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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
When these new-style Pizza Huts go out of business, the UTBAPHs they leave behind are completely unrecognizable as such.
Many overseas Pizza Huts are following suit.
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.
I dig the Pittsburgh love!
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.
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.
Great story. One comment, the writing and editing style was a little too This American Life. Stay with you own voice!
It most likely was never a Pizza Hut but St. Michael the Archangel church in Greenwich, CT looks like it had the same architect: http://www.stmichaelgreenwich.com/
Great choice of Disintegration Loops for the end of the story.
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
Ah, the rare LSBNWAPH’s – Looks Similar But Never Was A Pizza Hut
I think the triangular old-school Wiener Schnitzel restaurants are just as iconic as the Pizza Huts:
Great show :)
UTBADairyQueen *Sign*. The buildings are indistinct, but it’s truly amazing how many businesses just plopped their name over top those DQ shaped signs
I agree that it is a shame Pizza Hut has abandoned their building style. the roof is even their logo!
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.
This brings to mind the former KFC on Valencia St in San Francisco:
(or as I like to call it, the Gray F.C.)
Here’s a building shape that I had across the street from me until just this year. It was ugly as hell, mainly because someone had painted it green. The red on this one might give it away…
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.)
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.
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?
If you are reading this, Mike Neilson:
Pizza Hits Repurposed As Something Else.
I love the blog. I hope you like this idea.
HUTS. Pizza Huts. Of course. I should have proofread.
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.”
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 )
oops! That should have been “there are lots of other great examples on that blog.” at the end of the previous post…
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.
how does it feel to have aired your worst episode of this podcast ever
There’s a whole subreddit centered around chain store conversions complete with a guide of how to identify them: http://www.reddit.com/r/NotFoolingAnybody/comments/1u7qyu/nfas_ultimate_guide_on_identifying_converted/
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.
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.
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.
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…”
The one in Echuca, Victoria, Australia is a Tile Shop now!
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a really cool blog about Sydney, and they have lots of UTBAPHs with information on the buildings’ histories and their current incarnations!
What a good blog you have here. Please update it more often. This topics is my interest. Thank you.
roofing St. Paul
Used to be a 7-Eleven are all over where I live.
There is a church in Davenport Iowa that used to be a Blockbuster. The best part is that they kept the sign but changed the logo, and installed stained glass windows.
There is a book about the second lives of Pizza Hut’s iconic hut restaurants and nostalgia for the golden era of dine in fast food. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1171499046/pizza-hunt?ref=NewsOct2215&utm_campaign=Oct+22&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter
The old cement covered wagon arby’s with the big cowboy hat sign.
I’m way late to this party, but there’s a similar Canadian version – the U.T.B.A.S.H – Used To Be A St. Hubert.
Another distinctive restaurant chain was Howard Johnson’s (AKA “Hojos”). The had a distinctive orange roof with a distinctive weather vane on top. (You can see some pictures at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Johnson%27s ) I remember being given directions that involved “the building that used to be a Hojos”.
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 :)
I’m wondering if the PizzaHut in Oakland California shown in the photos above is not actually itself formerly a Winchell’s Donut shop. They were a once popular west coast chain and had the distinctive rounded triangle sign shown in the photos.