It started with some Pittsburgh humor.

Pittsburgh-based  comedian Tom Musial does a bit about a GPS unit that can give directions in “Pittsburghese.” Because in Pittsburgh, no one calls it “Interstate 376,” it’s “The Parkway.” It’s not “The Liberty Tunnel,” it’s “The Liberty Tubes.”

And directions are often given by way of what used to be there.

Tom Musial on WDVE in Pittsburgh:

One day Tom was trying this routine out on his friend, Mike Neilson. Mike is not from Pittsburgh — he grew up on the other side of the state. When he moved to the Steel City, he had a hard time figuring out how to get around. Because Pittsburghers are always telling him to turn left at something that isn’t there anymore.

And then, as Mike was listening to Tom’s Pittsburgher GPS routine, he noticed that in one iteration of the joke he said, “turn left at the place that used to be a Pizza Hut.”

This resonated with Mike. He realized that, because the architecture of a Pizza Hut is so distinctive, he could easily identify any building that used to be a Pizza Hut. The former Pizza Hut was thus a beacon of light shining through a thick fog of impossible directions. Here, in his friend’s comedy routine, was the one Pittsburghese direction he could give that anyone, regardless of where they’re from, could comprehend:

Turn left at the place that used to be a Pizza Hut.

For the unacquainted, this is the archetype of the dine-in Pizza Hut:

Credit: Tom Arthur

There are two identifying features that make Pizza Huts look really distinctive. First there’s the shape — it’s like the whole thing is built out of trapezoids. Second, there is a roof hump that shoots straight up over the trapezoidal awnings.

pizza hut bldg
Trapezoids in red, roof hump in blue.

Not every Pizza Hut looks like this.  Franchise owners have a lot of freedom as to how they want their stores to look, so not every Pizza Hut has the “lid” roof, and the trapezoid features in some might be more striking than in others. Yet there’s still enough commonality among Pizza Huts that once you’ve seen one, you can easily identify any other.

And, you can easily identify any building that used to be a Pizza Hut.

The aforementioned Mike Neilson has been building a global atlas of  buildings that used to be a Pizza Hut. He calls them UTBAPHs, the abbreviation for “Used To Be A Pizza Hut.”

subway hut
“Subway Hut” in New Zealand. Courtesy of Mike Neilson.
chinesehut (1)
Chinese Hut in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Courtesy of Mike Neilson.
souvlaki hut
Souvlaki Hut in Dandenong, Australia. Courtesy of Mike Neilson.
Kaos Adult Koncepts in Brisbane, Australia. Courtesy of Mike Neilson.
olsens funeral home
Courtesy of Mike Neilson. Olsen’s Funerals in Revesby, Australia. This one had a lot of renovation, but Mike Neilson assures us this is a bona fide UTBAPH.
Courtesy of Mike Neilson.

For the Des Moines Police Traffic Unit in Des Moines, Iowa, Mike Neilson writes:

“We all love the idea of the police chief telling all of the cops week after week that if they don’t get their shit together and get traffic violations under control, they will have to work at a Pizza Hut, then the mayor coming in and breaking the news that they would, indeed, all be working in a Pizza Hut. Evidence room in the cooler. Interrogations happening in the booths. Secretaries playing table-top Pac Man instead of solitaire. That is how I picture this one, and I love it.”

Pizza Hut never meant for architecture to be the focus of their brand — at least at first.

Pizza Hut began in 1958 in Wicthita, Kansas, by the brothers Dan and Frank Carney. The story goes that after they bought their first building, they got a sign that only had room for eight letters. They figured the first five ought to be “Pizza.” Looking at the building, someone decided that one way to describe their building in three letters would be to call it a hut. So they called it Pizza Hut.

The first Pizza Hut in Wichita, Kansas. Moved from its original location, it is now on the campus of Wichita State University. Credit: Sanjay Acharya
pizza plaque
Credit: ThePizzaFan

And yes, there’s a plaque.

As you’ll notice, there’s nary a trapezoid anywhere. Pizza Hut’s signature look was the work of architect Richard D. Burke, a friend and classmate of the Carney brothers.

Burke wanted $32,000 to do the design. The Carneys gave a counter-offer of $100 per Pizza Hut to subsequently open. Burke accepted, and created a lot of the features that we can now recognize today as irrefutably Pizza Hut’s.

From there, Pizza Hut’s architecture and their corporate image became intertwined.

