March 2, 2021

With Detroit-Style On The Rise, Pizza Hut Grabs A Slice: Tony’s Take On It

by Joe Bonadio

There are all kinds of pizza out there. As America’s favorite food, the wide range of products that are sold as “pizza” today is no less than astonishing. To begin with, the U.S. is home to approximately 78,000 pizzerias, or one for every 4,879 of us. And that’s leaving a lot of pizza unaccounted for.

Think of all the non-pizzeria restaurants that sell pizza. And don’t forget all of those convenience store slices Americans scarf down every day (anyone who has ever digested one certainly won’t). That’s without even getting into frozen pizza. But let’s do: a category unto itself, equally beloved and maligned, frozen pizza generated nearly 5 1/2 billion dollars in revenue last year. Americans eat 350 million tons of the stuff every year, some two billion slices.

It’s clear that pizza is more popular than ever, so it’s not surprising to hear restaurant sales have been strong during the pandemic. And restaurants sell a lot more pizza than supermarkets do: according to Restaurant Dive, Americans consumed over $46 billion worth of pizza from restaurants in 2020.

About half of the U.S. pizzeria market is controlled by the major chains, the other half by independent operators. And with billions on the line, it’s a bitterly contested market. Local operators often find themselves outgunned—or just bought out—in the face of the major chains’ sheer buying power. This dynamic has created a stark divide between pizza chains and independents, something akin to the animosity between indie labels and the majors.

And much like the music world, the ‘big guys’ have all the money—but their product isn’t always what it could be.

When you talk with a real independent pizza maker about companies like Domino’s, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut, you’ll typically get an earful–and Tony Gemignani is no exception to this rule. But unlike most pizzaioli out there, Tony has had close personal experience with the ‘big guys’: specifically Yum Brands, parent company of Pizza Hut, which has been making news in the pizza world just lately. I spoke with him about it this week, and our conversation is below.

Tony - Detroit Style

When it comes to Detroit Style pizza, Tony Gemignani is a slave to the details.

Joe Bonadio: So the big story in the pizza world right now: Pizza Hut is doing Detroit.

Tony Gemignani: Yeah. Recently a lot of people have jumped on the Detroit bandwagon. We were the first to bring it to California, about 2011, 2012. And there are some concepts coming out of Detroit that are bigger, that are multiple units.

But it’s funny, the chains always copy what the independents have done. And when you see a Pizza Hut or Domino’s grab a style, you kind of cringe. You don’t want them to screw it up. For instance, there were a lot of pizza shows at one time, and of course there’s Pizza Expo, which is like the Super Bowl of pizza— it’s the show of shows.

When you talk to the guys that organize it, some would say: We don’t care about the other shows. If it’s a bad experience, and they never come back to another pizza show—that’s what bothers us.

JB: Because it hurts everybody.

TG: Yes. So as a consumer, if you try a Detroit Style at a chain and you don’t like it, you might never come back to it. Even if you see it on an independent pizzeria’s menu, you might shy away.

So….did they do it right? That’s the kind of thing you think about.

JB: So what’s the word?

TG: Well, there are independents out there who’ve tried it, and there are some guys who say it’s not that bad. But pizza, even when it’s not good it’s still pretty good, so….

JB: There’s a lot of negative feedback out there, too.

TG: There is.

JB: But for you, the pandemic played a big role in the explosion of Detroit style.

TG: Covid was good for Detroit. People were stuck at home, They wanted to try different things. They were looking at their Doordash menu, trying to find something new.

So suddenly a few people try Detroit, and it becomes their favorite. Then more people know about it, and though it initially wasn’t people’s first or second choice when they could choose from multiple styles, people were trying it—and liking it. And it got more and more popular.

It travels well. It’s delicious. And while you might be used to seeing Chicago or New York on the menu, Detroit wasn’t so familiar, unless you were into the pizza scene. So it was interesting to people. Ten years ago, hardly anyone outside of Detroit knew what this style was.

Meanwhile, pizza makers out in San Francisco have jumped on the style. They saw us get creative with it. I published what might have been the first Detroit-style recipe in an actual cookbook, in the Pizza Bible back in 2014. If you look at some of the recipes out there, even in San Francisco, they mirror what’s in that book: Cheddar around the edge. Brick cheese, which some might shy away from.

JB: And when Detroit style blew up, it forced a big change for your restaurants.

TG: We were so busy at Tony’s with to-go and delivery—and Detroit sales just skyrocketed. So in the middle of the pandemic, I moved it to Capo’s.

It needed a brick and mortar of its own, and I had to take some pressure off of Tony’s kitchen. Tony’s has all these styles, all these lines. It’s a juggling act, and we like to sell a lot of pizzas, of all kinds.

When things come back to normal, I don’t want to just sell 500 Detroits and 500 Neapolitans. Tony’s is about everything. And the Margherita and the New Yorker have always been #1, but too many of one style….

JB: It throws things out of balance.

TG: Yes. I already did pan pizza at Capo’s. Deep-Dish, and Cast-Iron. They go hand in hand with Detroit. If you’ve had the Deep-Dish and Cast-Iron at Capo’s, you’re going to love the Detroit even more.

Detroit Style Pizza

A proper Detroit Style pizza, in all its glory.

Now we offer maybe three times the number of Detroit combinations at Capo’s. Because the style deserves it. I was able to up it, and do a lot more with it. So yes, Covid has been very good for Detroit style. There have been stories in the national press about how the style rose during the pandemic, and we’ve been featured in a lot of them.

