Pizza Hut has had great successes, and we’re not just talking about their famous stuffed crust. Whether you’re a fan or not, you can’t deny the pizza chain has dominated the game of reliable fast eats for decades. Though, in recent years, you might have noticed a significant drop in the number of their red-and-white locations. So, what happened to all the Pizza Huts? There’s a simple explanation, and, even better, there’s a plan to bring them back.
If you were a child of the ‘90s and early 2000s, you grew up during the Pizza Hut surge. You could find one of their red-roofed fast-food franchises practically anywhere. Their commercials dominated all your favorite programming, but for kids, in particular, Pizza Hut had a major draw.
Back in 1984, some marketing genius at Pizza Hut came up with the Book It! reading program, and the world was never the same. In a nutshell, it begged the question, what if we could get kids to read more by bribing them with the promise of free pizza? Naturally, that piqued kids’ interests.
Working in conjunction with elementary classrooms around the country, Pizza Hut offered free personal pan pizzas to kids who brought in their completed Reading Award Certificates. The more books you read, the more little one-topping pizzas you’d earn. It was an instant success.
Not only was the Book It! Program popular with kids, but teachers also liked the flexibility of setting their own reading goals for students. Parents loved the incentive that made their children more excited about reading. Most importantly, there was free pizza, the greatest thing in the world.
Legions of families went to their local Pizza Huts to redeem their Reading Award Certificates. Kids slapped that piece of paper on the counter ready to get the pepperoni-covered fruits of their labor while their parents ordered dinner for the rest of the family. Everybody won, but particularly Pizza Hut.
While the Book It! program is still in effect, it’s lost its steam. No doubt there are still educators and families participating, however, they aren’t enough to sustain a reliable flow of business to Pizza Hut franchises. Somewhere along the line, the chain lost its appeal.
Today, walking into a Pizza Hut results in one of two experiences. Either everything feels exactly the same — with the familiar salad bar, red vinyl booths, and plump little shakers of parmesan cheese — or it’s a brand new renovated spot without much seating. In both scenarios, the childhood magic you felt scarfing down your hard-earned personal pan pizza is glaringly absent.
Pizza Hut suffered in recent years, pushing them to make the difficult decision to close 500 locations in 2019. It was a staggering blow to hundreds of employees, suddenly left without jobs. Not without warning, the decline was rooted in a problem that forced the chain to reassess its business model.
Lack of dine-in business is a major problem. Up until recently, most Pizza Hut restaurants were still designed to cater to dine-in customers. The chain has overcome many business hurdles, but people no longer wanting to sit down at a restaurant to eat pizza — even pre-pandemic — was one executive’s conclusion. They went to the drawing board.
Sit-down franchises like Pizza Hut needed to figure out a way to merge with the societal transition to carry-out and delivery, and they needed to do it better than their rivals. They started searching for another golden ticket level idea like they had with the Book It! program to lure people back to Pizza Hut.
While sweeping closures are never a good sign, Pizza Hut reps say there’s still a plan in store for many of the shutdown locations. The intention is to replace the old with the new, opening express storefronts in their place. That means the nostalgic interiors are due for a big change.
Pizza Hut hasn’t kept up with their ever-changing competitors, namely Dominos. According to reporting by CNN, Dominos climbed to the top of the pizza chain restaurant empire in 2018. How did they do it? With a combination of several strategic changes.
In a major comeback, Dominos reinvented itself by changing pretty much everything. Their biggest obstacle? Nobody liked their pizza! So Dominos pulled a daring move. They leaned into the hate they received from customers and kicked off what CNN reporters called the “pizza turnaround.”
Dominos ran commercials of their employees reading negative reviews, saying things like this is the “worst pizza I’ve ever had.” The transparency was coupled with a rehaul of their 49-year-old recipe and changes to 85% of their menu. If that wasn’t enough to win back customers, their low prices were. Pizza Hut execs took note.
