Best Cheap Pizza Chains
Published on By Raechel Conover
Americans certainly love their pizza: More than nine out of 10 scarf it down at least once a month. On average, the total amount of cheesy goodness consumed each year comes out to 46 slices per person, according to Statistic Brain. To honor this perennial favorite and commemorate National Pizza Month, we organized a taste-off to determine the best cheap pizza chain among the biggest national brands: Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza, Papa John's, and Little Caesars.
Our panel's collective palate declared Pizza Hut the winner in every category. Falling toward the bottom of the price pack, Pizza Hut is easily worth every penny.
The second most expensive we tasted, Domino's pies still managed to impress the panel, especially with their garlic-accented crust. Use coupons and stick with basic cheese.
A perceived favorite prior to the tastings, Papa John's tied for second place. None of our tasters dished up firmly critical comments, but reviews were mixed overall.
Price was the only favorable element of Little Caesars pizza, the cheapest on our list. Judges cited inconsistent and unbalanced ingredients. This chain is strictly carryout.
Pizza Chain Comparison
We gathered a panel of 11 self-proclaimed pizza aficionados to sample a basic cheese pie and one with toppings -- half pepperoni and half onion and green pepper -- from each of the four chains. At the outset of our blind taste test, panelists were asked to name their favorite pizza of the four. Most proclaimed that Papa John's would win hands down, although a few stood up for Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza. In an unexpected upset, Pizza Hut cleaned up in all pizza categories. To no one's surprise, every variety of Little Caesars fell flat.
We chose the candidates for our taste-off based on a list of the top pizza chains generated by the trade magazine Pizza Today. Data from 2016 place Pizza Hut as the largest, both in total stores and sales revenue. Domino's Pizza is second, Little Caesars comes in third, and Papa John's places fourth. We excluded Papa Murphy's, ranked No. 5, because it sits so far behind the big four, at a fraction of the others' stores and revenue. It's also a different pizza experience, being primarily a take and bake operation.
The pies we sampled from the top four pizza chains fell into a relatively cheap price range, costing as little as $5 and as much as $13 for a basic large (14-inch) cheese pizza. This variety was the least expensive all around and cheapest at Little Caesars, known for its $5 Hot-n-Ready cheese pizza. That compares with $10.99 at Pizza Hut, $11.99 at Domino’s Pizza, and $13.00 at Papa John’s. The topping prices confirmed Little Caesars as the all-around cheapest pizza chain, at $1.50 for each additional topping, but both Domino’s and Papa John’s are a little more generous and will float one topping for free before instituting their $1.50-per-topping fees. Pizza Hut demands $1.59 for each topping added. Although all the pizzas were relatively cheap, it's rarely necessary to pay full price at any of the pizza chains we sampled. For example, a current Papa John’s promotion offers two pizzas for the price of one, and would bring a pie with two toppings down to $7.25.
Another factor to consider when choosing among cheap pizza chains is pickup versus delivery. Delivery costs more because it's a good (and kind) practice to tip the delivery person. (Considering $5 as the standard tip paid to drivers, this could amount to nearly 50 percent of the total bill, barring any special deals, for a single large pie.) Little Caesars is carryout only, which saves money on the tip but not on fuel for your car.
Delivery times vary by location. For our pizza chain taste-off in Columbus, Ohio, the delivery time for each store was stated as 35 minutes. All met that commitment with ease. Papa John's was fastest, at just 15 minutes; Domino's was one minute slower; and Pizza Hut sauntered up 25 minutes after we placed the order. Little Caesars estimated a 10-minute timeframe for pickup and the order was ready when we walked in 10 minutes later. That said, we sat on hold for 10 minutes before placing the order. The three other pizza chains were far more prompt on the phone.
Pizza Taste Test
Personal preference obviously plays a role in determining the best cheap pizza, but our judges were quick to specify what they were looking for in their pizza reviews. Crust, sauce, and cheese were the star players, followed by pepperoni and assorted toppings. A balance of components was also important. The sauce-to-dough ratio, for example, determined how dry or soupy a pizza was, and neither quality was desirable. Tasters also asserted that the amount of toppings shouldn't overpower the pie; toppings should complement or enhance the other flavors.
Crust is the foundation on which pizza rises. Our judges craved a crust that was a combination of bready, airy, fluffy, and a little crisp on the outside. Doughy crust was derided as a no-no. Tasters also wanted a crust that lent some flavor to the pie; rich and slightly garlicky seemed to go over well. Pizza Hut scored here with what one taster described as a "buttery, flavorful, bready crust."
Cheese was judged by the quantity and how it melted. Mushy cheese was deemed repulsive, and any pizza short on cheese failed to make the grade. Sauce held everything together. The judges were looking for a sweet and spicy flavor that wasn't bitter, tangy, or assertive. They also wanted a fair amount of sauce. One reviewer said Papa John's lacked adequate sauce, while another declared that Little Caesars had too much on some pies and too little on others.
Finally, the toppings on a cheap pizza needed to be just right. Panelists expected the toppings to augment the flavor, not overwhelm it. The vegetable toppings had to be fresh and somewhat crispy and the pepperoni had to show off some punch. How the toppings were cut also factored into the judges' assessment. One was not impressed with the stringy cut of the onions and peppers on the Papa John's and Domino's Pizza pies. Tasters preferred the diced veggies on the Pizza Hut and Little Caesars offerings.