I visited a sit-down Pizza Hut in Dubai that's nothing like the US brand, and now I'm convinced it should return to the classic restaurants that made it famous

  • Pizza Hut is struggling to keep its No. 1 market share in the $US38 billion US pizza market, as Domino’s and Papa John’s continue to expand.
  • For people who grew up on Pizza Hut, its restaurants today are a pale imitation of the brand’s 1980s and 1990s heyday, when the restaurants were a buzzing place to sit down and have a meal.
  • But the US only accounts for half of Pizza Hut’s business. When travelling, I have found that international Pizza Huts retain the upscale sit-down feel of classic Pizza Huts.
  • I tried a number of dishes at a Pizza Hut restaurant in Dubai and found the food to be tastier and fresher than its American counterpart.

For those that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, Pizza Hut was an experience.

I have many fond memories of that red-roofed Church of ‘Za – its translucent red cups, the hanging stained glass lamps, the seemingly infinite salad bar, the joy of the midday pizza buffet, and the smell of a sizzling pizza in a pan.

Not these days. It’s no secret that the brand has seen better days.

Over the last two decades, Pizza Hut’s share of the fast food pizza market has dwindled from 25% in 1995 to around 14%, as Domino’s and Papa John’s continue to grow. Many industry analysts suspect that, by the end of the year, Domino’s will have overtaken Pizza Hut as the top pizza brand in the US.

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I’ve been travelling the world for 6 months and I use the same trick in any city I visit to make sure I find amazing food

As Pizza Hut has tried to grow sales, it has turned increasingly to its competitors’ strategies of relying on low-margin, high-volume delivery and takeout locations. In the US, there are only a handful of the beloved red-roofed sit-down restaurants left.

But the US only accounts for half of Pizza Hut’s revenue, with the rest coming from its more than 9,000 locations across the world. Pizza Hut and its parent company, Yum! Brands, have expanded aggressively across the world, often being the first American brands to touch down in far-flung places. Yum Brand’s KFC was the first American brand in China, with Pizza Hut close behind. In 2009, Pizza Hut was the first international fast-food restaurant to open in Nepal.

As I’ve travelled around the world, I’ve noticed – whether I’m in China, Japan, or the Middle East – that the Pizza Hut of Old still lives. In many of the 100 countries that Pizza Hut has locations, it still operates as an upscale sit-down restaurant.

On a recent trip to the Dubai Mall, I spotted a sit-down Pizza Hut that had a fresh, new look. I decided to give it a try to see what it was like.

Despite its recent troubles, Pizza Hut is still one of the biggest fast-food brands in the world. With 16,796 locations around the world, Pizza Hut is the world’s sixth biggest fast food company.

While exploring the Dubai Mall in the United Arab Emirates, I decided to stop in on the Pizza Hut location there.

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Dubai has a $US20 billion megacomplex with the world’s 2nd-largest mall, the world’s tallest building, an aquarium, and 1,200 stores. I can’t imagine why any tourist would want to visit.

The Dubai Mall location doesn’t look exactly like Pizza Hut I grew up on, but more like what might have happened in the brand kept improving its sit-down restaurants rather than trying to beat Domino’s at the delivery game.

The fresh, clean decor could best be described as modern fast-casual restaurant-meets-Old School Pizza Hut-meets-Brooklyn cafe.

The Dubai Mall location is not the only place Pizza Hut is testing new dine-in concepts. In Australia, Pizza Hut debuted a new “hipster cafe”-style restaurant late last year. The location even included a new version of “the Works” — its classic all-you-can-eat deal.

Pizza Hut Australia

I grabbed a booth, just like I used to do when I was 7 years old …

… and started paging through the menu. There were a ton of options for pizzas and pastas. Pastas were around 19 AED, or a little over $US5.

While you could pick your own toppings, the menu had some preset combos set up, including a Chicken Shawarma pizza that I have to think is specific to the Middle East. I was going to have to try that.

And, of course, there’s the salad bar. For long-time Pizza Hut fans, the salad bar is at the heart of the classic Pizza Hut experience.

