This page used to be called “Pizza Hut – The Number One Pizza Chain” until 2018. Now that Domino’s is number one, we’ve renamed accordingly.
When we think of great or historic pizza cities, Wichita, Kansas does not spring to mind. And yet Wichita is the birthplace of one of the most successful chains of pizza places (it’s hard to bring ourselves to call them “pizzerias”) in the world. It wasn’t the first pizza chain (that would be Shakey’s – 1954) but it’s the second biggest.
The First Pizza Hut and The First Dough
On May 31, 1958, Dan and Frank Carney opened the first Pizza Hut on Kellogg Street in Wichita. The two college-age brothers started the business with $600 that they borrowed from their mother. They had never run a restaurant, never owned a business, and until 1958 had never made a pizza. In fact, Dan had only tried pizza when he was in the service, and Frank had tasted pizza exactly once – at a steakhouse in Wichita.
They took a partner – John Bender – who had worked in a pizzeria in Bloomington, Indiana. He knew how to make “pizza sauce” but couldn’t remember how to make pizza dough – so they settled on a recipe for french bread.
According to the promotional book, The Pizza Hut Story:
Because there was not enough time for the dough to rise, Bender just rolled it out, making the crust thin and crispy.
“It was good!” Frank recalled. “Little did my brother and I know, we were tasting what would become known around the world as Pizza Hut pizza.”
How’d they come up with that name?
Economy of letters, it seems. The local Wichita Coca-Cola distributor was willing to provide an outside hanging sign for free, but it was a small sign – there was only enough room for about nine letters. Dan’s wife Beverly thought the building looked like a hut, and that was it.
Interestingly, the sign on Pizza Hut #1 now bears a Pepsi logo instead of Coke – but then, PepsiCo bought the company in 1977!
The Carneys incorporated and started franchising right away (PH #2 opened in Topeka in 1959), with what was then a unique model – franchising territories instead of individual stores. Soon the company had a large network of franchisees and most of them owned multiple locations in their areas. Many years later, when they became more corporate, the company started opening more and more company-owned locations and buying back franchised units. Today, their stores are approximately 50% franchised and 50% corporate owned.
The Face of Pizza Hut
The earliest Pizza Huts had no standard look. In 1963, Pizza Pete, the chain’s mascot, was introduced. Designed by one of Dan Carney’s fraternity brothers, his hat floated above his head, and in an apparent nod to Picasso, both his eyes were on the same side of his nose!
As for the look of the restaurants, in 1964, the interior design that would be the template for all Pizza Huts for years to come was introduced.
What About Their Pizza?
In all our research for this section, the pizza is about the last thing ever mentioned. Pizza Hut is all about business and pizza is simply the product. Of course they want to make and serve a good pizza, but like all chains and franchises, it’s even more important that they make a standardized product – a pizza that’s the same in Wichita as it is in New Jersey, as it is in Ireland, as it is in Yerevan, Armenia (where they’ve recently opened).
We found PH’s first national print ad, published in 1970, which did talk about the pizza:
…First, we ladle on the pizza sauce. Most pizzerias paint on the sauce with a brush…
Next, we lay slices of mozzarella cheese edge-to-edge all across the pizza base. This gives every Pizza Hut Pizza an even cheese blanket that’s impossible to get when grated cheese is used…
And thirdly, we roll-out fresh dough for every order…
These three things make our pizza the best in the world.
So, the dough is rolled out, they don’t paint the sauce on with a brush, and they use sliced mozzarella.
There you have it.
Interesting Pizza Hut Facts
In 1971 Pizza Hut became the #1 pizza chain in the world, both in sales and number of units. That did not change until 2018.
In 1972 the chain was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, opened their 1,000th store (oddly, in Wichita!), and opened their first store outside the U.S. (in Costa Rica).
They did not start offering delivery of their pizzas until 1986. In 1989, they delivered pizza to the White House, for a “Reading Is Fundamental” pizza party thrown by Barbara Bush.
Yes, they were the first national chain to offer online ordering – in a test location in Santa Cruz, California in 1994.
2001 – the perfect year for it – the company delivers pizza to outer space, sending pizzas to the International Space Station.
Say what you will about Pizza Hut – they sure know how to market their product!