JB: So it was really 2019, 2020 when the style really began to come into its own?

TG: Well, it was already coming around. And after Shawn Randazzo—may he rest in peace—after he won, people looked at Detroit in a different way. I brought it in here just before he won, and there were a few places that had opened.

But in the last two or three years, Detroit really exploded. Shawn led the way, paying homage to places like Buddy’s and Cloverleaf.

JB: It’s in the freezer case now.

TG: Right, now you see it everywhere. Via 313, Blue Pan and Tony’s were all a big part of that. The Hunt brothers from Via 313 spoke highly about Shawn back then, and I flew out to Detroit with my wife Julie to meet him, and to research Detroit style. It was an amazing trip.

So sooner or later, one of the big four—a Papa John’s or a Pizza Hut—was going to jump on it. And they did. And when you talk about Yum Brands, I’m always interested when I hear from them.

They reached out to me in August of last year, their culinary innovation team. They were asking for a call to, quote: “connect and talk pizza expertise-building and innovation.”

So I got on a phone call with them, and we ended up talking about Grandma and Detroit styles. They asked me what was coming up right now, what was popular. When I brought up those styles, they said that was exactly what they were thinking about.

In our conversation, I generalized it. I said, okay: this is Pizza Hut. I have multiple stores, and even for me it’s hard to roll out new styles. I asked them, is it going to be the same dough you use in your pan pizza? Or are you going to do a whole new dough recipe? Is it a different sauce? Are you going to use the same ovens?

There’s a lot to it, and things you need to consider. And those were the questions they were already kind of thinking about. But we got into talking, and I shared my two cents with them, just like I do with industry folks all the time.

It was a lengthy call, maybe an hour. I should have charged them for the call, but at the same time, they were thinking about hiring me to start the R&D with their group, and we discussed that a little bit. But we never moved forward on it.

Tony Yum Email

The email that Tony received from Yum Brands’ culinary innovation team in August of 2020.

JB: It was also a hell of a time for them to be calling you. You were right in the middle of this pandemic—you had a lot going on.

TG: Well, they needed to change, they needed to innovate. And for all they knew, I could have been one of these operators who was losing all of his businesses. And if that’s the case, you’re going to pay attention to any opportunity.

Even though it’s like Big Brother calling you—I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I’ve got to do whatever I have to do.

In any case, on the call, I said as much as I would to anyone at the time. It wasn’t like I gave them recipes. We talked about cheese, and if they were going to bring something different in. They had different ovens in some locations, and that’s a lot to deal with. Also, I‘m not a big fan of conveyor ovens, and they are conveyor-centric.

But when I talked to them, I felt that they were in the very early stages. So they rolled it out pretty quick.

JB: When did it come out?

TG: Right after the first of the year, I believe. So it took them three of four months. They needed to do something, they said. What does that mean: Were they getting killed? Did Covid hurt them? I don’t know for sure. They needed to be a part of the trend.

JB: This isn’t the first time you’ve talked to the Yum Brands people, either.

TG: No, they called me years ago. I was on the ABC Master of Champions competition, and it was a rival pizza team against my new team, the World Pizza Champions.

It was team against team, and it was an acrobatic competition. We ended up winning, and the next day I got a call; it was from somebody representing Yum Brands. The guy congratulated me and my team for winning at the Master of Champions….and asked if we would like to be in a commercial for Pizza Hut.

Of course, this is a long time ago, and I’m thinking about my guys. 18-year-old Siler….we were all young then, and we could have used the money.

But I told the guy: You know, I don’t think we can just win as independent operators, and then be in a commercial for Pizza Hut. And he said, Would six figures change your mind? I told him it could change somebody’s mind, but it’s not going to change mine.

I had to get on a call with the guys afterwards, and tell them I turned down a Pizza Hut commercial. All the guys said “Yeah, fuck them! We’re not gonna do that!”

Then I told them, by the way….it was a hundred thousand dollars. Siler was like, Whaaat, Coach? (Laughs)

So they went to the second place team. I don’t even know if they got paid to be on it. I think the commercial ended up being terrible. I barely recall it now, but from what people told me, it was really bad.

JB: Now the obvious question: have you tried their Detroit yet?

TG: I haven’t, not yet. I’ve heard it’s okay. I’ve heard it’s really not bad.

I admit, I’m curious. Is it heavy? Does it digest well? Is it a sweet sauce? Are the corners right? Does it have a commercial flavor to it, or does it taste like real Detroit?

It’s funny, they came out with one that’s double pepperoni, thick and thin, and one cup-and-char. And we have a pizza, our Detroit Rosa, which has double pepperoni, cup-and-char. You don’t really see that, but they came out with it.

So as an independent operator, you see these guys coming out with a $10.99 pizza….when you are using authentic ingredients, or anything that’s better than the commercial products they could be using. And you think of what you’re paying for ingredients as an independent operator, versus what they pay as such a big buying group. You can’t compete against those deals.

JB: So I have to ask, are you going to try their Detroit?

TG: I won’t admit it, but I probably will. I can’t really see myself literally walking into a Pizza Hut, though. I’ll make Julie go.

JB: (Laughs) Yeah, I was thinking—how does this play out?!

TG: Yeah….Julie, don’t give them your last name!


Editor’s Note: While I also haven’t tried the P.H. iteration of Detroit Style (is there even a Pizza Hut in San Francisco?), a gander at the online reviews reveals many are pleasantly surprised. However, most of the reviews seem to boil down to “Not Bad For Pizza Hut.”