Pizza people prepare Super Bowl blitz

By Bruce Horovitz, USA TODAY

There’s one thing that millions of Super Bowl viewers will do besides drink too much beer: gobble a slice of pizza.

Or four.

Don’t think the nation’s pizza giants aren’t aware of the cosmic link between the Super Bowl and pizza. More pizza will be sold Feb. 1, Super Bowl Sunday, than any other day of 2004. Pizza has become to Super Bowl Sunday what eggs are to Easter. Or candy canes to Christmas.

Experts say that’s no accident. It’s not just because pizza marketers are pushing it so hard. It’s also because pizza is the one food that seems to best meet three game-day criteria: It’s cheap. It’s easy. It’s social.

“There are situations socially tied to food categories,” says Jennifer Aaker, a consumer psychologist and marketing professor at Stanford University. “Just as you might go on an airplane and order a tomato juice, you watch the Super Bowl and eat pizza.”

It’s the one day many Atkins dieters will fall off the wagon and carb out. It’s also the day pizza delivery drivers can expect $2 tips to rocket to $20. ( Related story: Ah, the perks of delivering pizza on game day )

For the pizza kingpins – who consider this their own Super Bowl in a box – this is as big as it gets. Some, particularly Pizza Hut (YUM) , unleash their splashiest new products and ad campaigns. Others, such as Domino’s and Papa John’s (PZZA) , prefer to focus on the basics by opening hours earlier and doubling delivery staff.

Domino’s will deliver about 1.2 million pizzas on Super Bowl Sunday – nearly twice as many as on a regular Sunday. Little Caesars will push its Party Pack promotion: four large pizzas for as little as $20 in some areas. And Papa John’s expects its business will jump 70% in some areas – one reason CEO John Schnatter says he’ll put on a smock and work in a shop that day.

But perhaps no one embraces the Super Bowl more than Pizza Hut, the world’s most powerful and influential pizza seller. On Super Bowl Sunday, the company will unveil what it considers its biggest product idea in years: four square, topped-to-order pizzas in one large pizza box, which, at $11.99, costs about the same as a regular large pizza.

They’ve dubbed it the “4forAll,” because Mom, Dad, brother and sister can each wolf down a topped-to-order personal pizza for the price of a single pizza. To display the family-friendliness of its new product, Pizza Hut is having the Muppets introduce it with the very blond, but rarely bland, singer and MTV reality star Jessica Simpson. “Of course, you can’t watch football without pizza,” says Simpson, of Newlyweds. Co-star and husband, singer Nick Lachey, “watches the game while I eat the pizza,” she says.

Pizza Hut will spend $50 million to launch its newest offering. In the pizza world, this is huge. Some food industry consultants are predicting the newfangled pizza could change the way pizza is sold.

Super pizza party

That is precisely why Pizza Hut is waiting for Super Bowl weekend – to put it in the world’s brightest spotlight. It will co-sponsor the pregame Super Bowl show on CBS and fill the national airwaves with as many as 75 commercials throughout game day. “This is our Normandy landing,” says Peter Hearl, president of Pizza Hut.

The $30 billion pizza industry’s D-Day invasion takes months of planning. For its part, Pizza Hut has been planning the introduction of the 4forAll for almost two years. Never mind that hostile Pizza Hut franchisees, certain the new product would muck up their operations and damage sales, rallied to kill the product.

At one contentious meeting, Jim Schwartz, Pizza Hut’s largest franchisee, with 800 stores mostly in the Southeast, warned Hearl, “This is going to kill our restaurants.”

But 4forAll is very much alive.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Pizza Hut’s 4forAll will get more face time than CBS sports anchor Greg Gumbel, but well before the game.

At almost $2.3 million per 30-second ad slot, none of the pizza giants plans to buy an ad during the game. Besides, most figure that’s too late to juice game-day sales, because most pizza-buying decisions are made before kickoff.

Even so, when there are breaks in the action – particularly at halftime – call volume picks up.

“There is no other day like this,” says David Brandon, CEO of Domino’s. Many Domino’s locations will place TVs in the kitchen on Super Bowl Sunday – not to watch the game but to anticipate breaks in the action, when calls increase.

Sales will jump 42% at Domino’s vs. an average Sunday, and its drivers will cover 4 million miles, the company says.

