The Secret Second Lives of Pizza Huts

Mike Neilson hunts former iterations of the iconic restaurant.

Image
Reuters

The first Pizza Hut opened in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas, the brainchild of hometown boys Dan and Frank Carney. It got its name, according to lore, from Dan Carney's wife, who thought the small building that housed it looked like a hut. (I learned this and many other details from an exhaustive post on the wonderfully arcane website Dairy River.)

But the Carneys' project could not long be contained. As they expanded, they commissioned an architect named Richard D. Burke to design a building that they could call their own -- a hut in name only, recognizable to all comers. These "Red Roof" locations multiplied rapidly, eventually numbering in the thousands. The company has discontinued the design and changed its business model to emphasize delivery and other types of outlets. But the distinctive silhouettes of those buildings remain one of the most reliable and recognizable features of the suburban landscape, even if a lot of them are no longer Pizza Huts.

An abandoned Pizza Hut. Photo by Flickr user Nicholas Eckhart.

For Pittsburgh resident Mike Neilson, proprietor of Used to Be a Pizza Hut, the iconic hump-roofed structure brings back happy memories of growing up the 1980s in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Back then, Pizza Hut pizza was "the de facto standard," he says, to be eaten while playing tabletop Pac Man games.

A few years ago, Neilson moved to Pittsburgh, where he works at a company that develops mobile apps. He immediately noticed that when people in his new home gave directions, they often used bygone landmarks to guide the way. "There are no instructions to go anywhere without 'turn at what used to be there,'" says Neilson. "Of course, I don't know what used to be there." But if what used to be there was a Pizza Hut, Neilson realized, you could recognize it by its form alone.

Image by Mike Neilson

That’s what gave him the idea to start the blog, using some pictures of "UTBAPHs" he took himself and some submitted by hut-spotters as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. "I don’t think they are necessarily beautiful buildings," he says. "But they mean something to us because they are so recognizable. I think that’s why a generation of people who grew up with them feel a nostalgia for them."

What becomes of these relics of a franchising dream? Many are converted into restaurants featuring the cuisine of recent immigrants, especially Mexican and Asian food. Some are taken over by other franchises, such as Subway. Other reincarnations of UTBAPHs include a liquor store, a sex-toy emporium, a check-cashing place/video store, and a police station (that one is in Des Moines, Iowa). "The effort made to establish an architectural symbol tied in with their brand is a great move until they start to close," says Neilson. "They can’t really hide from their past."

Neilson says it has been many years since he has eaten Pizza Hut pizza. But the sight of those iconic roof lines still means something to him. "I look at it and it evokes so many memories and emotions," he says. "I have a soft spot in my heart for it."

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.