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The Cheesy Arms Race Over Stuffed Crust Pizza

From bacon to pretzels to hot dogs, big-name pizza companies won't stop melting down over what to shove in your crust

He called them “pizza bones.”

He didn’t just say it once either — he kept talking about them. He said he didn’t like the pizza bones and that he would just feed them to his dog. Nobody knew what the hell he was talking about, but that didn’t matter. After all, the middle-aged man had been asked to be a part of a Pizza Hut focus group, and if he wanted to talk about pizza bones, well, someone was going to listen.

This could easily have been dismissed as the ravings of a madman, but the people behind the glass wanted clarification. When they got it, the “pizza bones” comments made sense. “You know, the crust,” the man explained. “Nobody ever eats the crust. That’s what you throw to the dog — the pizza bones.” Nobody knew it at the time, but within a few years, the man’s strange remarks would lead to a revolution in the pizza industry. Decades later, that revolution would escalate into a vicious, all-out arms race involving every big pizza chain in the country; one whose fallout still haunts us today.

The story technically begins back in 1990, when a Kansas State University graduate named Patty Scheibmeir was hired by Pizza Hut right out of college as a “low-level food scientist.” She worked in product development, which included things like experimenting with recipes and attending focus groups. The aforementioned focus group occurred just two years into her tenure, in December 1992. “We’d done a bunch of focus groups that week,” she recalls. “They were boring as hell.”

Yet when the man kept going on about “pizza bones,” it caught the attention of Scheibmeir and her colleagues in Pizza Hut R&D. And when the man explained that he was talking about the crust, she had something of a revelation. “He was complaining about how half the pizza goes to waste, so I thought, ‘How do I make the whole pizza edible?’ Then it just dawned on me: ‘What if I roll something into the edge?’”

Before long, Scheibmeir was searching a grocery store for inspiration, and string cheese — a new product at the time — became the obvious answer for a crust stuffing. She bought a bunch of them and lugged them back to the Pizza Hut test kitchen in Wichita. The results, however, were mixed. “Those string cheeses got really hard, really fast,” she says. “When you ate it, the whole stick came out.” Still, she knew she had something, so she kept experimenting.

“It took about two and a half years to fully develop that pizza,” Scheibmeir continues, explaining that they needed to create a softer cheese and a dough that wouldn’t tear when it was folded over. In 1994, the new pizza was tested in a couple of markets as “Mama Lorelli’s Stuffed Crust Pizza.” “We wanted to make it feel Italian and one of our marketing guys was named Lorelli, so that’s where Mama Lorelli came from, but that was dropped before long,” she explains.

A July 1994 ad for Mama Lorelli’s Stuffed Crust Pizza from the Albuquerque Journal

Not long later, in March 1995, Pizza Hut rolled out (pun unavoidable) the nationwide release of its stuffed crust pizza. To say it was a success would be a severe understatement. By August 1995, Pizza Hut’s sales were up 68 percent, and the stuffed crust pizza was selling like crazy. “We were running out of cheese!” Scheibmeir says. “We had to approve another production plant because we couldn’t keep up!”

The marketing campaign was a big success too, as Pizza Hut hired celebrities — Dennis Rodman (yikes), Donald Trump (double yikes) and Rush Limbaugh (triple yikes) — to tell the public to eat their new pizza “the wrong way” (i.e., by eating the crust first).

All of which naturally led to arguments — and lawsuits — over who really invented the stuffed crust pizza. “A pizza-making family is suing Pizza Hut for $1 billion for allegedly stealing its idea for stuffed crust pizza,” began an Associated Press story from November 1995. The lawyer for Angelo Mongiello said that his client had patented the stuffed crust pizza in 1987 — and had even offered it to Pizza Hut to license — yet the chain displayed no interest. Pizza Hut did acknowledge that it had rejected Mongiello’s proposal, but pointed to how Scheibmeir’s approach differed from Mongiello’s patent to prove it hadn’t stolen anything from him. In particular, whereas Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust had a continuous circle of cheese within the crust, Mongiello’s patent featured a separate pocket to be stuffed for each slice of the pizza.

