Having recently emerged from the biggest pizza day of the year on Superbowl Sunday, (35% higher than any other day) we should devote some space to acknowledge the growth of the pizza planet within the fast food solar system. More directly, the imposing specter of pizza looming over the industry warrants thought as to whether fast food will be able to stay competitive with pizza in the long haul, and if so, how?
Congratulations and recognition are due to pizza. In this year’s fast food top 20, Pizza Hut claimed the #3 overall spot. Not too long ago, it was debatable whether or not pizza even qualified as fast food. Whether or not pizza fits a strict fast food definition, the competition is undeniable. Despite their commendable attempts at large group relevance, people were not ordering Taco Bell party boxes for the superbowl. They were ordering pizzas. Granted, the desire to be in a home, with a group of people, watching a television event plays into the hands of pizza. But that leaves ‘traditional fast food’ scratching their heads, wondering: ‘What are these strengths, and can we compete?’
The short answer: yes, fast food can still compete. But it begins with an honest analysis of traditional fast food’s strengths and weaknesses when compared over against pizza. Pizza has them beat on group costs, on durability/ reheat-ability, and an innate scale of simplicity to customization. Where can fast food strike? Ironically enough, through offering healthy options, also through cheap individual choices, and through expediency.
The last avenue, expediency, is their most powerful tool. Ever since the first burger joint glowed forth in its red and white neon rays of post-war American optimism, fast food has built its appeal on speed and convenience. “We’ll save you time,” the lights beckon. “We’re cheap and convenient,” they call out. Now there are many other time and energy saving options that can allow you to avoid cooking, including pizza. But the time advantage remains squarely on the side of traditional fast food, assuming they maximize that. You don’t need to call ahead. You don’t need to order online. You don’t even need to get out of your car. It’s that fast. But it’s a preciously narrow advantage. McDonald’s studies have demonstrated that 8 is the drive-through line car cutoff. Any more than that, and customers decide to drive on.
Wielding the time edge is a huge advantage that fast food must continue to prioritize in order to stay on pace with rapidly growing, high value, high quality, highly customizable pizza chains. To protect costs and ensure quality, you will have to keep ordering pizza ahead of time. When you go to Burger King, no matter what their advertisements might wish to portray, the burgers, fries, and nuggets are not made fresh just for you. If they were, you’d have to wait for them. So simply put, when you’re Burger King, you can’t afford to keep people waiting.
The new wave: artisanal pizzas