The Nostalgic Beauty of Forgotten Pizza Huts

Photographer Ho Hai Tran and his collaborator Chloe Cahill have traveled across continents documenting the reincarnation of the Pizza Hut buildings that once hosted all our childhood birthday parties.

by Alex Swerdloff
31 July 2017, 4:04am

When you think of lost architecture, maybe you think of the soot-encrusted structures of Pompeii or the enigmatic slabs of Stonehenge.

Photographer Ho Hai Tran and his collaborator, editor, and creative director Chloe Cahill, on the other hand, think of abandoned Pizza Huts.

Tran is a New Zealand-born, Australia-based photographer who says he is "propelled by a passionate interest in lost arts, bygone eras, and the unseen or unknown." He and Cahill have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a book that will record their photographic journey of over 8,700 miles from Australia to the US to document repurposed, refurbished, and relocated Pizza Huts—you know, those testaments to salt and grease that originally popped up across the nation in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

The former Pizza Hut structures that these two intrepid photojournalists uncover now have second lives as grocery stores, pawnshops, gospel churches, liquor stores, and funeral homes. Still, they all somehow evoke their former lives as, in Tran's words, "places of wonder—a world of red-checked tablecloths, pizza by the slice, and an endless supply of soft serve."

We asked Tran and Cahill what drove them into the nostalgic world of Pizza Hut architecture and what they've learned from their journey into the architecture of the fast-food pizza chain of our childhoods—the one that Donald Trump used to shill for.

MUNCHIES: I'm sure you get asked this all the time, but how the hell did Pizza Hunt come about? Do you just really love pizza or is it more about capturing and documenting this forgotten moment in our collective childhoods?

Ho Hai Tran
: Of course we love pizza! Pizza Hunt is borne out of our love for pizza and our love of bygone eras.

Chloe Cahill: The ability of these buildings to evoke such vivid childhood memories was reason enough for us to begin searching. Each new one we found is a different variation on the Hut theme. It all started because we had driven past a really recognisable Hut in Fairfield, Sydney, several times and always marveled at how this building, which was no longer a functioning Pizza Hut, was still so readily recognisable.

What are your childhood memories connected with Pizza Hut that made you devote so much time to this project?

We both grew up in country towns. I grew up in Australia, and Ho in New Zealand. In my town, the local Hut was the scene of many a child's birthday party and almost all end-of-season school sport celebrations. It was pretty much exclusively associated with fun and a meal there meant free rein on the dessert bar.

How different are the various Pizza Huts that you have photographed? If you had to pick, which location would be your favourite that you've seen?

They range from the drastically transformed to the barely touched. Every business puts some spin on the building and sometimes we have to do a lot of research to confirm that a building was in fact a Pizza Hut. Our favourite is the 'Copycat' Hut (pictured on the Kickstarter campaign page). In our research we found some real estate listings and knew the building had changed hands several times and we weren't even sure if it was still there. So we did the two-hour drive out to the location—in darkness because I shoot at sunrise—and when we got to the spot, there it was.

How did you even begin to go about researching this subject? I'm imagining it would be pretty hard to find some of these older, non-functioning franchises.

Google Maps is key and there's some dialogue out there on the Internet. When we're on the road—we also try to confirm by asking locals, they are the keepers of the knowledge about what was where and when.

What was the reaction like when you revealed the concept of this project to friends and family?

For a long time our friends and family just knew that on our weekends and in our spare time we drove around taking photos of Pizza Huts. They've seen most of it now and they can see the vision and everyone's as invested as we are in the project and the preservation aspect.

Cahill: One of the best things is talking to locals when we visit a place. We'll talk about the project and they're suddenly telling us about their memories of the buffet and pizza and the bacon bits… it always comes back to the bacon bits.

What have you found has been the most compelling part of searching out and documenting all these old locations? The nostalgia you can feel from looking at a photo of a Pizza Hut you've never been to, but is basically the same as the one you grew up with, is pretty damn cool.

The universality of the sentiment towards these buildings is really compelling.

Tran: All of the memories people tell us have these unifying elements and it's cool that seeing this building or a photo of this building brings that to the surface.

After all this is over, do you think you'll ever step foot in or near a Pizza Hut again? Cahill: One thing's for sure—if the Kickstarter campaign is successful and the book gets funded, we are going to have a throwback pizza party to launch the book.

Thanks for speaking with us.