Pizza Hut Returns to Africa

It’s back on the continent, where chicken is the top fast food

Pizza Hut knows a few things about fast expansion in emerging markets. In less than 25 years, the chain has added more than 1,300 restaurants across China. But Randall Blackford, the general manager of Pizza Hut’s operations in Africa, says the restaurant operator is taking its time expanding on the continent. In Africa, “we are a small company right now and will stay small for some time,” he says, eating pizza at one of his restaurants in Soweto township in Johannesburg. “It gives us flexibility to respond to local tastes, to engage more. We can’t be first, can’t be the cheapest, so we got to be the best.”

Blackford has reason to be cautious: The world’s largest pizza purveyor, a unit of Louisville-based Yum! Brands, failed in sub-Saharan Africa seven years ago, after consumers were cool to its prices and dine-in model. This time around, Pizza Hut is targeting takeout and delivery service. It will limit drop-off distances to a few miles, which means eventually it will have smaller stores in lots of neighborhoods. From its current eight stores in South Africa and Zambia, it aims to have 200 stores across the continent in three years.

Randall Blackford

Randall Blackford, general manager for Pizza Hut Africa, poses for a photograph outside the Soweto store.

Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

While fast-food purchases in South Africa are growing, with about 34.8 million people expected to buy meals from such restaurants by 2017, up from 31 million now, much of that nation’s fast-food industry is homegrown, according to Euromonitor International analyst Elizabeth Friend. In countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria, there’s less competition than in South Africa. So while supply chains are less reliable, those newer markets offer foreign restaurant players good growth opportunities, “at least for those chains that can survive until that investment starts to pay off,” Friend says.

Almost half of Africa’s fast-food restaurants are focused on chicken, then comes burgers. Pizza is a distant third, accounting for about 5 percent of total spending. One reason: the more moderate cost and wider availability of poultry supplies. Some Pizza Hut toppings, such as air-dried pepperoni, have to be imported. That affects customers’ checks. The Streetwise 5 meal from Yum’s KFC, which includes a large order of fries and five pieces of chicken, costs $5.50 in South Africa, while a fully loaded large Pizza Hut pizza approaches $8. In Zambia, the same pie costs about $10. “The pizza outlets are going to have to focus on pricing, bringing it more in line with what chicken costs,” says Wayne McCurrie, a money manager at Momentum Asset Management in Johannesburg.

Young customers queue to order food at the service desk inside a Pizza Hut store.
Young customers queue to order food at the service desk of the Pizza Hut store in Soweto.
Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Domino’s Pizza also has African dreams. It already has 19 outlets in three sub-Saharan countries, and last year it signed a 30-year agreement with Johannesburg-based Taste Holdings to develop the brand in seven African nations. Taste’s existing Scooters and St. Elmo’s pizza stores will be converted to Domino’s outlets. Domino’s plans 200 stores across Southern Africa within five years.

Not only is Pizza Hut focusing on takeout and delivery this time around, it’s also trying to resonate with locals through signage and napkins using slang such as “laaik it local” (like it local) and with toppings such as boerewors, a spicy South African beef sausage. Pizza Hut does benefit from being able to combine some back-office functions with the KFC chain. Even so, KFC doesn’t use its vegetable toppings, dough, and cheese, so the pizza chain has had to organize much of its supply chain on its own.

Pedestrians pass the entrance to a Pizza Hut store.
The world’s largest pizza purveyor failed out of Africa just seven years ago, closing its last shop in South Africa as people shunned its dine-in model.
Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Debonairs Pizza, Africa’s biggest pizza chain with about 500 restaurants in more than a dozen African nations, is operated by South Africa’s Famous Brands, which owns pizza and burger chains. It teamed with supermarket operator Shoprite Holdings to open its first restaurant in Angola in February. The companies are in talks to expand to Nigeria and Zambia.

“South Africans are extremely loyal to brands that are homegrown,” says Famous Brands Chief Executive Officer Kevin Hedderwick. “The fact that you come with global pedigree is not, on its own, a reason for consumers to vote for you with their wallets and their throats, especially in the pizza category.”

To offer more affordable items, Pizza Hut has added fries to its menu in South Africa. Chicken wings and breadsticks are also options. The chain may still have a hard sell changing local tastes. “Not bad,” says Choombe Kalonga, 29, as he and two friends finish a pie at a new Pizza Hut in Lusaka, Zambia, recently. “But nothing beats traditional chicken. We grew up on that.”

The bottom line: Pizza Hut, which operates eight outlets in Sub-Saharan Africa, wants to have 200 stores there within three years.

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