It has been reported that during a visit to Naples in 1889, Queen Margherita of Italy ate a pizza resembling the colors of the Italian flag, red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil). While the margherita version remains popular in 2015, today’s pizzas boast a massive billing of specialty toppings and combinations, one more delightful than the next.
For Plano,Texas-based Pizza Hut Inc., a business unit of Yum! Brands, one of the largest pizza chains and possibly the most famous pizza brand in the world, the top seller, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the classic cheese pizza. Pepperoni ranks neck-and-neck with the big cheese.
Cheese is such a basic building-block ingredient at Pizza Hut that the company’s global executive chef, Wiley E. Bates III, doesn’t even acknowledge that it’s his favorite ingredient to work with, because it’s such a given. It’s one of many indications that Bates has his eye on a different pizza prize all together: charging ahead with flavor innovation as the lead on Pizza Hut’s roll-out of recent new pie options, from a salted pretzel crust, to a Buffalo sauce, to a balsamic drizzle.
Knowing your customers
Does cheese’s No. 1 ranking surprise Bates, who helped to create the chain’s “Flavor of now” menu, which includes several new, premium options and specialty pies, such as the Sweet Sriracha Dynamite pizza?
“Not at all,” he said, “because of the simplicity of cheese. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I hate cheese.’ The addition of cheese always makes everything better. Our new Pretzel Piggy pizza [with hardwood smoked bacon, mushrooms and spinach with a salted pretzel crust, garlic Parmesan sauce and balsamic sauce drizzle], however, is also one of our most popular, as is our meatball pizza.”
“I especially also like using Peruvian cherry peppers, banana peppers, meatballs and plenty more at Pizza Hut,” he noted. “I like to always balance an acid with a base (umami) flavor. It makes everything taste better.”
Making things taste better for consumers is the fundamental philosophy at Pizza Hut, according to Bates. “We continue to develop flavors until we understand exactly what our customers want,” he said. With nearly $6 billion in annual sales and about 7,500 US locations and roughly another 7,500 in 90 countries around the world, Pizza Hut has a mix of dine-in, delivery and carryout locations spread across the United States in everywhere from small to mid-size and major cities. It is also in Target stores, schools, military bases, commissaries and even in the new, on-trend “Slice Bar” locations which sell individual pizza slices. This past fall, the company introduced one of the biggest menu launches of the year, repositioning its brand with 11 new signature pizzas and a build-your-own concept that features six new sauces, ten crust flavors, and four “drizzles,” which are offered alongside old favorites like the Meat Lover’s and Supreme pizzas.
Bates began working for the Yum!/Pizza Hut corporate office in 2012 at its Center for Restaurant Excellence in Plano, which houses the R&D Center, and he continues to work at the location today, with a focus on expanding the company’s “wow!” factor for customers who look to the culinary mainstay as both comfort food and an opportunity for fun flavor exploration.
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Flavors for ‘famillennials’
“My major job responsibilities [as the first-ever global executive chef] at Pizza Hut are to be the driver of new and trending culinary flavors for the brand and, more importantly, for the Pizza Hut consumer,” he said. “These responsibilities include working closely with our marketing department, in concert with R&D, to design flavors and tastes that will appeal to as many Pizza Hut fans as I can. I directly manage one R&D chef but indirectly lead a Culinary Council of about 40 supplier chefs.”
The supplier chefs support the innovation and initiatives established by Pizza Hut’s leadership team, but the company’s focus remains to appeal to its core consumers while reaching out to both millennials without kids and with kids, a term the brand has coined “famillennials”.
Both famillennials and their child-free counterparts set the direction that food manufacturers and restaurants are following.
“The trends we are seeing in the industry are multi-layered, mostly grounded in the health halo of some sort,” Bates said. “The desire to be healthy and to understand what’s exactly in our food, void a complete change of habit, belief or perception, is what I believe consumers desire today.”
To follow the movement, Pizza Hut also provides a gluten-free pizza by partnering with Boulder, Colo.-based Udi’s, and sells a “Skinny Pie,” which is lower in calories. It is also working on reducing sodium in all pizzas.
“Our gluten-free pizza is new and it’s already doing very well for Pizza Hut,” Bates said. “Our Skinny Pie is a consistent seller — it remains constant — without a lot of peaks and valleys.”
To complement its core line of pizzas, Pizza Hut branches beyond the ordinary to try to discover something extraordinary.
“With our ‘Flavor of now’ menu, we are providing a larger reach of a variety of flavors to all of our customers, even families,” Bates said. “Our audience can now enjoy global flavors rather than just American flavors, and they don’t have to visit a white tablecloth restaurant for this. Trying desired flavors on a pizza gives diners a comfortable feeling and they can choose what topping and crust they want.”
And out-of-country venues provide out-of-the-box opportunities to be even more adventurous.
“What defines American cuisine to our international customers is different than what defines American cuisine to us,” he said. “Our international locations have more latitude to innovate and mix some things up. For example, some of our international locations even serve pizza with seafood as a topping.”
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On teaching and learning
The Research Chefs Association (RCA) provides a creative outlet for Bates to pick up new ideas and formulas.
“The RCA has made an impact, ensuring that chefs stay current and give consumers what they are looking for,” he said. “The RCA, its chefs and members are helping drive creative ways to keep our supermarket shelves and restaurants full with new and exciting products.”
Bates joined the RCA three years ago and is currently studying to receive his Certified Research Chef (CRC) certification.
“My involvement with the RCA is fairly new, but my passion is to mentor young RCA culinologists,” he said. “If I had a research style, it would be that of a teacher. To teach is to learn is to teach.”
Bates had served as a teacher before joining Pizza Hut.
“I was a professor in culinary arts at Collin College in Frisco, Texas, earlier in my career,” he said. “I was teaching kids who would enter food sciences and the restaurant business.”
He also served in the hospitality industry for many years, at Starwood Hotels and Resorts as an executive chef in Columbus, Ohio, where he was born and lived until his late twenties, and as an executive chef and then food and beverage director in their hotels in Texas, specifically for their Westin and Le Meridien brands.
“Working at Starwood was an amazing experience and it helped galvanize my leadership abilities,” he said.
Bates knew he wanted to be a chef way before adulthood.
“By age 14, I caught the cooking bug, coming from a family of good cooks, and it rubbed off,” he said.
His favorite food memory is sitting in the kitchen with his great grandmother, eating cornbread and zucchini squash duxelle.
“Every food I eat draws a memory and that is what I love about food,” he said. “There has never been a time in world history when food has not been present and made an impact. Births, weddings, birthdays — these are all emotional connections that tie us all together — and food is always there.”
And Bates’ role at Pizza Hut can be seen as extending these celebrations because pizza, whether plain cheese or with a drizzle of honey srirarcha, is an American pastime that brings everyone together.