul buffalo chicken wing pizza they're convinced people love!), they'd discover what I did; that sometimes it pays to try something new and when you find something different to like, customers will come back to it when they purchase full pizzas at other times!
Drinks are standard Pepsi products served in cups that are usually quite filled with ice. During the lunch buffet - the only time I've had their limitless sodas - the price is just under $2.00, but refills are free and when they servers are not too harried, they are quite quick with the refills.
Basically, Pizza Hut buys loyalty to the chain by giving a phenomenal deal opportunity for two hours every weekday and it pays off. When I can afford it, I'll get a pizza at Pizza Hut. The food tastes good; it's a very simple, very basic thing that drives me to Pizza Hut when I do go there; I want something that tastes good: cheesy and salty tend to be what I desire when I go to Pizza Hut. And they deliver exactly that. It's good food, but it's not going to win any awards.
But it does win loyalty and if the food didn't taste good, it couldn't do that, as least not with me. And yes, the Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet is something every American should go to at least once; it's what we're all about.
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© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
Click here for a Pizza Hut gift card!