Can the New Hot Dog Bites Pizza Help Save Pizza Hut?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- A successful turnaround for Yum! Brand's (YUM) Pizza Hut division may well rest on the crispy, buttery backs of 28 cute salted hot dogs.

On Thursday,, Pizza Hut will launch the "Hot Dog Bites" pizza, a cheese pizza with mini hot dogs baked into the crust that's already received tons of media attention and chatter on social media since it was first announced last week. Talk-show host Conan O'Brien even discussed the new product in his monologue last Thursday night, poking fun at the excess of it.

A large one-topping pizza will feature 28 hot dog bites baked into a pretzel crust that can be pulled off and shared. Served with a side of tangy French's mustard, the 14-inch pizza will cost $11.99, just slightly more than the price for a normal large pizza. Calories per slice? A mere 460.

Even more than the buzz, though, Pizza Hut sorely needs a hit to drive sales and customer traffic, following the lukewarm reception to the new higher-end artisanal pizzas that were introduced last year. Pizza Hut, which represents roughly 60% of Yum's 13,000 plus total units, served up a 1% same-restaurant sales decline in this year's first quarter, while same-store sales last year overall fell 3%. Executives say they believe sales at Pizza Hut "could remain soft" in the near future. 

With Pizza Hut returning to its strategy of product innovation to drive consumer interest, epitomized by the popular stuffed-crust pizza it first introduced back in 1995, the chain may be able to take some sales back from Domino's Pizza (DPZ) and Papa John's (PZZA) this summer. Both of Pizza Hut's main rivals have continued to churn out robust sales in the last year with a steady stream of discounts and marketing that highlights their new mobile ordering capabilities.

Should the new pizza prove popular and get more customers in the door, it could also help to get more people to at least try the new artisanal pizzas.

"We think this one (pizza) will sell out pretty quickly," said Pizza Hut spokesman Doug Terfehr via email regarding Hot Dog Bites. The company is also hoping July's National Hot Dog Month will spur even more interest in its unusual combination. 

On Monday, several staffers at TheStreet taste-tested two versions of the new pizza -- one with salted pretzels as the crust and another with plain crust without salt. While some were initially bewildered by the strange combination ("Are those pretzels on a pizza?"), most found the pizza easy to eat, appetizing and a fun conversation starter.

Further, several felt that the pigs in a blanket, which are made by rolling the mini hot-dogs into the dough crust before baking, were surprisingly tasty. 

Overall, the fact that each slice, which comes with four mini hot dogs, is so filling likely makes it a decent sell for a family on a budget, which could easily opt for a couple McDonald's  (MCD) Big Macs and fries or a cheaper large pizza from Little Caesars on a Friday night.

Terfehr did not rule out Pizza Hut introducing other variations on the Hot Dog Bites Pizza in the future, some of which are already available abroad. At certain Pizza Hut locations in the Middle East, Japan and the U.K., the chain offers its "Crown Crust Carnival Crusts." They consist of a standard pizza with pockets as a crust filled with either mini-hamburgers or small chicken balls.

"We have a history of innovating," Terfehr said.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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