An image from Mongiello’s patent

In 1999, a court sided with Pizza Hut, though Mongiello still maintains he was ripped off. “I’m sure that somebody somewhere had something similar, but I invented the Pizza Hut version of stuffed crust pizza, which is what people now know as ‘stuffed crust,’” Scheibmeir maintains. “That’s my baby.”

To her point, other kinds of stuffed crust may predate Pizza Hut’s. One pizza maker in Brazil, for example, also claims that he invented the stuffed crust back in the 1980s, and a pizzeria in Naples has offered a similar pie called “Pizza Carnevale” since the 1940s. Although the star-shaped pizza is prepared differently — by folding stuffable pockets along the edges — it’s still, arguably, a type of stuffed crust.

Pizza Carnevale, from Pizzeria Da Attilio in Naples

What isn’t in dispute is how Pizza Hut kicked off a stuffed crust arms race among its competitors. The first challenger was Little Caesars, which began selling a stuffed crust of its own just six months after Pizza Hut’s debuted. It was more or less the same as Pizza Hut’s — a standard version was packed with mozzarella while another option was crammed with cheese and pepperoni (something Pizza Hut had started about a month before Little Caesars’ stuffed crust launched). To up the ante a little bit, Little Caesars topped its crusts with parmesan and garlic butter. It also offered its stuffed crusts for a mere $7.99, two whole dollars cheaper than Pizza Hut’s.

In the years since, Little Caesars has developed a number of extra-special specialty crusts, some stuffed, some not — e.g., the limited-time-only pretzel crust in 2014 and a stuffed pretzel crust five years later. In 2015, Little Caesars made perhaps its biggest crust breakthrough by introducing a bacon-wrapped pizza. Featuring three-and-a-half feet of bacon, the pizza was made Detroit style, but with bacon cooked into the sides. (Little Caesars typically cycles these items on and off the menu, thereby creating a buzz whenever one of its more unhinged monstrosities makes a triumphant return.)

Super late to the game, Papa John’s didn’t offer a stuffed crust until late last year. “This isn’t just stuffed crust. This is Papa John’s crust, stuffed,” the boxes for its “Epic Stuffed Crust Pizza” read. As far as I could tell, though, there wasn’t anything all that “epic” about it — at least by Little Caesars’ unholy bacon and pretzel standards. In fairness, I did slightly prefer Papa John’s stuffed crust to Little Caesars’, if only because it seemed slightly less greasy. But it really has nothing special to offer, mostly making me wonder why the chain even bothered to create a stuffed crust some 25 years after it first became — in Papa John’s parlance — epic.

For its part, Domino’s has remained above the fray, spending the last two decades improving its recipe and operations instead of finding more and more innovative ways to fuck with its crust. That said, it’s a different story overseas, as international Domino’s locations have pioneered menu items like peanut-sauce stuffed crust pizza and tapioca-stuffed pizza.

All the while — and no matter how far Little Caesars pushes things — Pizza Hut refuses to be outdone. Want hot dogs in your pizza crust? Check. What about hot dogs with pretzels? Yup. How about garlic knots? The Hut’s got that, too. Grilled cheese? You know it. International Domino’s doesn’t have anything on Pizza Hut either. Overseas locations offer local delicacies like cheeseburger-lined pizza crust, crusts stuffed with cream cheese and roe and a crust with fried cornflakes on it.

As such, Pizza Hut decided to do something truly special in 2020 for the 25th anniversary of the stuffed crust, releasing — for a limited time only, of course — what it termed the “Nothing But Stuffed Crust,” or essentially a ring of cheese-filled crust without a pizza in the middle.

Pizza Hut’s Nothing But Stuffed Crust — both a giant hole and unholy at the same time.

Not that any of this bothers Scheibmeir. Her Frankenstein is everyone else’s Frankenstein to do with what they please — a monster begetting an army of monsters. In fact, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I just think it’s fun,” she tells me. “Pizza is a fun product, so anything that makes it more fun, I say go for it.”