The new dine-in concept in Dubai doesn’t forget that. The salad bar is right in the center of the restaurant, surrounded by green wall plants and big sign. It’s very appealing.

There it is, in all its glory. While more compact than the salad bar I remember, it included all of the best salad accoutrements — including the little crunchy noodle things I used to eat by the bowl as a kid. They’re supposed to be a salad topping, but, for me, they were the appetizer.

While you can’t get alcohol at the Pizza Hut in Dubai — only hotels can sell alcohol in the UAE. — the Hut does have an entire “mocktail” bar for fruity, soda drinks.

I, too, believe in pizza. That’s why I ordered way too much food. I had to test it all for you, the reader.

One of the best parts about the new Pizza Hut dine-in experience is the open kitchen. You can watch the pizza maestros make your pie right in front of you.

And then you can stare at it until a server comes to bring it to your table.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I got too much food. I started with the appetizer trio for 25 AED ($US6.80). It included wings, potato wedges, and chicken “spinrolls.”

I started with the chicken wings. Considering that Pizza Hut has its own embedded wing chain, Wingstreet, you’d hope they do wings well. The quality of the chicken seemed very good, the hot sauce was simple and not overpowering, but it wasn’t crispy enough for my tastes. I think it was baked instead of fried. All in all a solid wing.

Next up was the chicken “spinroll.” Covered in cheese with a nice crisp, the spinroll had good bite. It was like a BBQ chicken mini-taquito. I scarfed this down.

Finally the potato wedge, a hard thing to screw up. It was suitably crunchy with the warm, mushy inside one expects. I modified it by dousing it in Parmesan cheese, which I consider to be a pro move.

The condiments on the table were Heinz 57 hot sauce and some unfamiliar brand of ketchup. These were useful for the wedges.

I wanted to get a sense of the breadth of Pizza Hut’s menu, so I opted to order the “foot-long” lasagna for 19 AED, or a little over $US5. It seems crazy to say, but this was one of the best lasagnas I’ve ever had — and I’ve had some great ones in Italy and New York. It was oozing with creamy béchamel that tasted sinful, and the top had an even, bubbly crisp.

Finally, what I had been waiting a decade to taste: a fresh pan pizza straight out of the oven, still sizzling in the pan. I chose the chicken shawarma with chilli oil on top. When in Rome, as they say.

Look at that cheese pull! I have to say, this did not disappoint. The crust and dough had the perfect, buttery crisp — that exact same bite I dreamed of for my family’s next visit to the Hut. The shawarma topping was unorthodox — a mix of white sauce, jalapeños, mushrooms, peppers, and chicken.

To finish, I ordered the Chocomania, a call-back to Pizza Hut’s classic dessert pizzas. The cinnamon sugar-covered dough was scrumptious, but I wished there was more gooey chocolate in the middle. I ended up just picking up the middle slices with the most choco.

Of course I couldn’t finish it all. But that wasn’t a problem. Who doesn’t love cold pizza?

After visiting Pizza Hut in Dubai and seeing how Yum! Brands is experimenting with new dine-in concepts abroad, I suspect Pizza Hut needs to rethink its US strategy.

In other countries, dine-in Pizza Huts work because the brand is still seen by many as a luxury. For international consumers, the chain guarantees cleanliness and freshness and is a place for youth to hang out.

Many would argue that Pizza Hut’s dine-in model is simply not viable in the US anymore, that people want convenience and young people aren’t interested in sitting down at a Pizza Hut.

I have to disagree. While adding digital services and better delivery is all well and good, it’s the dine-in, sit-down restaurants that defined Pizza Hut and set it apart from its competitors.

There are already entire generations – many of which are just now having children – who fondly remember their childhoods at Pizza Huts. I think if they were presented with updated ideas for what a dine-in Pizza Hut is, like we’re seeing in Dubai and Australia and elsewhere, they would likely respond.

But we may never find out. Greg Creed, the CEO of Yum! Brands said last year that Pizza Hut’s road to success lies in making the pizza easier to order via digital services and pushing the brand further into becoming a delivery restaurant.

Yum! is investing $US130 million to that end.

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