The restaurant news headline read “300 Pizza Huts are Closing.” It was sent to me by a friend in the middle of the night, and I was up working, knowing what I would find before I opened it. Pizza Hut closing 300 restaurants intersects directly with an area of study that concerns me: How the destruction of social capital and the decline of a strong, white working-class manifests in our daily lives.
The report confirmed a trend I’ve been watching play out over the past several years. The Pizza Hut locations that are closing are doing so as part of the bankruptcy of a restaurant holdings company, and they are nearly all dine-in locations. These are a special subset of pizza restaurants.
The old Pizza Hut dine-in locations were places even a low-income family could go to have a pleasant experience together. Good pizza came to your table on a hot iron skillet. There were arcade games to play and a jukebox to play your favorite music. Solariums were even en vogue during one epoch of the company’s history.
Nothing seems to be designed with the family in mind anymore, however. Everything is trending towards serving an atomized and lonely population — one devoid of a past, without much hope or vision for the future.
But those old Pizza Huts! Those majestic tiffany-style lamps, brick interior walls, coffered ceilings made of wooden beams, nice curtains adorning the windows — the quality that went into building a chain pizza place was tremendous. Quality and detail: relics of a bygone era.
Eventually, the Tiffany-style lamps were replaced with standard lighting you can find at any big-box home improvement store. Brick walls are expensive, and curtains are difficult to keep clean in a restaurant. The shift towards carry-out only restaurants progressed.
Articles about the closures mentioned a trend towards ordering online, delivery services, and of course Covid-19 shutdowns and fallout. These explanations are acceptable if you only want to discuss how the story is ending, yet I find they are somewhat incomplete if you are trying to understand why a population went from enjoying sitting in a solarium in the winter, watching the snow quietly fall outside while they were warm and safe inside with their favorite Eddie Money song on the jukebox, their kids safely playing arcade games nearby, to suddenly not. What kind of society gives that up in favor of eating at home alone with Netflix? Who would prefer to have their pizza delivered late, cold, and likely incorrect by a foreigner you summoned with an app on your phone to receiving it on an iron skillet brought by a cute waitress who speaks the same language to your plush booth and checkered tablecloth?
While the bankruptcy almost exclusively affects the dine-in locations, the better-performing carry-out locations will be sold or otherwise remain operational.
Some of the old dine-in buildings will be torn down and the land redeveloped while others will be repurposed. Like much of our history, they will then exist only in our memories. I’ll still drive by where they used to stand and remember being a kid clutching a Book It! ticket for a free pizza when my dad took me for dinner. I’ll remember the local Pizza Hut being one of the first places I drove to after getting my license, and being the lunch spot during a frigid November when I was working in construction, replacing a roof right before Thanksgiving.
The Pizza Hut closings leaves another barren space in what used to be part of our public life. The corner stores are plagued with violence. The malls have the veneer of normalcy, but scratch the surface and you often find the demographics and behavior of a Third-World bazaar. Now there’s one less Friday-night spot friendly to our kind, one less place to spend time with friends, one less place to go on a date, one less place for a nice white family without much money to have a lovely experience together.
Going to Pizza Hut after Little League games — this used to be a popular selling point in the 1990s — and for birthday parties is a shared memory many of us have. With the decline of social capital exacerbated by increased racial diversity, the need for a traditional dining room also fades.
Pizza Hut is closing hundreds of their locations not because pizza is no longer popular. Sales are still strong for the industry and the company as a whole. They are closing because the people who once frequented their restaurants are now lonely, friendless, childless, and without families. In short, they’ve got nobody to sit and eat pizza with. Pizza Huts tended to be found in classic middle-American neighborhoods: lower-middle or middle-class whites with kids. Those places are becoming rarer with each passing year.
