Choosing the Best Pizza Chain
Americans eat a lot of pizza. According to Technomic's 2018 Pizza Consumer Trend Report, 43 percent eat pizza at least once a week. And there's a good reason that pizza is so popular: It's tasty; it's convenient; and, most of all, it's relatively cheap. We examined eight of the nation's largest pizza chains — Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, Little Caesars, Papa Murphy's, Marco's Pizza, Hungry Howie's, and Jet's Pizza — to tease out the subtle differences and recommend the best places to indulge your cravings on those nights when you just don't want to cook.
We focused primarily on price — including deals that can shrink the cost of regular menu items — but also looked at the variety of offerings, convenience, and rewards programs. Although we took into account a large-scale customer survey that considers overall quality, as well as a previous Cheapism taste test of the four biggest pizza chains, taste is generally too subjective to be a major factor.
Scroll to the bottom of this article for our full reviews of these top pizza chains.
In the final analysis, Domino's Pizza takes the cake (or, should we say, the pie) for convenience, variety, and value. It's not the absolute cheapest of all the chains we considered, but it certainly undercuts the two biggest competitors, Pizza Hut and Papa John's. For the cheapest pizza, order from Little Caesars, but you'll have go and pick up those pizza pizzas yourself — no delivery — and settle for lot fewer options than most other chains have on their menus. Honorable mentions go to two lesser names for their unexpected selections and relatively cheap prices: Hats off to Hungry Howie's for introducing the industry to flavored crust, and points to customer favorite Papa Murphy's for providing a fresh, inexpensive option for families willing to bake the pizza themselves. Papa John's is the most expensive of the pizza chains we researched and really stands out only for its rewards program.
|Pepperoni Pizza (large)||$11.99||$11.79||$14.28||$5||$12.74||$15.80||$11.50||$13.08|
|Cheese Pizza (large)||$11.99||$10||$12.49||$5||$10.99||$14.05||$10||$11.49|
|Veggie Pizza (large)||$17||$17||$17||$10||$17.99||$18.50||$14||$16.49|
Menu prices from restaurants in southwestern Ohio; expect some variation in other markets, and between franchise locations.
To compare costs across chains, we surveyed regular menu prices for three large, hand-tossed pizzas — pepperoni, cheese, and veggie — a large order of breadsticks, and a 2-liter bottle of soda.
Not surprisingly, Little Caesars, which has staked its business model on everyday value, had the lowest total by far: $26.29. If you're feeding a family of five, that works out to about $5.26 a person, likely less than a value meal at your favorite burger chain and with some left for lunch (or breakfast) the next day. The next-cheapest option, Papa Murphy's, rang up at $43.25. However, there are trade-offs for these lower prices: Neither chain offers in-house delivery, and in the case of Papa Murphy's, you also have to bake the pizza yourself.
The cheapest traditional delivery joint was Hungry Howie's at $46.57, and Domino's squeaked in just under $50. Heavy hitters Pizza Hut and Papa John's were the priciest chains on our list, at $51.06 and $57.60, respectively. Divided among a family of five, that's $11.52 a head at Papa John's, more than double what the same meal would cost at Little Caesars.
Of course, with a couple of exceptions, pizza chains run frequent deals to lure customers, and it's rarely necessary to pay full price. Would-be diners should watch their mail for coupons and search for discount codes before placing orders online. In many cases, deals are listed right on the restaurants' homepages, though not always: For Marco's Pizza, we found several working coupon codes on third-party sites that were nowhere to be found on the Marco's site.
Pizza lovers should also keep in mind that the first deal they see may not always be the best. There are often multiple offers available, and it may take a bit of digging and calculation to figure out which provides the best bang for the buck. For instance, at the time of our research, Papa John's customers could nab 25 percent off regular-price items (not to be combined with other discounts, of course). Ordering five of Papa John's pricey large specialty pizzas would total $90 (excluding taxes) before any discounts. Using a 25-percent-off coupon code would net about $23 in savings and bring the total down to $67. Sounds good — until you come across the chain's offer of any five large pizzas for $55.
Don't search too hard for Little Caesars coupons or deals. The chain rarely discounts, because it's hard to go much lower than its signature $5 deal for a large cheese or pepperoni pizza, offered every day. Papa Murphy's doesn't list deals on its website, but frequent customers can sign up to receive special offers via email or text. Marco's customers can also join an "eClub" that alerts email subscribers to deals that might not be found among the bargains shown online. Jet's Pizza has a similar "Crunch Club."
While pizza chains have more limited menus than other restaurants, some still stand out for offering more options. Wings have become standard, showing up on six of the eight menus we analyzed. Some pizza joints also offer sandwiches, salads, pasta, and an unexpectedly wide array of desserts. Not all menu items are offered at every franchise location, however.
