Like any Midwesterner worth his salt, I grew up with a healthy affection for chain restaurants (emphasis on the salt, less so on the healthy). Northern Ohio had all the greatest hits: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut, to name but a few. In terms of overall experience, Pizza Hut was among the best. The distinctive roof design was a deliberate choice to draw attention to the franchise, and it obviously worked. It was such a comfortable place to be. We never had a rec room growing up, yet somehow I know if we did it would have felt like hanging out in a Pizza Hut. It was muted inside, with lots of browns, oranges, and reds, and most importantly to me, it was dark. I’m sure it says a lot about my personality if you dig into it, but I’ve always preferred dark places. That Pizza Hut embraced this aesthetic goes against prevailing wisdom when it comes to fast food, where restaurants are typically both fluorescent and loud, with every surface vying for your eyeballs. Pizza Hut chose calm instead. Fake wood paneling, hooded chandeliers over the tables, ACTUAL PLASTIC CUPS instead of disposable ones- Pizza Hut was classy. And to make things even better, they rewarded you with free pizza for reading!
My sisters and I were insanely prolific readers as children. As soon as we learned to read, my parents did everything they could to encourage it. We made weekly library trips, always taking out the maximum allowable number of books. The library later removing the borrowing limit was an event of genuine excitement for me in later childhood.
Book It! came into existence in 1984, and was rolled out nationwide in 1985. By that time my older sister and I were already reading. I’m sure pretty much everybody knows what Book It! is, but just in case, it was a program where individual school teachers would set goals for their classrooms, involving number of books read, number of pages read, or amount of time spent reading. The way the program worked at my elementary school was that the student would complete a book and do a report on it. Once the report was successfully completed, you received a star sticker on your Book It! button. After filling the button with five stars, you could go to Pizza Hut and get a free personal pizza.
In its first year, Pizza Hut gave away $50 million in free pizza, and while it obviously also brought a lot of parents into the store to buy larger pizzas as well, my parents appreciated the sense of accomplishment we got from doing the work to get the free pizza. The personal pizzas weren’t much to write home about, but they meant something because they were ours alone. YOU had done it YOURSELF, and now you were marching into Pizza Hut to show the wait staff your button, and they had HAD to give you a free pizza because that was the LAW. It was oddly empowering. Once my younger sister started reading as well we were robbing the place blind.
I didn’t realize that Book It! is still around today until I started to do a little research for this article, and I’m very pleased that it is, so that little kids today can experience that same feeling of accomplishment I did. Starting the Book It! Program may be the most genuinely good thing a corporation has ever done, and it’s one of the reasons I will always have real affection for Pizza Hut.
Were you a Book It! participant? What are your favorite Pizza Hut memories? Let us know below or on Twitter.