Tuesday was the new Friday when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey in the 1990s. That’s the night my family would visit our local Pizza Hut, conveniently located directly in the middle of my hometown. It was one of those vintage red-roofed hut-shaped structures we now see disguised as burger joints, bookstores, and veterinary clinics (thanks to the blog Used to Be a Pizza Hut for documenting them). I remember so much about that Pizza Hut from the salad bar in the center to the textured red Coca Cola cups to the stained glass light fixtures to the terribly slow service. We had at least half a dozen independent pizzerias in this 25,000 person commuter town, which we patronized regularly, but Pizza Hut was for special occasions. It was a pizza restaurant, not a slice shop like all the others. A visit there was reserved for special occasions: Tuesdays.
I don’t know if it was the policy of the Pizza Hut company or of my local location, but Tuesday night was specially designated Book It night. This was Pizza Hut’s program that awarded a free personal pan pizza to any participant who read five books in one month. Every participant got a neat hologram pin with five blank spaces in which we paced a gold star for every book we read. It was a brilliant ploy to bring in bodies on an otherwise slow night and it totally worked. Most tables had at least one kid enjoying a personal pan pizza while the rest of their families paid full price. There was even a free toy when Pizza Hut had a media partnership to tout. The only one I clearly remember was the pair of futuristic sunglasses that somehow promoted Back to the Future II. No, I don’t think I have them anymore.
Those visits to Pizza Hut stuck with me, as I’m sure they did with most kids whose schools made the devil’s pact with Pizza Hut. My personal pan pizza consumption definitely trailed off when I aged out of the Book It program and I honestly don’t remember the last time I had one. Come to think of it, I hadn’t really eaten much Pizza Hut pizza since the late 1990s with he exception of one time my friends and I ordered a “Four-by-Four” meal (I think it was four pizzas, four orders of bread sticks, four liters of soda, and four trips to the cardiologist). I knew the company had been sold to Pepsi Co by the Carney brothers, who founded the company in 1958, and again to Yum Brands. The magic vibe was missing so I just wrote them off as a piece of the past that will never be the same again.
As I starting giving pizza tours of NYC and writing for pizza magazines and all that good stuff, one of the most frequently asked questions was that of the big chain pizzerias. People asked me every day which I prefer out of the Big Four (Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, and Little Caesar’s). Since I eat at some of the greatest pizzerias on Earth on a daily basis, there’s just not a lot of room in my life for the big chains. I briefly worked at Domino’s back in 2012 just because I was curious, I met “Papa” John Schnatter in 2015 as part of a food blogger event, and I even visited Little Caesar’s Store #001 last year as part of a Detroit pizza research trip; but Pizza Hut was a blind spot on for me since the last time I had it was easily 15 years ago. I’ve been tempted on multiple occasions, especially since there’s a Pizza Hut counter in the Target right around the corner from my apartment, but the time was never right… until April 27, 2018.
Almost exactly six months after I rented a school bus and took 25 of my friends on a citywide pizza-eating adventure, I launched my company Scott’s Pizza Tours. My first official tour rolled on April 27, 2008. We hit four pizzerias across Manhattan and the Bronx and it was magical. But I was terrified. I had never owned a business, never ran a business, never wanted to run a business. I just wanted to eat pizza. I had a blast every time I ran a tour, but I was always terrified that I wasn’t qualified to tell anybody anything about something simple like pizza. I named the company Scott’s Pizza Tours because I wanted to be clear that this tour was my own personal perspective. A more generic name might imply that I was claiming some higher understanding or superiority and I desperately did not want to do that. I was only 26 years old when I started running tours and knew that plenty of my customers (if anybody even showed up) would be much older than me and therefore far more experienced in terms of quantity of pizza consumed. That’s why I did my best to research the objective points of pizza history so that the story I’d tell would be about the facts and not about the subjectivity of food preferences.
Running tours was a blast. I had more fun than I ever imagined and did my best to stay ten steps ahead of my tour guests’ questions. I studied so much that people were shocked when I’d respond to the question I’ve gotten on almost every single tour, “How long have you been doing this?” I remember answering, “Six months,” and wondering what it might be like when and if I hit three years, five years, or even longer! I keep data on every tour and wondered if I’d ever reach the point of being able to say I’d run 500 tours. Now when I tell people I’ve been doing this for over a decade and I’ve personally done over 2,500 tours, they don’t believe it. Then they ask my favorite question: “What’s your real job?” I’m having too much fun for this to be my real job, but that’s exactly what it is.
I knew I had to eat pizza on my tenth anniversary. Would I eat it from one of the pizzerias I frequent on tours? Would I go to a pizzeria I’ve had on my to-do list for the past decade? Would I take a trip to one of the famous pizzerias beyond the five boroughs of NYC? No. I decided to go to Target. Why take the chance of disappointing myself with a new pizza? Why do the boring thing and have a slice I had the day before? Why take the chance of pissing off all the pizzeria owners whose pizza I didn’t celebrate with when I could piss of ALL the pizzeria owners by checking in with an old friend? I knew what I had to do.
When I realized I was waiting in the PICK UP line, I scooted over to the ORDER HERE line and placed my request for a personal pepperoni pizza. I watched as it was slapped together, a real paint-by-numbers situation. It took about six minutes to roll across the conveyor belt oven (I timed it) and my walk home took another eight. I sat down in my living room and ate two slices. I didn’t expect it to be like the pizza I ate on Tuesday nights as a kid. I ate it because it felt like returning to my roots was the right thing to do. I’m glad I chose to celebrate 10 years of pizza touring with a personal pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut. Now I know I never have to eat one again.