Consider the pizza box. Not a specific pizza box, because they all pretty much look the same, but all the pizza boxes you might have encountered anytime in the last half century or so. They’re probably some combination of red, white and green, and maybe feature an Italian-looking chef with a swirly mustache. They’re bulky, and you struggle to fit them in your fridge when there are leftovers, or even in your trash can when they’re empty.
The pizza box has been this way for decades, even as cars have gone electric and phones have become pocket-size, portable means of accessing the whole of human knowledge (or at least a lot of cat videos). Innovation in the pizza-box space has consisted of the addition of those miniature plastic platforms that keep the top of the box from sticking to the cheese below. Maybe a vent or two to keep air circulating. Little cupholders for garlic butter or ranch dressing.
And so what might seem like a small step — Pizza Hut’s announcement Tuesday that it’s trying out a high-tech new design that’s round instead of square — feels like a giant leap for pizza-kind.
“For the most part, only marginal changes have been made to pizza boxes through the years,” Nicolas Burquier, Pizza Hut’s chief customer and operations officer, said in an email. “This round box leverages new technology and represents step change innovation.”
The pie chain’s claims about the new box are many. Some of its shiny new features are meant to improve its function and use: The round shape means there’s less waste (i.e., it’s better for the environment), and it’s made of sustainably harvested plant fiber. It’s industrially compostable. Less material also means it takes up less space on the shelves of Pizza Hut locations — and in your fridge.
The box (can you even call a disc-shaped vessel a box? Discuss.) has ridges on the bottom exterior and grooves in the top, so multiples can lock together, meaning there’s no slipping during delivery or when you’re toting a stack into a party. They don’t require time-consuming assembling by employees, and they break down easily — you can fold them over multiple times until you have something compact enough to drop into your trash can.
And there are taste claims, too. Grooves along the bottom help catch grease and circulate air to prevent soggy crust, says Pizza Hut, and the latch closure keeps heat in, so your pie ostensibly stays warmer longer.
“I think one day in the future we’ll reminisce about the idea of round pizzas in square boxes and laugh,” Burquier said.
Burquier described the box as the result of a two-year development process along with Zume, the Silicon Valley start-up company whose pizza-delivery innovations include robots assembling the pies and trucks that bake your pizza en route to your home to cut down on what’s known in the industry as “dwell time.” Their method, he said, was hands — and taste buds — on: “We ate a LOT of pizza.”
But Scott Wiener, a pizza-box collector and author of “Viva la Pizza!: The Art of the Pizza Box,” says it’s potentially significant for a giant like Pizza Hut to start using a 2.0-style box. “That could be huge,” he said. He said cost is the primary factor stifling pizza-box innovation. Most pizza joints are content with the cheap-to-produce cardboard versions. “There was this cool pizza box out of India that had perforations that allowed steam to escape indirectly — basically it vented out but kept the heat in,” he said. “But it didn’t take off because it’s expensive to produce.”
Burquier didn’t say how much the new box costs in comparison to the standard version, though he said that “innovative manufacturing processes” would keep it from impacting the price the chain charges. Initially, Pizza Hut is testing the new design in Phoenix, with plans to roll it out to other areas in the future.
It’s a big change for the company, which has been using standard boxes since the 1970s, with designs that included a 1972 version printed to look like a newspaper called the Pizza Hut Gazette and an early-1980s style with a classic Italian checked tablecloth motif. Before boxes, the company relied on a delivery system called the “Sack and Circle,” which sounds like a football play but actually describes packaging a pizza on a round of corrugated cardboard inside a bag.
Oh, how times have changed. We had Pizza Hut ship us a few samples of the new whiz-bang receptacle so we could kick its tires. Out of the box (yes, the box arrived in a box — so very meta) it looked promising: sturdy (no center sag) but relatively lightweight, with an easy-to-snap lid. The stacking feature felt nice and secure.
But all that assessment was simply of an empty box. The real question was: How would it perform in the field? We mocked up a trial wherein we ordered two identical pizzas from Pizza Hut, each with half cheese and half sausage and onion. We gave the bottom of the new box to the friendly people behind the counter and asked that one of the pizzas be placed on it, with the other going into the standard box, which comes lined with a corrugated liner and one of the aforementioned plastic tabletop thingees. When they were both ready, we clicked the top on the new box and took both pies back to the office.
The new box felt much more secure and easy to handle. We didn’t have to palm it in the center of the pie like you often do with the classic pizza tote. And it didn’t seem to slide around while it was perched on the seat of the Uber.
About 30 minutes later, we opened both boxes and found … almost no discernible differences between the two. In fact, the pizza that had traveled in the traditional box was 2 degrees warmer (we used both an instant-read and gun thermometer). The crusts and integrity of the toppings were completely indistinguishable. Now, it’s entirely possible that this was the fault of our imperfect test.
But when it came time to toss the remnants of lunch, we appreciated the way the new container folded up for easy disposal.
Was it possible we were witnessing the future? That someday, when we’re picking up a pie by spaceship — or drone — we won’t even remember a time when pizza came in square boxes with mustachioed chefs on them and cursive fonts proclaiming the contents to be fresh, hot and delicious?
Maybe, says Wiener, though he thinks that whatever shape our pizza vessels take and whatever snazzy improvements are made, the traditional one will always be an icon.
“We’ll always have that connotation,” he says. “It’s such a classic.”
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