Additionally, besides better food and prices, Dominos invested in new technologies to make ordering simpler. In an age where picking up the phone and calling in orders is a dying practice, they turned to a custom digital ordering platform. That’s bad news for workers who would have waited on guests, but a major profit for the pizza chain.
Using a strategy that CNBC called fortressing, Dominos opened new locations in existing markets to be even closer to customers. The user-friendly nature of their digital ordering platform, the ease of adding things to your cart, and proximity have all proven that convenience might be the top priority in the pizza business.
The struggles for Pizza Hut came to a head in 2020, when they filed for bankruptcy. Interim President Kevin Hochman told CNBC that the struggle to out strategize their competitors in the pick-up and delivery sectors was largely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though ultimately, people staying home boosted the pizza industry.
Falling from the top of the pizza pyramid hasn’t been easy for Pizza Hut. CNBC spoke to experts to see what steps the company needs to take to climb out of its slump. First, it was dealing with its large footprint of unprofitable locations. Then they’d needed to step up their digital ordering platforms.
To beat out Domino’s, Little Caesars, and Papa John’s in the pizza wars, Pizza Hut also needs to revamp their menu with affordable and enticing items that they’re currently lacking. The priorities of consumers are changing. People want to be able to order, pay, and watch their pizza on its delivery route easily from their phones.
But while Pizza Hut implemented these changes to attract contemporary consumers, they did not foresee the unusual way their order-by-phone feature would literally save lives. As orders poured into one Pizza Hut location in Florida, employees worked like drones to keep up. They were working so fast, in fact, that they almost didn’t spot a very peculiar detail in one order: a detail that had workers calling the police.
Pizza makers first saw a normal request appear in the system: one large pepperoni pizza with garlic sauce for dunking. But then they checked the special request section of the order and stopped dead in their tracks. Was this a bad prank? It couldn’t be. The order had come from a regular customer after all. Her name was Cheryl Treadway.
Cheryl Treadway couldn’t have been happier with the life she carved out for herself. The 25-year-old mother of three lived with her boyfriend Ethan Nickerson in Florida, where the family enjoyed life under the warm sun nearly all year-round. Cheryl loved Ethan, but it was her kids who truly kept her going.
Any parent would be proud to raise three beautiful sons like these. They were well-behaved and absolutely adored Cheryl. While they also loved their father, Ethan sadly struggled with drug addiction, which caused occasional outbursts and dangerously irrational behavior. Cheryl was always fearful that, at some point, the kids would find themselves stuck in the middle of a violent incident — and that’s what happened.
Cheryl knew Ethan loved his children more than anything, but he was in the throes of drug addiction, and the substances completely took his ability to process reality in a calm and rational way. One spring afternoon, Cheryl and Ethan got into a particularly heated argument while Ethan was under the influence.
The children were at school at the time the heated incident started unfolding, much to the relief of Cheryl. As the argument grew more intense, Ethan snatched Cheryl’s phone out of her hand. His eyes were filled with inebriated rage, and Cheryl feared for her safety. Then, he grabbed a knife from the kitchen. Cheryl now knew the situation was life-threatening, and she needed to find a way out.
Even though Cheryl felt some relief that her children weren’t there to see their father brandishing a knife at their mom, the school day was ending and she was going to have to scoop them up to bring them home. Ethan, knowing full-well if he let her take the drive alone she’d seek help, hopped in the car with her.
The car ride was the most awkwardly uncomfortable trip of Cheryl’s life. She stared out at the road in a daze while Ethan sat next to her, glaring violently at her face. She wanted to cry out to passing cars but knew Ethan was ready to lash out at a moment’s notice. The couple arrived to the school, picked up the kids, and returned home. The kids had no idea what was unfolding, but Cheryl soon started plotting the escape.
To start, she worked with what she knew: Her kids were hungry after a full day at school, so she saw this as an opportunity to reach out to someone outside of her home. There was one food in particular both she and Ethan knew the kids loved, so she decided that would be the focal point of her plan.
