Were you really a child of the ‘90s/ ‘00s in Australia if you didn’t go to a birthday party at a Pizza Hut All You Can Eat restaurant, only for you (or your friend) to spew in the toilet because you (or your friend) went wild on the endless red fizzy drink?
I used to love going to Pizza Hut All You Can Eat – although now they call it “The Works”. Probably because too many kids took the name literally and just ate more than they could ever possibly dream of fitting in their 8-year-old stomach. For the purpose of this article, however, I am going to continue calling it “All You Can Eat”.
Pizza Hut All You Can Eat restaurants were, for me, like a modern child’s equivalent of the Roman vomitorium. We’d feed ourselves like we were geese being prepared for foie gras. We were children eating like the French elite.
I’d eat slice upon slice of BBQ chicken and Hawaiian pizza. Followed by piles of crispy, golden garlic bread, washed down with bottomless jugs of fizzy drink, only to prepare my mind, body and spirit for the most glorious ending: the dessert bar.
My memory of the dessert bar is gilded. I believe there were two flavours of soft serve: chocolate and vanilla. And the toppings were the stuff of dreams: mini marshmallows, sprinkles, hundreds and thousands, crushed peanuts, chocolate chips, huge five-litre pump bottles of both chocolate topping and raspberry topping and of course, cubes of red and green jelly so thick you could spear them with a fork.
I heard recently the last Pizza Hut All You Can Eat buffet restaurant in South Australia closed down, and the rest of them across the country have been dropping like flies over the last decade.
So, while I was visiting my mum in my hometown of Nipaluna (Hobart) I decided to revisit that fateful place. Those hallowed halls that were the final bastion of the best All You Can Eat in pizza. There are only eleven left in all of Australia, and surely the Tasmanian location was working on a ticking clock.
I called up my friend Rob to come with me. I needed someone to share in this trip down memory lane.
Standing outside the iconic red roof of the restaurant I was nervous and excited. Nervous, because I was about to walk into a place that I hadn’t been to in over twenty years and was worried my expectations just wouldn’t hold a Bic lighter to my heady nostalgic memories. Excited, because revisiting places that are firmly attached to childhood memories is usually fun. I hoped it would, at the very least, prove to be a chaotic time.
What I wasn’t expecting or hoping for was a full existential crisis over the value of nostalgia, as well as becoming a type of jelly-truther closer to those who babble endlessly about the spelling of the Berenstain Bears being actually spelled Berenstein.
False memories and the Mandela effect aside, I should have been warned off by the first red flag: a giant hole in the tall red pylon where the Pizza Hut sign was meant to have been. This visit probably wasn’t going to hold up.
When I entered the building I was immediately hit with the lack of smell. I didn’t have COVID so the lack of smell was more concerning for my excited anticipation than for my health. One of my favourite things in life is the pleasure of unexpectedly smelling something that I haven’t smelled in years and being immediately transported back to a time and a place.
But it just smelt mildly of pizza, not even in a garlic-y, doughy way. Just more like how I imagine cartoon pizza smells: like melted swiss cheese. An extremely non-offensive scent. Is the lack of smell the reason why the Pizza Huts around Australia, if not the world, are failing? Did they never harvest the power of a recognisable smell like Subway did?
I ordered a beer alongside my twenty-five dollar entrance fee and my head just about exploded. A beer at Pizza Hut. It felt naughty, like I was drinking a beer at McDonalds. Except I wasn’t at McDonalds, I was at Pizza Hut. The place where I could eat as much Cheese Lovers pizza as I wanted and drink $6.90 stubbies of beer. I previously had no idea that Pizza Hut was licensed.
After a plate of the savoury it was time to dive straight into the raison d'être of Pizza Hut All You Can Eat: the dessert bar. I grabbed a bowl and a spoon and filled my vestibule with vanilla soft serve ice-cream, a huge serving of chocolate mousse, chocolate topping, sprinkles, hundreds and thousands, chocolate chips, and finally the cubes of jelly. I scooped red jelly into my bowl of sweet slop and moved to the second colour, fully expecting the jelly to be green. But it was blue.
I was okay with there being only one flavour of soft serve and had expected there to not be any peanuts. I was a little saddened by the lack of mini marshmallows – but the jelly being blue and not green? What the fuck?
My friend Rob was also confused. He, for sure, remembered green cubes of jelly.
I looked around the restaurant to see who else was there. It was just families having happy dinners together. No-one seemed outraged by the sudden change of colour in jelly.
I could barely finish my bowl of dessert slops, so we left.
The next day I conducted a survey of 30 of my friends about what colour they remembered the jelly being from the Pizza Hut All You Can Eat. Three remembered red, 11 remembered green, 14 said green and red, and one remembered purple (what kind of boujee Pizza Hut were they going to where the jelly was PURPLE?) and one remembered green and red frogs, in ponds.
I called up the remaining Pizza Hut restaurants in NSW and asked them what colours their jelly cubes were and they all reported being blue and red. But all the reviews on Google of people being excited about going mentioned remembering green jelly when they were children.
I even interviewed past employees of a couple Pizza Hut All You Can Eat restaurants. They both adamantly remembered the jelly being both red and green. When did Pizza Hut change the colour of the jelly? Or was it always red and blue and we’re having some sort of collective amnesia?
Will, now a man in his 30s, remembered working as a dishy at Pizza Hut as a teenager. He said the worst thing (apart from the very low pay of less than $6 an hour) was the smell on your clothes after a shift. He said, “It would literally fill the house until you washed them. It smelt like pure grease.” He also told me how the soft serve was made.
“It came in these big bags of powder and you’d add it to a bucket, under the tap, mix it and pour it straight into the machine,” he told me. “Turned me off a bit.”
I spoke with another former employee of Pizza Hut, Maddison, also now in his 30s. He remembered vividly having to clean up some kid’s vomit.
“I cleaned one up with my hands once. It was so undigested it just looked like an everything-bowl spillage.” He didn’t say why he had to clean up with his hands. I asked Maddison what the most chaotic thing he remembered about working there was. “One of the employees died in a car accident, and the managers asked us to wear our uniforms to the funeral out of solidarity. Three of us went. You can't wash the smell of that dough grease out.”
The most upsetting thing about my trip to Pizza Hut was that I think I really wanted to be transported back to being a child. But even though the vinyl-seated booths were the same (complete with graffiti engraved into the wooden window sills) and the never-ending cups of red fizzy drink were delicious, I had a Pizza Hut All You Can Eat shaped-hole in my nostalgic yearning heart.
I suppose the endless march of time will always propel us forward, no matter what we desire. Is that why we still text an ex even when we know nothing good will come of it? Because nostalgia has dip-dyed our memories, so sweet and delicious in our minds, just like the Pizza Hut dessert bar?
The reality is more like finding out 20 years later that soft serve is made with tap water, bags of powder and a bucket.
Unsurprising, but ultimately cold and disappointing.