Fast-food restaurants were once built around the idea of family dine-in. They sought to achieve a warm, friendly, and affordable experience. Family dining establishments were a strand in the healthy social fabric of society; perhaps even a crucial strand. Just as we can look to the condition of the local corner store or mall to gauge the neighborhood’s direction, we can look to the food service industry at a macro level to see broader trends in society: 30 years ago we saw had solariums and lunch buffets, kids eat free nights, and inviting interior spaces. Today we have sterile and cold dining rooms and a focus on carry-out and delivery. As the nuclear family declines, the need for social spaces declines, and in turn the ability to socialize, make friends, and meet new people declines. We seem to be in a death-spiral. Sometimes I wonder if all I’m doing is pulling back the yoke in a panic, accelerating the fated crash.
For some years now, I have been looking for one of those tiffany-style Pizza Hut lamps. I don’t want to order from eBay due to excessive prices and the probability of it arriving in far more than one piece, so I hunted them high and low offline. Someone on Twitter who had been following my “Pizza Hut posting” for years finally sent me a message with a link to a Facebook post by a man claiming to have one of the relics for sale. I messaged him; he was about 500 miles away. A friend of mine and I made a quick road trip out of it.
Arriving mid-afternoon in an older apartment complex on the outskirts of a large city, we found the man waiting with a nearly pristine lamp which I learned came from the remnants of a Pizza Hut he had managed for the better part of a decade. A light gossamer covers the inside, showing its age and provenance. The former manager estimated it to be around 40 years old. It had been a dine-in location, of course, and has since been bulldozed. Shortly before the very last pizza was served, he and the staff each took a lamp as a souvenir.
Because of the Covid lockdowns, he could not find work and was selling the lamp to cover some bills. When he asked me what my “offer” was for the lamp, I handed him what he had asked for initially and carefully loaded the lamp into a box filled with packing peanuts. I’m not sure I’ve ever driven that carefully in my entire life as I did on the way back home with what I consider to be a piece not only of my personal history, but of all of ours.
It is not unreasonable to assume that in the near future, there will be people living in the towns and cities we grew up in who will never have experienced something like a dine-in Pizza Hut on a Friday night.
Sure, maybe waxing poetic about a fast-food chain is lame to some out there. Maybe you “had to be there” to get it. Say what you want; I was there, in the solarium as it snowed, eating a buttery piece of crust and sipping from a red tumbler filled with Pepsi. If you weren’t, you couldn’t possibly understand.
But if you walked into my kitchen and saw the old Pizza Hut lamp hanging above the table, I bet you’d want to know the story.
Once upon a time in our society, even in something as boorish as a chain pizza restaurant, things were beautiful and elegant. Spaces were once designed with the family in mind — I might even go as far as to say with a nice, white family in mind. It’s hard not to think that we now live in the husk of what used to be. It is not my belief that there will be some total collapse of civilization, casting us back into the stone age. Some cataclysmic or watershed event might happen, sure, yet I am more of the belief that we already live in the ruins of an era that was far grander.
There is something deeply disquieting about outliving so many of your old haunts. You begin to lose track of where one life ended and the next began. You begin to wonder if you are the haunted one or if you are the specter.
Maybe there is a white family in a Pizza Hut in some other world, some other time, dropping quarters into the jukebox and the arcade, enjoying a hot hand-tossed pizza they can easily afford. Maybe there will be again in this one. Until then, I will be under the dim glow of a Pizza Hut lamp, forcing a smile because it was all so real, if only for a fleeting season in my life.
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 Amelia Lucas, “Pizza Hut to close up to 300 locations operated by bankrupt franchisee,” CNBC, August 17, 2020.
 Kelly Weill, “Hundreds of Pizza Huts Are Closing. What Happens to Those Weird Buildings?”, The Daily Beast, August 24, 2020.
 Jordan Valinsky, “300 Pizza Huts are closing after a giant franchisee goes bankrupt,” CNN Business, August 18, 2020.
 Book It! was a program started in the mid-1980s by the President of Pizza Hut to encourage children to read more books.
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