When Pizza Hut opened its first Australian restaurant at Belfield in Sydney’s south-west in 1970 it was a sit-down, dine-in family affair.
The original menu featured small pizzas for one or two people which ranged in price from $1.05 for a mozzarella cheese topping to $1.60 for a supreme.
Larger pizzas could be bought for between $1.70 and $2.70, salads were 35 cents, soft drinks 15 cents and adults could buy four draught beers for a buck.
It would be 10 years before the now famous fluffy-centred pan base was developed and five more before Pizza Hut introduced home delivery to hungry Australians.
This year the company is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its arrival and will open its ovens to give away 50,000 free pizzas – 10,000 a day for all of next week.
While most of the iconic slanted roofs that symbolised Pizza Hut for decades are long gone, its all-you-can-eat buffets and red and white checked tablecloths still hold a place in the dining memories of millions of customers.
For several generations Pizza Hut’s salad and dessert bars were a place families came together to mark birthdays and other special occasions.
Its booths were the scene of countless first dates, end-of-season sporting team gatherings, and cheap meals before or after watching a film.
While Pizza Hut no longer has the local market dominance it once did it has recently gone through a rejuvenation and is firmly back in the minds of pizza-loving Australians.
Pizza Hut Australia chief executive officer Phil Reed, who revitalised the chain when he was boss in the Philippines, is credited with doing the same here.
‘Being candid, myself and the management team that I have, we’ve been working very, very hard to really revitalise the brand,’ Mr Reed said. ‘And we’ve been very, very successful in doing so.
‘That’s based upon our plan to really put the love back into Pizza Hut, to put the heart back into the Hut and move this brand forward again.’
Mr Reed said Pizza Hut had been the fastest growing brand in the quick service restaurant and pizza markets for the past two quarters.
‘I think it’s just continuing to build and I think realistically many people have not enjoyed a great pizza from Pizza Hut for a fair few years.
‘I think people have tried us again and they’ve gone, wow, it’s fast, it’s good value, it’s great quality food, why not?’
Each day next week the Pizza Hut website and social media channels will be dedicated to celebrating key cultural moments in each decade since the 1970s.
The 50,000 free pizzas will come with a ‘warm hug’ from the company, which wants to thank Australians for their support over the past 50 years, including through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pizza Hut recognises the brand evokes a sense of nostalgia but it continues to modernise its operations and runs 265 restaurants in all states and territories.
Its latest restaurant opened at Parramatta earlier this month.
‘There’s been a huge amount of change compared with 50 years ago,’ Mr Reed said.
‘This was a business that was based very much around family moments in a store.
‘Chatting with my colleagues, some of the senior members of my team are reminiscing about moments they went on their first date at a Pizza Hut.
‘They’re talking about moments with their family and dad would be there with a beer, knocking one back, and they’re really enjoying themselves.’
There are now only 12 of the ‘red roof’ restaurants left across the country and more than 50 per cent of the company’s business is home delivery.
‘I think what’s happened over time, just like many aspects of life, technology’s come in,’ Mr Reed said. ‘But also we’re all experiencing very, very busy lifestyles and delivery now is a very, very easy solution.
‘I have to say now, many many customers – millions on a yearly basis – don’t see a Pizza Hut.
‘The store is actually on their mobile phone and they’re ordering on the phone and within 20, 25 minutes, there’s the food. Fantastic.’
In a nod to its past, the company has brought back actor Diarmid Heidenreich, who played Dougie the pizza delivery boy in a series of television commercials which began in 1993.
Heidenreich’s cheeky character became the face of the business and has recently been used to promote Pizza Hut’s contact-less delivery pick-up service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The actor was delighted to be back with the brand that made him a household face more than a quarter of a century ago.
‘I jumped at the chance to be able to share it with my children and I’ve really enjoyed it,’ he said. ‘For me, Pizza Hut was about family.’
Mr Reed said Pizza Hut wanted Heidenreich to be a part of its 50th anniversary celebrations because so many Australians had fond memories of the old ads.
‘He’s someone that we’ve used recently to I suppose reach back into those good times,’ he said. ‘At Pizza Hut we want to share good times.’
Mr Reed said Pizza Hut was now in a strong position and continued to grow.
‘Generally across the market it’s all really strong now,’ he said. ‘We brought in some experts to retrain every single one of our franchisees in terms of the quality of the food and the speed of delivery, really to give customers what they want.
‘We had one of the busiest ever trading days in our history a couple of weeks ago. Lots of people are trying Pizza Hut again.’
Mr Reed believed a pizza tasted better if its maker loved what he or she was doing.
‘Restaurants are about people and restaurants are about heart,’ he said. ‘We’ve got this little quote at Pizza Hut, “For the love of pizza”.
‘And if someone is preparing a pizza and they’re really focused, if they’ve got a smile on their face, the pizza will be better.’
The free pizzas will come with the country’s five favourite toppings: Super Supreme, Pepperoni Lovers, BBQ Meat Lovers, Cheese Lovers and Hawaiian.
Pizza buyers go for different toppings depending on the hour and the day. Families tend to buy more pizzas on Saturdays and Sundays.
Pepperoni Lovers sold particularly well during the week but Super Supreme was the clear weekend winner. Pizza Hut now also has a large vegan range.
Mr Reed, who regularly tastes potential new toppings, was happy to weigh into the debate about the culinary worth of the Hawaiian pizza.
‘I’m cool with it,’ he said. ‘I’m absolutely fine with pineapple on pizza. I have to say I’m even more controversial because I do like anchovy.’
Mr Reed was less sure how COVID-19 would change the fast food industry.
‘I think realistically it’s too early to tell,’ he said. ‘I think it’s going to affect different aspects of the industry in different ways.
‘Digital without doubt is going to be more important – ensuring that you’ve got websites that are running fast and accurately but equally that those delivery riders are following social distancing and delivering with that contact-less protocol.’
‘If anything, with COVID I think it does change the rules and I think those moments when people can get together will be cherished again.’
As for delivery by drone, that was a long way off, if it happened at all.
‘We’ve got a guy on our team who’s already done that,’ Mr Reed said. ‘I’m not suggesting we’re going to do that but we’ve got the capability to do it.
‘I think realistically we’re a long way from moving in that direction.’
Mr Reed said while Pizza Hut would continue to look forward and embrace technology there was a place in its future for the past.
He hoped the distinctive red roofs would never completely disappear from the Australian restaurant landscape.
‘Without doubt they’re iconic,’ Mr Reed said. ‘I think on one hand it’s a shame that there aren’t as many.
‘But times have changed, rent’s very high and labour’s high and just from a business perspective we’ve moved into this new area.
‘I would love in time to be in a situation as the brand gets stronger that if we can roll out more restaurant experiences like that we’d love to do it.’
Mr Reed could see a time when customers returned to dining out for pizzas, the way they do for Chinese, Thai or Indian food.
‘I think there’s the opportunity to bring that really indulgent exciting fun gourmet pizza experience back again,’ he said.
All-you-can-eat buffets, which were available at the 12 remaining ‘red roof’ restaurants before the coronavirus pandemic, could even make a wider return.
‘Let’s be frank,’ Mr Reed said. ‘Why all-you-can-eat doesn’t exist anymore is it wasn’t economical because of rents and labour.
‘But if that dynamic changes, well, you never know. It would be cool, wouldn’t it?’
Other dining experiences from Pizza Hut’s long history are less likely to make a return.
Pizza Hut had an anchovy pizza on the menu in 1970. ‘So far I’ve been unable to persuade the guys to bring it back,’ Mr Reed said.