The Short, Strange Life of McDonald's Pizza

CollectingCandy // Chloe Effron
CollectingCandy // Chloe Effron

In the 1980s, McDonald’s was as dominant as any fast food chain could hope to be. Possibly the world’s most-recognized brand, McDonald's was double the size of its closest competitor, owning nearly 40% of the $48 billion burger market. It had successfully branched out from cow-and-potato menu standards with the introduction of the Chicken McNugget. Before long, Happy Meals were being used everywhere to soothe the siren wails of hungry, manipulative children.

There was just one asterisk. McDonald's didn’t do dinner.

Specifically, its customers didn’t do dinner. Not there. Sacks of burgers were perceived as a lunchtime treat, something to be grabbed while speeding to or from the responsibilities of the day. When families got together in the evenings, they preferred to sit down, relax, and eat at a table rather than slumped over a steering wheel.

McDonald’s had been forced to break the mold before: In 1973, they attracted early-morning traffic by introducing the Egg McMuffin. Critics scoffed, but the sandwich was a breakfast phenomenon that led to an entire menu of a.m. options. There were millions—billions, even—to be earned in duplicating that success after 4 p.m.

It did not go unnoticed that the most sensational restaurant category in recent memory was pizza. Big chains like Pizza Hut and independent parlors were growing by 10 percent each year. Americans loved their pies. They also loved McDonald’s.

In 1986, word began to spread: McDonald's had secret plans to take a bite out of the ever-growing pizza industry.

It was not, for any real length of time, actually called "McPizza." That name was used for a calzone-style product that was tested briefly in the 1980s, presumably so drivers would be able to eat without being distracted by molten cheese in their lap. It was also not the only prototype: In Utah, one consumer, Jeff Terry, recalls picking up a cardboard pouch stuffed with a mini pie that had an expiration date embossed on the dough. Local parlors, he says, advertised that their pizza didn’t need to be dated for freshness.

None of these McPizzas evolved beyond regional testing, making it clear that the pizza itself could not be easily re-imagined to conform to the McDonald’s template. Instead, McDonald’s would have to conform to the pizza, upending their preparation model to accommodate the saucer-shaped dinner.

The company spent years developing a quick-cook oven (which was later patented) that used superheated air to take dough from frozen to crispy in under six minutes. Speed was a crucial component of the rollout—early commercials promised consumers had never had pizza "so good, so fast"—so diners wouldn't be tempted to stick with established chains or local pizzerias.

The oven made a solid pie, but it came at the expense of kitchen real estate: franchisees were going to have to remodel their restaurants to make room for the new equipment, including a warming bin.

Next came the problem of drive-thru orders. While McDonald’s planned to offer table service for family-sized pizzas indoors, a large box could not fit through many older drive-thru windows, which had to be expanded in order to accommodate the new menu selection. Executives also wanted a window that could show people near the cashier how their pies were being prepared. This, too, required more renovation, with stores stretching and contorting to handle the corporate strategy.

Expanded testing of the pizza began in 1989. Roughly 24 restaurants in or near Evansville, Indiana and Owensboro, Kentucky were selected to participate. After spending much of the decade tinkering, McDonald’s was ready to see if they could become the country’s biggest supplier of pizza. Unfortunately, not everyone shared that ambition.

"Don’t make a McStake," urged an advertisement for an Illinois-area Pizza Hut. As the world’s largest pizza chain, the idea that McDonald’s could use their sizeable footprint to muscle in on their business was unthinkable.

''Every place you see a McDonald's pizza, you're going to see a war,'' ad man Jack Levy told the New York Times in 1989.

Pizza Hut lobbed grenades, referring to the competition’s "McFrozen" dough and offering two-for-one pie deals. Even without their pressure, McDonald’s was having problems. Fast food was virtually their reason for existing, but the pizza service was glacial. Pizza insiders speculated their vaunted 5-minute prep time could wind up being 10 minutes or more once restaurants got busy. Sure enough, employees had to tell customers to park their car and wait for pizzas; patrons inside watched their hamburgers grow cold while politely waiting for a friend’s pie to finish baking. (It didn’t help that the company's own advertising featured a man reading a newspaper while waiting for his order.) McDonald’s sole advantage over the competition—expedited food—wasn’t happening.