A close look at the chains' menus shows that Domino's offers the most choices for customers who want something besides pizza. Highlights include five pasta entrées, along with the option to build your own dish; a dozen hoagies and sandwiches; and four kinds of specialty chicken bites. Pizza Hut, Jet's, Hungry Howie's, and Marco's each offer a half-dozen salads for anyone who wants to eat a bit lighter. Jet's also has an impressive lineup of baked sandwiches made with pizza-dough bread. Pizza Hut is a standout for anyone with a sweet tooth, offering five dessert choices, from apple pies to cinnamon rolls to a large, sliceable chocolate-chip cookie for sharing.
If you want veggies from Papa John's, you'll likely have to order them on a pizza — we didn't see salads offered at any local stores — and there are no sandwiches, either. If you're in the market for wings or chicken poppers for game night, however, you'll find a pretty decent selection. Menu options were the least prolific at Little Caesars and Papa Murphy's. While Little Caesars does have wings, other options are scant: There are no salads, no sandwiches, and just one dessert (cinnamon bites). Papa Murphy's offers a few small salads and a few dessert options (most notably chocolate chip cookie dough) but no sandwiches or wings.
All the chains we researched allow customers to create their own pizzas, but some offer more customization options than others. Jet's is one of the best places to build your own pie, offering four types of crust, five kinds of sauce, eight crust flavors, 10 meats, 10 veggies, and four cheeses. Pizza Hut and Domino's also offer plenty of variety, and crust lovers will appreciate Hungry Howie's eight flavors, from Cajun to ranch. On the other end of the spectrum, Little Caesars offers only traditional red sauce. Customers can choose from four crusts, but there are only five meats and seven veggies available as toppings. Little Caesars is also the only chain in the group that does not offer gluten-free pizza. (Marco's offers gluten-free crust at only some locations, however.)
For many, grabbing pizza for dinner might be less about downright deliciousness and more about quick-and-easy convenience. All the chains we researched have relatively user-friendly websites, most of which allow customers to save their addresses and favorite orders for speedier checkout in the future. Still, some chains make it easier to dig in than others.
Domino's is in its own league when it comes to streamlining the ordering process. On its website, customers can save frequent orders, schedule orders up to three weeks in advance, track the progress of an order, and even easily place orders to "pizza hotspots" like parks and schools where logistics can sometimes be tricky. But that's not all: Once you set up an "Easy Order" and file your go-to favorite, you can summon your meal on demand using a huge array of technology. For instance, you can place a voice order with Google Assistant or Amazon's Alexa, order during a commercial break on a Samsung smart TV, or simply tweet or text a pizza emoji to Domino's. The company has even rolled out a zero-click app: Open it and your order is placed automatically after a 10-second countdown.
Pizza Hut has been taking steps to improve its ordering platforms, particularly on mobile. While it still lags Dominos in the scope of its delivery options, it stands out for sheer number of locations — close to 7,500 in the United States (about 2,300 more than Domino's), which means there's bound to be one in your neighborhood. Although the chain has closed many of its once-iconic red-roofed sit-down restaurants, you can still find them sprinkled across the country if you want a little nostalgia along with your pizza. Many of the sit-down locations also offer lunch and dinner buffets.
Little Caesars and Papa Murphy's allow online orders but don't do delivery. This might not seem like a big deal, now that there are third-party delivery services like DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub, but beware of overpaying. With inflated menu prices and hefty service and delivery fees, ordering Little Caesars through DoorDash would turn our $26.29 carryout order into a $56.22 delivery order — and that's before a driver tip. Considering that the pizza chains we researched charge only $2.50 to $3.50 for delivery, the charges seem even more exorbitant.
Papa Murphy's claims it can offer better-quality pizza at a lower price using a take-and-bake model, and the chain is indeed the second-cheapest in our price comparison. However, it also means hungry families have to think far enough ahead to allow for cooking time, eliminating some of the convenience of a pizza dinner. And it all but cancels Papa Murphy's from consideration for customers who want to order a large number of pizzas to feed a big group.
Though not a major factor in our analysis, rewards can be a nice bonus for customers who find themselves placing pizza orders relatively frequently. Half of the eight chains we researched offer some sort of nationally available rewards program or loyalty club for repeat customers.
At Pizza Hut, every $1 spent earns rewards members two points, and 150 points can be redeemed for a free medium two-topping pizza. Save up 200 points for any medium pizza, or 250 points for any large. That means you have to spend at least $75 to get the free medium with two toppings. Rewards members are also promised insider access to special deals.
