Pizza crusts cross flavor edge
For Hungry Howie's CEO and co-founder Steven Jackson, talking about flavored crusts is a two-edged sword.
 
So much so, he says, that the company he founded in 1973 with partner James Hearn, trademarked the term Flavored Crust to describe the pizza Hungry Howie's serves. Jackson just doesn't want to give others in the pizza business any ideas.
 
"(Talking about flavored crusts) increases our visibility," Jackson said. "But on the other hand, it turns a light bulb on for other people in the industry to say, 'I'm going to try that'."
 
Despite Jackson's efforts to keep a lid on Hungry Howie's secret, the cat seems to be out of the bag.
 
Earlier this year, No. 2 pizza chain Domino's rolled out "high-rising pizza" in some markets. The outer crust is available in garlic parmesan or cheesy cheddar flavors. A Domino's spokesman declined to comment on the success of its flavored-crust venture.
 
Pizza Hut also launched its Cheesy Bites Pizza, a variation on the Stuffed Crust Pizza the company has offered for several years, shortly after Domino's "high-rising" launch. Pizza Hut also introduced a revamped hand-tossed-style crust last spring.
 
Everett, Wash.-based Garlic Jim's Famous Gourmet Pizza offers two flavored crusts: a hand-tossed thick crust and a garlic-flavored thin crust.
 
"We are Garlic Jim's, so we wanted garlic in one of our crusts," said Garlic Jim's vice president of distribution, Randy Bame. "It's a great flavor additive and is also a mineral touted as something being very healthy, so we wanted that in the mix as well."
 
Flavored crusts are a perfect pizza extension, Jackson said, because pizza is such a customized product; customers choose from a variety of options to create exactly what they want.
 
Jackson said in year's past, crust also was overlooked as nothing more than a handle for "the good parts." But flavored crusts are changing consumer perceptions.
   
"If the crust doesn't have a lot of flavor, when you are done eating the pizza, the box is full of crusts," he said. "You don't see a lot of crust lying in our boxes."
 
Finding a niche
 
Jackson and Hearn founded Hungry Howie's in the Detroit suburb of Taylor, Mich., in 1973. The partners awarded their first franchise in 1983.
 
Not long after, Hungry Howie's began eyeing the potential of flavored crusts.
 
"The concept was brought to our attention by a franchisee," Jackson said. "What they did was put sesame seeds on their crusts and butter it, and they let some customers try it."
 
Intrigued by the idea, the company began an evaluation process and started testing flavored crusts in a few stores. The idea caught on with customers, Jackson said.
 
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"We sat down and identified eight crust flavors that we thought would have general appeal," he said. "In 1985, we made the decision that this would be our signature niche."
 
Today, Hungry Howie's Flavored Crust Pizzas are available in original, buttered-cheese, garlic herb, ranch, Cajun, butter, onion and sesame.
 
Garlic and buttered-cheese are some of the most popular flavors with customers, Jackson said, while flavors such as rye and poppy seed have dropped off the list.
 
While a certain number of people still order unflavored crusts, Jackson said that percentage is decreasing.
 
"Nearly everybody has a clear favorite," he said.
 
Headquarters a popular lunch spot
 
For some reason, package delivery services in the Detroit area seem to schedule their Friday stops at the Hungry Howie's headquarters at noon. Salesmen wanting to make a pitch also drop by around the same time.
 
Jackson thinks he knows why their headquarters is so popular on Fridays: "We put this little test kitchen in 15-plus years ago, and on certain days we would fire up the ovens and test different products.
 
"Everybody who was around the office used to start coming up to the kitchen for lunch. As our organization grew, our lunch grew to anywhere from 30 to 75 people."
 
The company began using those people as an internal focus group for testing new product ideas. Eventually, the test-kitchen lunches became a Friday tradition.
 
"The business community in the Detroit area knows Howie's has lunch on Fridays about noon," Jackson said. "It has become a nice thing that has evolved over the course of a decade."
 
Since its inception, Hungry Howie's has grown to 565 locations in 21 states, with 50 more slated to open over the next 12 months.
 
A few months ago, Howie's caught the attention of the producers of "Unwrapped," a Food Network show hosted by Marc Summers. The show, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at various food traditions, included Hungry Howie's in a segment titled "Pizzarama."
 
The show also included segments on Papa Murphy's Take-and-Bake Pizza, cheese maker The Mozzarella Co., Freschetta Frozen Pizza and Combos pizza-flavored pretzels.
 
Although it's too early to tell what effect the show will have on Hungry Howie's sales, Jackson hopes the segment will help educate customers on what the chain is all about.
 
"Something like the Food Network segment affords us great national visibility," Jackson said "What we're hoping is that when we open stores in new markets people are going to walk in and say, 'I saw this on TV and I've been waiting to try it.'"
 
Jackson has a message for other pizza operators, too.
 
"We don't want anybody else to try flavored crusts," he said with a laugh. "No one else is allowed to do it."

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