There was also the matter of cost: at $5.99 to $8.99 a pie, consumers were being asked to spend far more than they had come to expect. Two pies for a family, plus drinks, could easily top $15.  

Still, the company refused to believe McDonald's-endorsed pizza could miss. By some estimates, pies expanded to nearly 40 percent of their restaurants in the early 1990s but disappeared just as quickly. They survived a little longer in Canada, with Howie Mandel hustling for the company in ads. In 2012, McDonald’s Canada came as close as the corporation ever has to publicly offering a reason for their pizza’s demise. In a response to a question posted on their web site:

“Although it was a popular menu item in Canada, the preparation time was about 11 minutes—which was way too long for us. Every McDonald's has a busy kitchen and the pizza slowed down our game. And since speed of service is a top priority and expected by our customers, we thought it best to remove this menu item. For now, our pizzas will have to remain a tasty bit of history.”

Jason Meredith, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Junk food nostalgia works in mysterious ways. Although McDonald’s pizza failed to meet the company’s expectations, its brief life made for some happy memories. In early 2015, a story on Canada.com went viral when it reported that two restaurants—one in Pomeroy, Ohio and one in Spencer, West Virginia—were still offering pizza to customers.  

Both locations are owned by the same franchisee, Greg Mills, who has ignored repeated requests by media for comment. But he’s likely not acting autonomously: menu items are screened by corporate headquarters. In order for McDonald’s pizza to still be served (even if it's not exactly the same recipe as before), the company must be offering approval on some level, possibly with an eye on revitalizing pizza. (In 2000, the company flirted with the idea of putting personal-sized pies into Happy Meals.)

If they do ever bring back the dish, it will still require some patience. Billy Wolfe, a reporter from the Charleston Daily Mail, wanted to try the now-mythological food and waited 10 minutes at the West Virginia location for his order to arrive. He brought the pies back to his office for a consensus, and while everyone fancied themselves a food critic (some said it was "bland" and the sauce was "a little too sweet," while Wolfe's take was that it "wasn’t offensive, but it wasn’t great"), all of the pieces were devoured, and one co-worker offered some apt perspective: "It's as good as McDonald's pizza could be."

15 Delicious Facts About Pizza Hut

iStock.com/RiverNorthPhotography
iStock.com/RiverNorthPhotography

For more than 60 years, Pizza Hut has been slinging hot, cheesy pies to hungry consumers all over the world. (There are more than 16,000 locations worldwide.) Whether you're a meat lover or vegetarian, here are 15 things you should know about the popular pizza chain.

1. It was founded by two brothers who were still in college.

Dan and Frank Carney borrowed $600 from their mother in 1958 to open a pizza place while attending Wichita State University. The name was inspired by the former bar that they rented to open their first location.

2. Pizza Hut franchising was almost instant.

A year after the first location opened in Wichita, Kansas, the Carney brothers had already incorporated the business and asked their friend Dick Hassur to open the first franchise location in Topeka, Kansas. Hassur, who had previously gone to school and worked at Boeing with Dan Carney, was looking for a way out of his insurance agent job. He soon became a multi-franchise owner, and worked to find other managers who could open Pizza Huts across the country.

Once, when a successful manager of a Wichita location put in his notice, Hassur was sent in to convince the man to stay. That manager happened to be Bill Parcells, who had resigned his Pizza Hut job in order to take his first coaching job at a small Nebraska college. Of course, he later went on to coach numerous NFL teams, including leading the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories. "I might have been wrong there," Hassur said of trying to convince Parcells his salary would be better as a manager than as a coach, "but I'm sure he'd have been successful with Pizza Hut, too."