Domino's and Hungry Howie's do things slightly differently, awarding 10 points for every order of at least $10, then offering a free medium two-topping pizza once you've earned 60 points. That means you can earn free pizza by spending as little as $60 (although an average order is closer to $20, so realistically you could be spending $120 or more to get that medium pizza prize). But, psssst — earning your first free pizza at Hungry Howie's is a cinch: Rewards members receive 50 points simply for signing up.
Papa John's awards one point for every $5 spent and a 10-point birthday bonus. Ordering a meal that's been saved as a favorite also earns 10 points (as long as it's over $10). Ten points can be redeemed for a free side or dessert; 15 points earns a medium two-topping pizza; and 25 points nets a large pizza with three toppings. That means all you have to spend is between $20 (with two saved orders) and $75, not counting any birthday points, to get a free medium pizza. Between the expanded menu of free items customers can get with rewards points, and the generous points awarded for repeat orders, membership seems to provide the best perks at Papa John's.
DOMINO'S | Best Value
- Cheapest of the three largest pizza-delivery chains (Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Papa John's) based on our price comparison.
- Robust slate of deals can lead to big savings for families who order strategically.
- Wide range of hoagies, sandwiches, and salads broaden the appeal for lunchtime or customers who may not want pizza.
- Easy-to-use website includes a minute-to-minute order tracker and the ability to schedule orders up to three weeks in advance.
- Some of the best deals are limited to carryout.
- Middling marks in most categories, including speed, quality, and service, in a large Market Force survey. Smaller chains Papa Murphy's and Marco's both beat Domino's as consumer favorites.
Takeaway: Finally edging out archrival Pizza Hut in sales in 2017, Domino's has carved out a niche as the king of pizza delivery. It's done so by dropping prices, introducing lots of new deals, revamping and expanding its menu, and, most importantly, upgrading its ordering services to better suit today's customers, particularly millennials — and anyone else who wants ordering a pizza to be ultra-quick and nearly effortless. Domino's orders can be placed through Amazon's Alexa, by texting a pizza emoji, sending a tweet, or even using a zero-click app. With an everyday value price of $8 for a large three-topping pizza, a menu that aims to please everyone in the family, and plenty of special offers to bring totals down if you're hosting a party for the big game, Domino's spot at the top seems well-earned.
HUNGRY HOWIE'S | Best Pizza Crust
- Cheapest chain that offers delivery in our price comparison survey.
- Large range of deals listed online, including $5 lunches and two medium 1-topping pizzas with a side of Howie Bread for $15.
- With five types of crust and eight different crust flavors, it's the best destination for crust connoisseurs.
- Large menu of salads, subs, calzones, and wings makes it easy for non-pizza eaters to find something tasty too.
- With locations in fewer than half the 50 states, so there may not be a Hungry Howie's near you.
- While many chains offer several sauce options for custom orders, such as Alfredo and barbecue, customers who want to build their own pizza have only one sauce available here.
Takeaway: Started in Michigan in 1973, Hungry Howie's may be a lesser-known player among the big-name pizza brands on our list, but if there's one in your neighborhood, we suggest giving it a shot. Fair prices and a good number of deals would alone make it worth a look. But what really sets the chain apart is the wide variety of crust options. Credited as the originator of flavored crust, Hungry Howie's offers customers a smorgasbord of offerings from sesame to Cajun-flavored stuffed crust. There's also a tantalizingly large menu of calzone-style subs, served wrapped in pizza dough.
PIZZA HUT | The Big Cheese
- With close to 7,500 locations, it's the largest pizza chain in the country. Some restaurants still offer dine-in options and popular pizza buffets.
- Solid menu variety, including pasta, sandwiches, salads, desserts, and a wide range of pizza customization options.
- Large slate of deals, including $8 for a large two-topping pizza or $6 each for two medium two-topping pizzas.
- Easily beat out Domino's, Papa John's, and Little Caesars in an earlier Cheapism taste test.
- Third-priciest pizza chain in our price comparison.
- Poor marks for speed, value, cleanliness, and healthy options in the Market Force consumer survey.
Takeaway: As the new official pizza sponsor of the NFL (a lucrative title that formerly belonged to Papa John's), Pizza Hut is poised to become more ubiquitous than ever. Hopefully that translates into more compelling deals for sports fans, as the chain's regular prices are nothing to write home about. However, "The Hut" boasts a wide-ranging menu and consistently tasty pizza. The fluffy, buttery goodness of the brand's trademark pan crust has long been a crowd pleaser.
LITTLE CAESARS | Cheapest Pizza Chain
- Lowest prices on pizzas by far, including $5 deals on large cheese and pepperoni pizzas every day without any special coupons or promotions.
- With more than 4,300 U.S. locations, chances are there's a Little Caesars nearby.
- $5 lunch combo is a cheap, convenient option for on-the-go pizza lovers.
- No in-house delivery service; customers must pick up or rely on pricey third parties.