The couple’s kids, like most children, loved pizza, and their favorite spot to grab a pie was Pizza Hut. They were regular customers, so Ethan didn’t find it odd when Cheryl suggested they fire up the Pizza Hut app and order their usual meal. Ethan, however, kept a close watch on Cheryl as she ordered the food, ensuring she didn’t pull a fast one and call somebody for help.
Cheryl finished punching in her order on the phone. The kids still were completely oblivious to the tension in the house, but Cheryl knew at any moment Ethan could easily change that with the flash of a knife. The mother anxiously waited for the restaurant to receive her order and send a delivery driver to the house.
The Pizza Hut location the family always ordered from was one of the busiest restaurants in town, but because Cheryl got it so frequently, the workers all recognized her name when it came in, and they knew to put extra attention into ensuring her pizza was perfect. However, the place came to a sudden halt when they noticed something alarming on the order ticket.
Every ticket had an area where customers could write in messages in case they wanted their orders tailored to certain specifications. Employees were used to requests such as “extra pepperoni please” or “pizza well done.” However, on Cheryl’s ticket was written, “Please help. Get 911 to me. 911hostage help.” This was something workers could not ignore.
Cindy Hamilton, a branch manager with 28 years of Pizza Hut experience under her belt, didn’t hesitate at all when shown the ticket. She knew Cheryl well, and this was no prank. Immediately after seeing the message she phoned the authorities and gave them the address. Hamilton could only hope she rang them before something horrific happened.
Cheryl’s anxiety was through the roof. Would the Pizza Hut employees even pay attention to the words she wrote? Would they think it was a joke if they did? It seemed like a lifetime went by as she and Ethan sat in silence, but suddenly, a horde of police vehicles pulled up out front! Ethan, however, didn’t see them yet, and Cheryl knew if he realized what was happening he might physically hurt any one of them.
The police, having no idea what kind of situation they were walking into, couldn’t just barge into the home with their guns blazing. But, they knew there was the possibility of kids involved based on what the Pizza Hut manager told them about the family, so their tactics required extreme precision. Suddenly, Cheryl burst out of the home in a frenzy.
Cheryl flung open the front door of her home and sprinted towards the police cruisers with her youngest child in her arms! In her frenetic state she figured the youngest of her sons was the most helpless, and since she could only take one with her, she grabbed him and fled to the officers.
The first officer Cheryl reached was Lt. Ludden, and he immediately knew by her demeanor that the situation the unit was about to enter was dire. He did his best to calm the mother and ask for details. Once he learned there were still two children inside along with an armed man on drugs, he took immediate action. There was absolutely no time to spare.
Fortunately, Lt. Ludden had been in similar situations many times throughout his career. He knew how to deal with a situation that required a meticulous conversation to de-escalate a potentially lethal outcome. Cheryl stood by with a horrified look on her face as police spoke with Ethan. Then, 20 minutes later, a miracle happened.
Ethan not only put down the knife he was swinging around recklessly, but he actually walked out to the police units and gave himself up. It was the best possible ending the police hoped for. Cheryl and her kids, although quite shaken by everything, were finally safe. The incredible series of events was soon picked up by the news.
Ethan’s face was quickly plastered all over the news, and Cindy Hamilton of Pizza Hut was recognized for her quick thinking. In food service, things only stay calm for so long, however. Only a few states away, another emergency situation was brewing. This time, it would be Taco Bell employee Sonja Frazier who was left to deal with the utterly devastating scene that unfolded right outside her drive-thru window.
Sonja Nixon Frazier (middle) had been working at the Clarksville Taco Bell in Tennessee for 14 years. It was a job that she took very seriously, giving each and every customer equal respect and care. She never thought one sudden schedule shift would change the life of a guest.
Sonja built great relationships with everyone around her, including the Clarksville Taco Bell General Manager Marquita Johnson. Marquita recognized Sonja’s great work ethic and promoted her to a manager position. Sonja was typically scheduled to cover the night shift, but her boss needed to change things around in August of 2020.