3. There was a mascot in the early days.

image of vintage Pizza Hut restaurants featuring mascot Pizza Pete
Roadsidepictures, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Before the iconic red roof logo was adopted in 1969, Pizza Hut had a mascot named Pizza Pete who also served as its logo. The mustachioed cartoon man wore a chef’s hat, neckerchief, and an apron while serving up hot meals to hungry customers. Pizza Pete was still used throughout the 1970s on bags, cups, and advertisements, but was eventually phased out.

4. Pizza Hut perfume was a thing that existed.

It was announced late in 2012 that Pizza Hut had plans to release a limited edition perfume that smelled like "fresh dough with a bit of spice." One hundred fans of the Pizza Hut Canada Facebook page won bottles of the scent, and another promotion around Valentine's Day gave American pizza lovers a chance to own the fragrance via a Twitter contest. The packaging for the perfume resembled mini pizza boxes, and a few later surfaced on eBay for as much as $495.

5. They struck gold with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

image of people dressed as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

When a group of crime fighting turtles that love pizza become huge pop culture icons, it's a no-brainer that a pizza company should do business with them. Domino's was featured in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in 1990, but ads for Pizza Hut were included on VHS when the film hit home video. Pizza Hut also reportedly spent around $20 million on marketing campaigns for the Turtles during the 1990 "Coming Out of Their Shells" concert tour and album release. The partnership continued all the way up to the 2014 release of Michael Bay's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

6. Pizza Hut Easy-Bake ovens were also real.

Children of the '70s were lucky enough to own small toy ovens shaped like the restaurant in which they could bake tiny little Pizza Hut pizzas under a 60-watt light bulb.

7. Their vintage commercials are star-studded.

An 11-year-old Elijah Wood got his start flinging potato salad at his co-star; Ringo Starr and the Monkees marveled at the stuffed-crust pizza; and former Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev had a very odd, political pizza pitch, appearing along with his young granddaughter in a Russian Pizza Hut (though the ad was not set to run in Russia).

8. The Book It! program is 35 years old.

In 1984, Pizza Hut kicked off the BOOK IT! program, an initiative to encourage children to read by rewarding them with "praise, recognition and pizza." It was such a success that First Lady Barbara Bush threw a reading-themed pizza party at the White House in 1989. The program is now the "longest-running corporate-supported reading program in the country" and has reached over 60 million children.

9. They were early to the pan pizza create.

image of someone removing a slice from a personal pan pizza
iStock

Pizza Hut introduced pan pizza in 1980, nine years before their competition, Domino's, added the style to their menu. In 1983, they introduced personal pan pizzas, which are still the coveted prize of the BOOK IT! program and the only pizza option at smaller Pizza Hut cafes (like those inside Target stores).

10. They were also early to online ordering.

In 1994, Pizza Hut and The Santa Cruz Operation created PizzaNet, an ahead-of-its-time program that allowed computer users to place orders via the internet. The Los Angeles Times called the idea "clever but only half-baked" and "the Geek Chic way to nosh." And, the site is still up and running! Seriously, go ahead and try to order.

11. Pizza Hut pizza has been to space ...

image of the International Space Station hovering above Earth
iStock

In 2001, Pizza Hut became the first company to deliver pies into space. Before being sealed and sent to the International Space Station, the pizza recipe had to undergo "rigorous stabilized thermal conditions" to make sure that it would be still be edible when it got there. Pizza Hut also paid a large, unspecified sum (but definitely more than $1 million) to have a 30-foot-wide ad on a rocket in 1999.

12. … but not to the Moon.

In 1999, Pizza Hut's then-CEO Mike Rawlings (and current Mayor of Dallas) told The New York Times that an earlier idea for space marketing was for the logo to be shown on the moon with lasers. But once they started looking into it, astronomers and physicists advised them that the projected image would have to be as large as Texas to be seen from Earth—and the project would also have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Better to stick with Super Bowl ads.