And so the Carneys and their franchisees began lining the American landscape with Hut after Hut after Hut. But in their ascendency, Pizza Hut couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t imagine a time when the people would not come out in droves to enjoy a personal pan pizza, or a zesty breadstick. But market trends shifted from the dine-in experience to delivery. Many Pizza Huts closed. And as their trapezoidal windows went dark, and their roof humps rose up over empty parking lots, it was as if the company had littered the world with monuments to its own decline. 

Even though Pizza Hut is not knocking down closed restaurants, they are curbing the continued rise of UTBAPHs. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pizza Hut shifted towards a carry-out and delivery model. Today, about half of the Pizza Huts in the United States operate out of generic-looking structures.

2014-02-25 09.50.48 am
A Pizza Hut on the corner of Shattuck and Alcatraz Avenues in Oakland, California. Credit: Google Maps

When these new-style Pizza Huts go out of business, the UTBAPHs they leave behind are completely unrecognizable as such.

The same Pizza Hut, now an UTBAPH. Credit: Sam Greenspan

Many overseas Pizza Huts are following suit.

“Pizza Khat” in Moscow. Credit: Maarten

If Pizza Hut phases out their signature buildings, it will be a huge mistake. Because Pizza Hut has achieved a level of greatness here. How many other structures have there ever been in history whose true essence can shine through whatever might come after it?

So let us stand in awe of the mighty The Pizza Hut! Which — more than just about any other once-beloved establishment since crumbled beneath the sands of time — can reach into the future and proclaim: just try and forget about me. Just try.

hut in flames
Technically, this also used to be a Pizza Hut. Courtesy of Mike Neilson.



99% Invisible producer Sam Greenspan spoke with Mike Neilson about his blog, Used To Be A Pizza Hut, and also with Doug Terfehr, Director of Public Relations at Pizza Hut.

Special thanks to producer Margaret Krauss for Pittsburgh field production. Thanks also to Andrew Wasson, who wrote a history of Pizza Hut’s iconic roof for the wonderful zine Dairy River and to comedian Tom Musial.

BONUS! More Pittsburgh psychogeography jokes specifically referencing UTBAPHs:


You, Tiny Letter, and welcome back Facebook Design!



“Hey June”- Melodium
“Revival”- Beats Antique
“Breezin”- Podington Bear
“Valeglas”- Melodium
“Small Memory”- Jon Hopkins
“dlp 1.1 Live at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 11, 2011” – Wordless Music Orchestra
“Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”- Das Racist
“How To Cure A Hangover In April”- K-Conjog

  1. You could probably do the same show about former IHOPs — a local one is now an asian fusion restaurant. Though the A frame building isn’t as unique, combined with a blue roof (which lives on in their new buildings) makes it just as iconic and just as easy to refer to the location as a “former ____” rather than whatever has moved in since.

    1. Susan

      I second the “former IHOPs”!! I made a comment to my family just last night about a restaurant that changed hands and referred to it as IHOP even though it was clearly not an IHOP anymore.

  2. Great story. One comment, the writing and editing style was a little too This American Life. Stay with you own voice!

  3. Aaron

    Except there can be UTBAPH’s that aren’t actually UTBAPH’s. There’s a building at the Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth RI where the student radio station is housed, and everyone calls it “the Pizza Hut building” but it never was. Best pic I got is at the bottom of this page: http://www.necrat.us/wjhd_pro.html

    1. UTBADairyQueen *Sign*. The buildings are indistinct, but it’s truly amazing how many businesses just plopped their name over top those DQ shaped signs

  4. miss pooslie

    I agree that it is a shame Pizza Hut has abandoned their building style. the roof is even their logo!

  5. Rob. Reeves

    There is one former A&W Rootbeer with the distinctive chimney/roofline in San Jose, made particularly noteable as it sits near a former arched doorway Taco Bell.

    The cube-style Jack in the Boxes and the Fotomats with their pyramid roof have seemingly all disappeared.

  6. Just a footnote on this podcast: In Germany there are also Pizza Huts, which initially caused some pronunciation problems since “Hut” in German means “hat” – which you mentioned as a possible alternative name to reflect how the roof looks. So it´s the best of both worlds! (Etymologically the German “Hut” is related to the English “hood” but not as far as I can see to “hat,” which has a different origin.)

