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.
The pizza makers first saw a pretty average request appear in the system: one large pepperoni pizza with garlic sauce for dunking. As they began to work on the order, they checked for special requests 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 had 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 sure enough, that’s what happened.
Cheryl knew Ethan loved his children more than anything. But he was in the throes of a serious drug problem, 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 he was under the influence.
Thankfully, the heated incident began while the children were at school. 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.
Cheryl felt relief that her children weren’t there to see their father brandishing a knife at their mom. But the school day was ending and she was going to have to pick them up soon. Ethan knew full-well that if he let her take the drive alone she might seek help, or run. So he hopped right in the car with her.
What followed was the most 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 she 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 their escape.
First, she worked with what she knew: her kids were hungry after a full day at school. Cheryl saw this as her opportunity to reach out to someone outside of the home. And there was one place in particular she knew the kids loved…
Like most children, her kids loved pizza. They were regular customers at Pizza Hut, so Ethan didn’t find it odd when Cheryl suggested they 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.
As Cheryl finished their order, the kids were still completely oblivious to the tension in the house. But she knew that Ethan could change that at any moment. The mother anxiously waited for the restaurant to receive her order and send a delivery driver to the house.
Their local Pizza Hut was one of the busiest restaurants in town. But Cheryl was a regular, so the workers recognized her name. They knew to put extra care into ensuring her pizza was perfect. But then, they came to a sudden halt when they noticed something alarming on the order ticket.
Every ticket had an area where customers could write special requests. Usually, these wishes went along the lines of: “extra pepperoni please” or “pizza well done.” But Cheryl’s ticket was a little different and was something workers could not ignore. She had written, “Please help. Get 911 to me. 911hostage help.”
On shift was Candy Hamilton, the branch manager with 28 years of Pizza Hut experience under her belt. When shown the ticket, she didn’t hesitate to act. She knew Cheryl well – and this was no prank. Immediately, she phoned the authorities and gave them the address. Hamilton only hoped she had acted before something horrific happened.
Cheryl’s anxiety was through the roof. Would the Pizza Hut employees pay attention to the words she wrote? Would they think it was a prank? It seemed like a lifetime passed as she and Ethan sat in silence. Suddenly, a horde of police vehicles pulled up out front. Ethan hadn’t spotted them yet – and Cheryl knew once he did, 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. 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. 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 exactly how to deal with circumstances that required de-escalating in order to avoid 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 outcome for everyone involved. 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 Candy Hamilton of Pizza Hut was recognized for her quick thinking. In the food service industry, you always have to stay on your toes, but the incredible way Candy handled the crisis with Cheryl and her kids truly went above and beyond the call of duty.