Super Bowl Sunday has evolved into a national party day: The average number of people at a Super Bowl party is 17, says Jeremy White, executive editor of Pizza Today magazine. “Any time you have large numbers of people together – and the TV on – pizza works because it’s so easy to share.”

And cheap. The typical large pizza feeds four adults for about $10.

“It’s a belly filler,” says Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a restaurant research and consulting firm. “If you have two or three beers and enough pizza, you’re happy no matter who wins.”

Even nutritionists have a tough time knocking pizza.

“Of all the junk foods, pizza is probably the best,” says Marion Nestle, former chairwoman of the nutrition department at New York University and author of Food Politics. “As least it has some vegetables in the tomato sauce.”

The key to healthy enjoyment, she says, is to eat a slice or two, not an entire pizza.

But it isn’t just home-delivered pizza sales that soar on Super Bowl Sunday. So do sales of frozen and carry-out pizza, as well as hotel deliveries. Domino’s is contacting hotel concierges in Houston – where the Super Bowl takes place this year – to coax them to recommend Domino’s to pizza-craving guests, Brandon says. In exchange, he says, hot pizzas will be sent to hotel staff on game day.

Delivery sales tend to spike most during close games, says Jeff Dufficy, a Domino’s franchisee who owns 12 stores in the Boston area. And nothing is better for delivery sales than the home team playing in the big game. “If the (New England) Patriots are in it this year, our sales could be up 200%,” he says.

The night before the Super Bowl is almost as big as Super Bowl Sunday at Little Caesars, says Michael Scruggs, senior vice president of global operations. “That’s when the partying begins,” he says.

Grocery store sales of Kraft’s DiGiorno and Tombstone frozen pizzas typically jump 20% during Super Bowl week, says Renee Zahery, a Kraft spokeswoman. DiGiorno has an on-package Super Bowl promotion called: “Why Tip the Delivery Guy?” The grand prize winner gets $100,000.

And at Nick-N-Willy’s World Famous Take-N-Bake Pizza, which sells made-to-order pizzas to be cooked at home, it’s the biggest day of the year. The Colorado chain will sell four times as many pizzas on Super Bowl Sunday as on any other Sunday, CEO Scott Adams says.

Almost 4forNone

No one’s anticipating a bigger bump on Super Bowl Sunday than Pizza Hut with its 4forAll.

But it hasn’t been easy getting there. Nearly two years ago, a Pizza Hut franchisee in the United Kingdom raised corporate eyebrows by creating a round pizza called “The Quad,” which was segmented into four quadrants with extra spaces of dough.

The Quad never took off. But executives liked the idea of a single pizza that could satisfy four people’s tastes rather than those of one or two.

So Pizza Hut turned to its Explore Team, an in-house, super-secret group of research-and-development, marketing and consumer-behavior specialists, to improve The Quad.

Within a year, they had the pizza they wanted. But franchisees went ballistic. None more so than Schwartz, the biggest franchisee. “It was a product with way too many operational challenges,” he says. It meant changing the way pizza was cooked and new equipment to cook it. And – since the 4forAll is four individual pizzas – each order appeared to require almost four times the labor of a conventional pizza. He feared it would be too costly to make, increase phone order time and stunt sales.

He orchestrated a mutiny. Just as Pizza Hut was ready to test the pizza, Schwartz stopped it by amassing angry franchisees.

Leah Evans, the chief food officer at Pizza Hut, who had overseen the development of 4forAll, dug in her heels. “If you want to kill it, it will be over my dead body,” she recalls saying.

“We were at an impasse,” Schwartz says.

Then, under pressure from headquarters, franchisees reluctantly agreed to try it – but only after R&D re-jiggered the ingredients to shrink the cooking time and reduced the cost of the cooking implements to hundreds from thousands of dollars per store.

A test was carried out in Jacksonville in August. Franchisees prepared for the worst. But the results stunned them. It has been such a wild success that Jacksonville franchisees refused to allow Pizza Hut to stop the test. Stores had to boost staff 20% to handle the additional business, Evans says.

Beginning Monday, Pizza Hut stores in various regions of the country will start to roll out the new pizza. But it won’t be sold and marketed coast to coast until Super Bowl Sunday.

And Schwartz, the franchisee who fought so hard against it, says he expects it to be one of the chain’s biggest hits.

“It’s one of those products that will either make us or break us,” he says. “I think it’s gonna make us.”