  7. Brian Gemborys

    I thought the outro would be Talking Heads’ Nothing But Flowers, but alas –

    This was a Pizza Hut
    Now it’s all covered with daisies
    you got it, you got it

    Great show! I won’t mind seeing a Used To Be A Friendly’s.

  8. Alan L

    Any idea how many Pizza Huts the architect received royalties for? Does he still receive royalties on the Pizza Huts (non-hut styles) that are now being built?

  9. Paul Csomo

    If you are reading this, Mike Neilson:
    Pizza Hits Repurposed As Something Else.
    I love the blog. I hope you like this idea.
    Take care.

  10. Cheri Thomas

    I love the “used to be” directions. The first two directions I got when I moved to my now home of 15 years were, “turn left where that old red store that burned down used to be” and “that’s easy — it’s right next to where Loretta Lynn’s western wear shop used to be.” But my friend in Florida got the best one, “Take the right fork in the road where the dead dog is hanging in the tree.”

  11. Rhonda

    I loved this episode. We are surrounded by obvious used-to-be IHOP/HOJO/Taco Bell/Burger King places, whose distinctive shapes or sign styles give them away.

    Hubris in advertising is nothing new, of course. How about those long-gone businesses that advertised in marble, as thought they would be there forever? (This used-to-be-a-candy-shop in Paris is a fine example: http://commerces-immarcescibles.blogspot.com/2009/09/maison-courtin.html. There are )

  12. Rhonda

    oops! That should have been “there are lots of other great examples on that blog.” at the end of the previous post…

  13. Biff

    I was once on a road trip, in the US, with some German friends who had small children. When the kids saw a Pizza Hut sign they would get excited, and say the name in the German way: “pizza hoot”. The German word “Hut” means “hat”, and that was funny and appropriate.

  14. Steven Sherman

    The art of giving directions based on places that were once were or places that were going to be there but never were is beautifully sung in Laurie Anderson’s [Lou Reed’s widow] song Big Science from her album of the same name.

  15. Mallory

    Oh my goodness. This is just so true! I lived in Piitsburgh for 1 year and i have a theory about this phenomena. I honestly think that town is just so geographically jacked up that this is the honest to God best way to give directions. I mean, really, what city have you been in that has three different roads all named the same thing that absolutely have no connection to one another. This abounds in Pittsburgh and makes absolutely zero sense.

  16. Pizza Hut franchisee in Thailand had a tiff with the home office and changed the names of all of them to The Pizza Company–virtually overnight; the food, format and decor all remain Pizza Hut but Pizza Hut, Inc. is locked out.

  17. Alisa

    I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for 14 years and somehow I’d never noticed the UTBAPH phenomenon, but… It’s true. It really is.

    Then in general, it’s kind of a Thing in Pittsburgh to give directions based on what establishment used to inhabit a particular location, even if there’s something new in its place. It’s sort of like the Yinzer equivalent of having street cred, where the further back you can remember, the more cred you have – “Turn left after you pass the Thai place that used to be that Chinese place until it became a Mediterranean place and then was briefly a boutique clothing store before becoming the Thai place…”

  18. This was GLORIOUS. I’m oddly happy to see so many of these UTBAPH in Australia too. Amongst my friends, Pizza Hut is described in terms of “that cool thing we used to after the 48 hour famine – hey whatever happened to all those Pizza Huts anyway?”

    On a slight variation of a theme, I always thought it odd that a medical centre would take up residence in our ex-local KFC. Putting a medical cross where the Colonel once was only serves to conjur images of surgical tools sitting in a greasy bain-marie. You can see it on street view on Google maps at 621 Boronia Road, Wantirna, Victoria, Australia.

  19. That was some hipster rubbish – though nicely produced – for a while there I cruised along cosseted in the cosy embrace of the programs tone and music choices but when I really listened to what it was about – i realised its trash radio about trash culture and trash food. Not all culture is created equal and not all cool sounding radio is actually worth listening to.

  20. Katrina

    Check out one of the great architects on this culture – Steven Izenour and Paul Hirshorn book “White Towers” book on the same idea that predates pizza huts.

  21. Paul

    Don’t know if it was mentioned already, but the picture you have from Oakland – that was clearly a Winchell’s Donuts – even the triangular sign frame is original. While it is certainly more generic than an original Pizza Hut building, former Winchell’s are pretty easy to identify.

  22. Lachy

    Where I live in Adelaide, South Australia an old, local pilot told me that you could navigate where you were by the pizza huts roofs because they were so distinctive from the air :)

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