See, Marquita realized that she was going to need some help that next morning, so she asked Sonja to move her shift up by a few hours — the night owl would become an early morning owl. This was the fateful move.
Sonja made the switch, and the employees working under her would be grateful to have her around when a frightening change of pace shook up the morning, only an hour after Sonja arrived. There was some commotion outside.
One employee taking drive-through orders found it strange when the traffic came to a sudden halt. After checking the live camera footage, they came across a concerning sight.
An SUV had rolled into the drive-through at an angle, blocking traffic. There was no damage done, but everyone who was there that was morning was scared for the driver of that car. He wasn’t moving at all.
Sonja rushed out of the building, following one of her coworkers to see what was going on with the driver. When they saw him passed out over his steering wheel, they immediately acted to save the man’s life.
One customer also leaped into action and approached the imperiled driver. Sonja and her coworker pulled the passed-out man from his car and laid him on the pavement. He was still unresponsive. Sonja, who formerly worked in the medical industry, feared the worst.
Sonja’s coworker called 911 right away, while all the customers watched with concern for the man’s life. It would take some time before paramedics could arrive to help him. Sonja recognized that the driver was turning blue as he lay unconscious. The 911 Operator asked if anyone knew CPR.
Normally, there would be no risk to perform CPR, and anyone certified wouldn’t hesitate. Unfortunately, this was all happening while the deadly virus of COVID-19 was spreading throughout the country. Touching a stranger was a big gamble.
Sonja hesitated. Because of a preexisting condition, she was even more at risk than the other people in the drive-through. She had sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease, making her more vulnerable to the virus. That didn’t stop her from going to work, and she decided it would not stop her from saving this stranger’s life.
Everyone at the Clarksville Taco Bell was following guidelines set by the CDC, including Sonja. But Sonja, in a swift move, chose to remove her mask and step right into this life-or-death situation.
Sonja leaned in and performed CPR on the unconscious driver. It was thanks to her 6 years of experience as a healthcare worker, which included training in CPR, that gave everyone in the Taco Bell hope. They awaited some sign of life.
Then the driver gasped! Once he was talking, Sonja asked her coworker to grab the man’s license so she could know his name and speak to him on a more personal level. In between mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, she let him know everything would be all right. Then, the paramedics finally arrived.
It was the longest 11 minutes of Sonja’s life. After all was said and done, she needed a minute to herself. Off to the side of the Taco Bell, she cried and smoked a cigarette. She would have more comfort when she returned home to her beautiful family.
Sonja is a mother of two and set a great example for her children. In spite of the risks, she told reporters, “This is what I was supposed to do.” She doesn’t consider herself a hero.
In an interview with CNN, Sonja expressed her ideals. “It doesn’t matter who he was or what skin color he had. I knew I was there to save his life,” she tells the reporter. Her boss, Marquita Johnson, was emotional about the whole ordeal, but not surprised in the slightest.
Marquita also shared her thoughts and gratitude: “[Sonja] is a genuine person always willing to help anyone and everyone whenever she can…She is my hero. I’m honored to be her boss.” More people showed their gratitude in a different way.
Word has spread about Sonja’s heroism, and also how it is not the first time she’s saved a life. To reward Sonja for her courageous acts, a GoFundMe page has been created in her honor, aiming to raise $10,000 for Sonja. Social media also helped.
Sonja could never forget the face of the man she saved. Since she knew his name from his driver’s license, she took to Facebook to find him and send him a message. She eagerly awaited to know how he was doing.
The man replied to Sonja with immense gratitude and appreciation. He wanted to repay Sonja for the incredible deed she had done for him, but Sonja was satisfied just knowing that he was okay.
When the pandemic is over, the driver and Sonja plan to meet up. With how much they mean to each other, this could be the start of a lifetime friendship — something we need more of in difficult times.