13. They once offered pizza engagement packages.

image of someone proposing marriage
iStock

What's the perfect way to pop the big question? In 2012, Pizza Hut suggested that grooms- (or brides-) to-be order the engagement party package that included a $10 dinner box, a limo, a ruby ring, fireworks, flowers, and a photographer, all for $10,010. In keeping with the theme, only 10 of the packages were offered. But, to be clear—if you bought a Pizza Hut engagement package, you would have spent $10 on food and approximately the cost of a wedding on the proposal.

14. Pizza Hut accounts for three percent of U.S. cheese production.

With all those locations and cheese-stuffed crusts, Pizza Hut needs a lot of dairy. The company uses over 300 million pounds of cheese annually and is one of the largest cheese buyers in the world. To make that much cheese, 170,000 cows are used to produce an estimated 300 billion gallons of milk. Something to think about the next time you order an Ultimate Cheese Lover's pizza with extra cheese.

15. There are a lot of repurposed Pizza Hut locations.

An empty, former Pizza Hut building
Mike Kalasnik, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Franchise locations of companies are not always successful, and when they close, the buildings are often left untouched by their new owners rather than being demolished and replaced. Because the hut-shaped stores have become synonymous with the company, their former locations are easy to spot. The blog "Used to Be a Pizza Hut" has an interactive map of more than 500 ex-huts submitted by people all over the world. There is also a successful Kickstarter-funded photo book—called Pizza Hunt—documenting the "second lives" of the restaurants.

12 Facts About the Sense of Taste

iStock/m-imagephotography
iStock/m-imagephotography

A lot more than your tongue is involved in the process of tasting food. Taste is not only one of the most pleasurable of the five senses, but a surprisingly complex sense that science is beginning to understand—and manipulate. Here are 12 fascinating facts about your ability to taste.

1. Everyone has a different number of taste buds.

We all have several thousand taste buds in our mouths, but the number varies from person to person. The average range is between 2000 and 10,000. And taste buds are not limited to your tongue; They can be found in the roof and walls of your mouth, throat, and esophagus. As you age, your taste buds become less sensitive, which experts believe may be why foods that you don’t like as a child become palatable to you as an adult.

2. You taste with your brain.

The moment you bite into a slice of pie, your mouth seems full of flavor. But most of that taste sensation is happening in your brain. More accurately, cranial nerves and taste bud receptors in your mouth send molecules of your food to olfactory nerve endings in the roof of your nose. The molecules bind to these nerve endings, which then signal the olfactory bulb to send smell messages directly to two important cranial nerves, the facial nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve, which communicate with a part of the brain known as the gustatory cortex.

As taste and nerve messages move further through the brain, they join up with smell messages to give the sensation of flavor, which feels as if it comes from the mouth.

3. You can’t taste well if you can’t smell.

When you smell something through your nostrils, the brain registers these sensations as coming from the nose, while smells perceived through the back of the throat activate parts of the brain associated with signals from the mouth. Since much of taste is odor traveling to olfactory receptors in your brain, it makes sense that you won’t taste much at all if you can’t smell. If you are unable to smell for reasons that include head colds, smoking cigarettes, side effects of medications, or a broken nose, olfactory receptors may either be too damaged, blocked, or inflamed to send their signals on up to your brain.

4. Eating sweet foods helps form a memory of a meal.

Eating sweet foods causes your brain to remember the meal, according to a 2015 study in the journal Hippocampus, and researchers believe it can actually help you control eating behavior. Neurons in the dorsal hippocampus, the part of the brain central to episodic memory, are activated when you eat sweets. Episodic memory is that kind that helps you recall what you experienced at a particular time and place. "We think that episodic memory can be used to control eating behavior," said study co-author Marise Parent, of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State. "We make decisions like 'I probably won't eat now. I had a big breakfast.' We make decisions based on our memory of what and when we ate."