- Ingredient choices for custom pizzas and menu options beyond pizza, such as sides, salads, and desserts, are limited or nonexistent.
- Poor marks for food quality, staff friendliness, atmosphere, and healthy options in the Market Force study; ranked dead-last in Cheapism's taste test.
Takeaway: If you want a pizza dinner on the cheap, Little Caesars is hard to beat. Just $5 buys a large cheese or pepperoni pizza, and even premium options like five-meat, Hawaiian, or supreme pizzas don't cost more than $10. New online ordering and "pizza portal" pickup — just grab and go — also help minimize in-store waiting. But the low prices come at a cost: Namely, there's no delivery, no rewards program, and little variety beyond the basics.
PAPA MURPHY'S | Take-and-Bake Pizza
- Second-lowest price in our comparison; basic large pizzas start around $10 and the most expensive large pizzas are just $15 to $16.
- Very high scores across the board in the Market Force survey, including perceptions of value and quality; ranked second overall and higher than any other brand on our list.
- Menu of specialty pizzas includes higher-brow options like Thai chicken and chicken bacon artichoke on thin crust.
- Customers must bake the pizzas themselves, which demands more planning and makes it tough to feed a large crowd.
- No in-house delivery service; carryout or third-party food delivery only.
- Non-pizza menu is limited; those who want to order wings, pasta, or subs have to look elsewhere.
Takeaway: Families who don't want to skimp on quality (dough is made fresh daily and there are no freezers) but aren't willing to pay an arm and a leg, have found a lot to love about take-and-bake chain Papa Murphy's. The catch, of course, is convenience: Since you have to pick it up and bake it yourself, Papa Murphy's requires more planning than your typical pizza dinner. Its limited menu and bake-it-yourself model also makes Papa Murphy's a no-go for quick lunches or big gatherings.
MARCO'S PIZZA | Cheapest Pizza Delivery Fee
- Solid scores across the board in the Market Force consumer survey, including high marks for food quality, curb appeal, cleanliness, and staff friendliness.
- Large menu of salads, subs, and wings makes it easy for non-pizza eaters to find a tasty alternative.
- Delivery fee of $2.50 is the cheapest among the chains we researched.
- Few deals on the website, although signing up for the chain's email list or searching third-party websites may yield special offers.
- Only a few locations appear to have a loyalty program that offers rewards for repeat customers.
- No way for customers to track orders online or save favorites for quicker checkout later on.
Takeaway: Although not nearly as big as mega-chains like Domino's or Pizza Hut, Marco's Pizza has made steady inroads among the nation's pizza lovers, who say it consistently churns out high-quality pies. However, the website could use a few more conveniences, and deals are conspicuously lacking, forcing customers to go hunting for coupon codes on other sites.
PAPA JOHN'S | Most Expensive Major Chain
- Wider range of specialty pizzas than most chains, including lighter choices, local favorites, and "gourmet" options.
- Easy-to-use website offers text alerts and lets customers schedule orders up to three weeks in advance.
- Robust rewards program allows frequent customers to earn points that can be redeemed for a wide range of menu options, not just pizza.
- Most expensive of the eight pizza chains we surveyed.
- Smaller slate of deals than major rivals Pizza Hut and Domino's.
- Low-to-middling marks in most categories, including value, speed, quality, and service, in the Market Force study.
Takeaway: Papa John's aims for a customer who's willing to pay more for what it says is a better pie. Of course, whether the chain meets that goal largely depends on your taste buds, but it does offer some more highbrow choices, including an "ancient grains" gluten-free crust and a menu of pies with 300 or fewer calories per slice. Still, with a base price of more than $14 for a simple cheese pizza, it's not the most affordable choice.
JET'S PIZZA | Fewer Locations, Higher Prices
- Wide variety of sauces, crust styles and flavors, meats, veggies, and cheeses for building your own pizza.
- Varied menu of salads, subs, and wings for customers looking for more than pizza.
- Unique "8 Corner Pizza" gives an entire family of deep-dish lovers lots of opportunity to score those coveted, crispy edge pieces.
- Second-most expensive of the 8 pizza chains we surveyed.
- With only about 400 locations in 20 states, this is the smallest of the top chains.
- No loyalty club that offers rewards for repeat customers.
Takeaway: Jet's, a relatively small but popular chain found mainly in the Midwest and South, is best known for rectangular deep-dish pizza that gives devotees a reason to seek out one of its relatively few locations. You can even sink your teeth into that deep-dish crust if you order a "Jetzee" sandwich — the crust stands in for the bread. Beware of high prices, though: Our comparison tallied a cost of more than $50 for an order of three basic pizzas, bread, and a 2-liter. The deals featured on the website weren't particularly impressive either.