/ 26 April 2018

Taste-testing Ethiopia’s first Pizza Hut

Slice of the action: Pizza Hut is embarking on an aggressive push to conquer the African market.
Slice of the action: Pizza Hut is embarking on an aggressive push to conquer the African market.

Simon Allison in Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa is no stranger to a good knock-off. The Intercontinental, one of the best-known hotels in the city, has absolutely nothing to do with the international hotel group. Nor is the In-N-Out Burger in upmarket Bole suburb in any way related to the American franchise.

There’s a “Burger King” opposite the stadium, a “Home Depot” in the Old Airport area, and Kaldi’s, the local coffee chain, has shamelessly ripped off the Starbucks logo — although, in mitigation, Kaldi’s does make better coffee.

In this setting, Pizza Hut is something of an anomaly. It’s the real thing — the first time a major international fast-food franchise has entered the Ethiopian market (South African franchises Debonairs and Spur, which both have Addis locations, don’t quite fit the bill.)

The first Pizza Hut opened for business on April 14, to long queues and much fanfare. “The presence of Pizza Hut in Ethiopia is an exciting addition to the country’s culinary scene,” said Michael Raynor, the United States ambassador.

Two weeks later, the queues have not shortened by much. It’s not yet midday and already there’s a scrum at the signature black granite counter, which was imported along with all the other typical Pizza Hut trimmings from the US. It doesn’t help that teething problems with the tills mean that receipts are being written out by hand.

But Marta, 28, says she is also partly to blame. “I came here with my friends, and then I came back on my own. I just love it. It’s delicious. Just don’t forget the extra cheese on the pepperoni,” she says.

Caleb and Michael, two burly American marines — instantly identifiable by their too-short hair coupled with their too-large biceps — walk out carrying a stack of 12 pizza boxes to take back to the US embassy. “It tastes like home. Just like it’s meant to,” says Caleb.

Fatih, a 34-year-old lawyer, is impressed that his chicken-and-mushroom thin crust tastes exactly like the pizzas he has eaten at Pizza Huts abroad. “They have replicated everything, exactly,” he said.

But he’s a little torn on what the entrance of the franchise — which is sure to be followed by others — means for Ethiopia’s existing restaurants.

“Of course I am excited that a multinational company is coming to Ethiopia. On the other hand, it means bad news for local companies. It’s just one pizza shop today but in 10 years there will be 50.”

That’s definitely the plan. Pizza Hut is embarking on an aggressive push to conquer the African market; in March it opened its 100th restaurant in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Bloomberg, about half the franchise’s business is in South Africa, although the Pizza Hut built inside the US military base in Djibouti also does a roaring trade.

A second Addis location in Bole is meant to open within weeks.

Ethiopia, with a swiftly growing population already in excess of 100-million people, seems a logical next step for Pizza Hut.

But the price point, at 130 birr (R58) for a small pizza, could restrict growth: Is Ethiopia’s middle class big enough to sustain more than a handful of locations? Especially given that there is plenty of excellent pizza already available in Italian restaurants all over the city — a remnant, along with the world’s best macchiatos, of the brief Italian occupation in the 1930s.

But first, there is a more immediate test that Pizza Hut needs to pass: the taste test.

A classic pepperoni pan pizza rolls hot out of the oven, loaded with cheese, processed meats and saturated fats that glisten under the bright lights. It looks the part, and it tastes like salt and melted plastic — exactly like a good Pizza Hut pizza should. In a city full of imitations, this is definitely the real thing.