Pizza Hut plans to start offering pizza by the slice for the first time in two test locations this week, as the chain looks to keep pace with trendy competitors offering quick, made-to-order pies.
The chain says the two locations -- in York, Neb., and Pawtucket, R.I. -- will open on Tuesday.
A slice will cost between $2 and $3 and take three to four minutes to heat up. They'll be made with new recipes more in line with the thinner pies sold in the Northeast.
The tests reflect how established restaurant chains are scrambling to reinvent themselves to keep pace with a rapidly changing industry. Diners are increasingly flocking to places such as Chipotle, where they feel they can get restaurant-quality food for just a little more than they would pay at fast-food chains such as Burger King.
In fact, Chipotle recently announced plans to move into the pizza business with Pizzeria Locale. Customers walk up to a counter and can watch as their pizza is built; the pie is then placed in an oven that cooks it in about 2 minutes. Other pizza chains feature similar fast-cooking, make-your-own concepts, including Blaze Pizza, based in Pasadena, Calif., and Pizza Studio, based in Los Angeles. Melville-based Sbarro is launching Pizza Cucinova, featuring a build-your-own option.
For its part, Pizza Hut has been focusing on developing its smaller format carryout stores rather than its dine-in restaurants in recent years as its sales have fluctuated. In the first three quarters of 2013, sales fell slightly at locations open at least year.
"We're seeing the trends for quick and ready products," noted Pizza Hut chief marketing officer Carrie Walsh.
Rival Domino's has also been selling pizza by the slice at some of its newly designed stores, according to a spokesman. Pizza Hut's parent company, Yum Brands Inc., is also 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.
The growing emphasis on speed may prove to be a stumbling block for some companies. Pizza Hut's traditional ovens, for instance, take about 7 to 10 minutes to cook pies, according to Al Litchenburg, the chain's chief development officer. By comparison, the upstart pizza chains such as Blaze Pizza promise cooking times of just two to three minutes.
Litchenburg says the Pizza Hut test locations will be equipped with new ovens to heat up the slices, but they'll also have the traditional ovens to cook other pies.
He said the company, which is based in Plano, Texas, and has 6,400 U.S. locations, will test variations of the concept throughout the year before deciding how to proceed.
The test restaurant in Nebraska will feature a look designed to be more in line with the experience one might expect at a Panera or Chipotle. It will have salad and pasta stations; customers walk up and order their food, then have it brought to them by employees.
The smaller Rhode Island location will only feature the "slice bar." The slices there will be a bit thinner than in Nebraska to reflect local tastes, Litchenburg said.