After 56 years of trading in the US, Little Caesars is finally coming to Australia. (Better late than never, eh?) The famously monikered pizzeria is quite different to Domino's and Pizza Hut -- it specialises in Detroit-style "deep dish" pizzas and relies on drive-through instead of home delivery. Yesterday, we visited its first Aussie store to put its "Hot-N-Ready" menu to the test.
What is it?
Little Caesars is a big deal in the US. Established back in 1959, it has slowly risen to become the third biggest pizza chain in the country (behind Pizza Hut and Domino's). Such is its pull, that a lot of you have probably heard its "Pizza! Pizza!" catchphrase despite the total absence of local marketing.
At the end of last year, the company opened its first Australian store in Casula, NSW. At present, this is the only place to get Little Caesars pizzas in Australia, although there are plans to expand all over the country if the manager I spoke to is to be believed.
As in the US, Little Caesars Australia is focusing on a "carry-out" distribution model as opposed to home delivery, which puts it more in line with McDonald's and KFC than its pizza-based rivals. Instead of ordering from home, customers are required to visit the store in person. The upside is that pizzas are ready-made with no waiting times. There's also a drive-through service which is expected to be a fixture at most stores.
I'm not sure how successful this approach will be in Australia: most people are happy to pay a premium for home-delivered pizza. The money you save by picking it up yourself generally isn't worth the time and effort. On the other hand, it definitely helps to have a point of differentiation in the overcrowded pizza market.
Little Caesars seems to be going for a "less is more" approach with its menu. The majority of its pizzas come with just two or three toppings and there are a grand total of six pizzas on the official menu.
While it's possible to customise your pizza, there are only 11 toppings to choose from: pepperoni, capsicum, onion, Italian sausage, ham, beef topping, black olives, jalapeno peppers, bacon, mushrooms, and pineapple. By contrast, Domino's offers close to 40 toppings on its design-a-pizza menu.
The pizza flavours aren't anything out-of-the-box: there's peperoni, plain cheese, supreme, Hawaiian, vegetarian and "3 Meat Treat". Otherwise, the star of the menu is its deep dish offering dubbed the Deep!Deep! Dish Pizza. There are also a handful of interesting sides, including oven-roasted chicken wings, "Crazy" bread sticks (they're just bread sticks) and Italian cheese bread. There are no desserts, however.
Like Pizza Hut, Little Caesars sticks to Pepsi for its soft drink range which is absolutely fine by us. For whatever reason, Pepsi seems to pair better with cheap, takeaway pizza despite being inferior to Coke in every other scenario. Some scientists should secure a grant to investigate this phenomena.
In the US, Little Caesars pitches itself as a cheaper alternative to rival pizza chains – it's "Pizza Pizza" catchphrase originally referred to the fact that you could get two pizzas for roughly the same price as a single pizza from rival stores.
In Australia, the difference isn't as pronounced. A single Hot-N-Ready pepperoni pizza will set you back $7.95. This is actually slightly more expensive than the cheapest pick-up options from Domino's and Pizza Hut.
However, you also get substantially more pizza -- a single $7.95 pizza from Little Caesars measures 14 inches while an equivalent pizza from Pizza Hut and Domino's measures 11 inches. This is a size-bump of around 62 per cent.
Premium pizzas are more expensive, with a Deep!Deep! Dish Pizza and Ultimate Supreme costing $12.95 apiece. There are also a handful of combo deals available including a lunch-only deep pan pizza and soft drink for $7.95. Extra toppings, meanwhile, carry a surcharge of $2 each.
This is American pizza through-and-through -- which is to say it's gloriously, dangerously unhealthy. A single Hot-N-Ready pepperoni pizza packs in a whopping 9210 kilojoules. This is 3003kJ more than a pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut and 4026kJ more than a pepperoni pizza from Domino's. Wow.
A Deep!Deep! Dish pizza is even worse at 13,200kJ. Add a Crazy Bread sticks and chicken wings to the mix, and you're looking at a total of 17,285kJ. Just to remind everybody, your recommended daily energy intake is 8700kJ. Just wow.
As you'd probably expect, Little Caesar pizzas aren't intended for a single person. However, there are no small or single-serve options on the menu. If you're eating solo and don't like wasting food, you're essentially forced to go full-tilt boogie.
To put Little Caesars to the test, I plumped for a Hot-N-Ready pepperoni pizza paired with Caesar Wings smothered in hot buffalo sauce and an order of Crazy bread sticks. This came to a total of $17.95. While this might sound steep, I estimate there was enough food to feed three normal people.
Interestingly, the "ready-when-you-are" service model turned out to be a bit of a fizzer – during our visit, around half of the customers were forced to wait between five and ten minutes for their non-customised orders. (To be fair, this was at 3pm when there were presumably fewer pizzas on standby.)
In terms of appearance, the pizza was nothing to write home about: the toppings were pretty sparse and the cheese had that greasy dull sheen that is typical of fast food pizza chains. On the plus side, it was piping hot and bloody massive.
The bread sticks and buffalo wings are a damn sight better looking. It's still unmistakably fast food, but it could almost pass for Nando's fare. More importantly, they both tasted great. When it comes to sides, Little Caesars has definitely done a good job.
The first thing you notice when biting into the pizza is the sauce: it's significantly more flavoursome than Pizza Hut or Domino's and seems to have more in common with a rich pasta sauce than a standard tomato paste. The company is aware of where its strength lies: the dipping sauce that comes with the bread seemed to consist of the same stuff.
The cheese is a mix of Mozzarella and Muenster which is a semi-soft cheese from the United States noted for its subtle taste and soft texture. There's also a dusting of parmesan cheese across the crust.
Otherwise, this is pretty standard fare for a pizza franchise. It's salty, greasy and falls anywhere between "delicious" and "awful", depending on how much or a food snob you are.
Personally, I thought it was perfectly reasonable for the asking price – there's lots of flavour and it certainly fills you up. In fact, I felt pretty bloated after just two slices.
As any takeaway aficionado knows, a great-tasting pizza also needs to pass the microwaved leftovers test. I took a slice of my Hot-N-Ready pepperoni pizza home for a late-night snack. It tasted pretty good! Because the cheese and base are rather soft to begin with, it handles nuking quite well. Hurrah!