5. Scientists can turn tastes on and off by manipulating brain cells.

Dedicated taste receptors in the brain have been found for each of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). In 2015, scientists outlined in the journal Nature how they were able to turn specific tastes on or off in mice, without introducing food, by stimulating and silencing neurons in the brains. For instance, when they stimulated neurons associated with “bitter,” mice made puckering expressions, and could still taste sweet, and vice versa.

6. You can tweak your taste buds.

Most of us have had the experience of drinking perfectly good orange juice after brushing our teeth, only to have it taste more like unsweetened lemon juice. Taste buds, it turns out, are sensitive enough that certain compounds in foods and medicines can alter our ability to perceive one of the five common tastes. The foaming agent sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate in most toothpaste seems to temporarily suppress sweetness receptors. This isn't so unusual. A compound called cynarin in artichokes temporarily blocks your sweet receptors. Then, when you drink water, the cynarin is washed away, making your sweet receptors “wake up” so the water tastes sweet. A compound called miraculin, found in the herb Gymnema sylvestre, toys with your sweet receptors in a similar way.

7. The smell of ham can make your food “taste” saltier.

There’s an entire industry that concocts the tastes of the food you buy at the grocery store. Working with phenomena known as phantom aromas or aroma-taste interactions, scientists found that people associate “ham” with salt. So simply adding a subtle ham-like scent or flavor to a food can make your brain perceive it as saltier than it actually is. The same concept applies to the scent of vanilla, which people perceive as sweet.

8. Your taste buds prefer savory when you fly.

A study by Cornell University food scientists found that loud, noisy environments, such as when you’re traveling on an airplane, compromise your sense of taste. The study found that people traveling on airplanes had suppressed sweet receptors and enhanced umami receptors. The German airline Lufthansa confirmed that on flights, passengers ordered nearly as much tomato juice as beer. The study opens the door to new questions about how taste is influenced by more than our own internal circuitry, including our interactions with our environments.

9. Picky eaters may be “supertasters.”

If you’re a picky eater, you may have a new excuse for your extreme dislike of eggplant or sensitivity to the slightest hint of onion. You might be a supertaster—one of 25 percent of people who have extra papillae in your tongue. That means you have a greater number of taste buds, and thus more specific taste receptors.

10. Some of your taste preferences are genetic.

While genetics may not fully explain your love of the KFC Double Down or lobster ice cream, there may be code written into your DNA that accounts for your preference for sweet foods or your aversion to certain flavors. The first discovery of a genetic underpinning to taste came in 1931, when chemist Arthur Fox was working with powdered PTC (phenylthiocarbamide), and some of the compound blew into the air. One colleague found it to have a bitter taste, while Fox did not perceive that. They conducted an experiment among friends and family and found wide variation in how (and whether) people perceived the flavor of the PTC to be bitter or tasteless. Geneticists later discovered that the perception of PTC flavor (similar to naturally occurring compounds) is based in a single gene, TAS2R38, that codes for a taste receptor on the tongue. In a 2005 study, researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found that the version of this gene also predicted a child's preference for sweet foods.

11. Your genes influence whether you think cilantro tastes like soap.

There may be no flavor more hotly debated or deeply loathed than the herb cilantro (also known as coriander). Entire websites, like IHateCilantro.com, complain about its “soapy” or “perfumy” flavor, while those who like it simply think it gives a nice kick to their salsa. Researchers at the consumer genetics company 23andMe identified two common genetic variants linked to people's “soap” perceptions. A follow-up study in a separate subset of customers confirmed the associations. The most compelling variant can be found within a cluster of olfactory receptor genes, which influence our sense of smell. One of those genes, OR6A2, encodes a receptor that is highly sensitive to aldehyde chemicals, which cilantro contains.

12. Sugar cravings have a biological basis.

Your urge for more hot fudge may have little to do with a lack of self-control. Scientists think that our yearning for sweets is a biological preference that may have been designed to ensure our survival. The liking for sweet tastes in our ancient evolution may have ensured the acceptance of sweet-tasting foods, such as breast milk and vitamin-rich fruits. Moreover, recent research suggests that we crave sweets for their pain-reducing properties.

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