Business

Pizza Hut co-founder envisioned a restaurant but never a museum

Pizza Hut co-founder takes us down memory lane

Pizza Hut co-founder Dan Carney talks about the first days of the original Pizza Hut during a grand opening ceremony of the Pizza Hut Museum at Wichita State University. (April 25, 2018)
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Pizza Hut co-founder Dan Carney talks about the first days of the original Pizza Hut during a grand opening ceremony of the Pizza Hut Museum at Wichita State University. (April 25, 2018)

The former beer joint turned original Pizza Hut building has long been an iconic symbol of Wichita entrepreneurship, but it's been nothing more than a drive-by curiosity on Wichita State University's campus for years.

On Wednesday, it officially opened as a museum on the school's Innovation Campus just off Mike Oatman Drive. No one is probably more proud — or more surprised — than chain co-founder Dan Carney.

When WSU approached him about the idea, he said, "What can they possibly put in 500 square feet that would make a museum?"

Carney and his brother, Frank, were WSU students in 1958 when they converted a beer tavern at Kellogg and Bluff into a Pizza Hut. If he'd been told back then that it one day would be a museum to memorialize the restaurant's history, Carney said, he "would have said that's not believable."

"It still looks very small," he said, but he added that "it looks like a museum. I think they did a great job. They really did."

Carney offered a tour before the official opening.

"Over here is one of my favorites," he said, pointing to a Saturday Evening Post story from the 1950s that explained the new pizza craze sweeping the nation.

Carney had tried pizza while in the service, but it took the beer joint's landlady to suggest he start a restaurant to serve the popular new dish.

"I said, 'Well, you know, it sounds really good,' although at the time I didn't know anything about pizza," Carney said.

"I was very hot to do something," he said of taking his father's suggestion and opening a business, "and this was kind of God's blessing or inspiration or whatever."

Now the Carneys' building can be a tangible inspiration on campus, said Elizabeth King, president and CEO of the WSU Foundation.

When she talks to people worldwide about the Carneys' story, she said, "that always lights people up. It is a name that is recognized around the world, and so it is another stamp of success for our graduates."

She said staff from the school, including its public history department and museum, came together "to collaborate and create this fabulous museum that will be curated by the students."

King said items in the museum will rotate on a regular basis.

"And so it'll be very live," she said. "Every six months it'll be a little bit different."

Regular museum hours will begin on Monday. When the university is in session, the museum will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Summer hours will be noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The museum will be closed on weekends.

Even for people who grew up with the Pizza Hut story, Carney said, "I think this would tweak old-time memories about how we started and ... how rough it was."

For anyone who wants a taste of the original Pizza Hut sauce, the recipe is hanging on a napkin in the museum.

"That's my writing," Carney said.

Next to it is the restaurant's original work schedule, and a few people who were on it were in attendance Wednesday.

So was Artie Starrs, president of Kentucky-based Yum! Brands, which now owns Pizza Hut. Starrs spent a couple of hours with Carney on Wednesday morning and asked him for advice.

"He told me to be kind to customers and to ... work in partnership with our franchisees."

Today there are 7,500 Pizza Huts nationally and another 10,000 internationally.

"Our goal is to have 20,000 by the end of the year 2020," Starrs said.

He said Carney put the customer in front of everything he did while growing the business.

"It's our job to maintain that legacy and grow it."

Carney said all he ever "wanted to do was make enough ... to make a good living and provide for my family and be in business for myself."

He said his wife, Gayla, spent years accumulating Pizza Hut memorabilia as a birthday surprise for him.

"Some of these things I don't even remember," Carney said.

There are original items, such as an early pizza serving pan, and promotional items, such as a Skipper Barbie Pizza Party set.

"I love the tapes as you come in," Carney said of his recorded descriptions of how he and his brother got started.

Though he never expected a museum, Carney said, "I certainly wanted to do something like this."

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com.
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