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Monday, December 29, 2008

Pizza Hut Memories

One mildly unremarkable news story that happened in Western New York during the period when I was on extended blogging hiatus was the closing throughout the region of a whole bunch of Pizza Hut locations, including the one where I started working back in May of 1994. There's nothing much remarkable about this; suburban Buffalo is blessed with an abundance of former Pizza Huts that are now dentist's offices, early education places, Chinese takeouts, and so on. I've avoided talking much about those years in my professional life, but now, since the restaurant where I started isn't even open anymore and since I left Pizza Hut's employ in May of 1998, more than ten years ago, I figure it's safe to describe what it was like back then.

In May of 1994 I really needed a job, since the part-time gig I had at St. Bonaventure University was no longer available. Luckily, I had a connection with the local Pizza Hut (hereafter, 'PH') management team, in the person of the girl I was dating at the time. (I'd later marry that girl, so no hard feelings that through her I ended up working at PH.) Long tale shortened, she put in a good word for me, which in addition to my Mad Job Interview Skillz, got me hired as a cook. At that time, the city of Olean, NY had two PH locations. Since I was dating one of the managers at one, I ended up at the other. Thus it began.

Olean's remaining PH location is in the "main business district", which basically means it's in "downtown" Olean. The other one was in a fairly sleepy location (at the time), and it was a much smaller, and older, facility. I'm not sure how old it was, but it was old. I'd gone to that PH as a teenager, eight or nine years earlier, with fellow members of the concert band after school concerts. In the time I lived in that town – and we moved there in 1981 - I don't ever remember a PH not being at that spot. The place was ancient, with extremely tight quarters in the "back of the house". When I started, there wasn't even a mechanical dishwasher; all dishes were washed by hand. This was, you may surmise, less than fun. That PH location finally got a dishwasher a few years later, after I had moved to the other location in town.

One funny little quirk of the place was that the big drain in the middle of the parking lot wasn't actually connected to the city's storm drainage system, so that when we got a big rain, the lot would invariably flood. This went on for years, with the company paying some local outfit to come out with some long hose and a pump to send the water into the storm drains proper, which were just past the entrance to the parking lot. Three years would go by before the company would finally authorize the work to actually connect the lot drain to the city drains. I have no idea how much the guy made who came out to pump the lot before that happened, but I'll bet it was a lot.

This drainage problem led, on one memorable occasion, to a moment of high comedy when my manager became convinced that the problem was that a pizza box had lodged over the drain cover, thus preventing the water from going down. He set out to remove the phantom pizza box. The problem was that the lot was heavily puckered toward that drain, so the water quickly reached a depth of more than a foot. Manager guy (whose name I don't even recall anymore) decided that rather than get wet, he'd walk out there in two mop buckets, one foot in each one. Unfortunately for him, Manager Guy was also a small, not-very-heavy guy, so when he moved himself – standing in his two mop buckets – far enough out into the lot, the buckets actually started to float. I'm not sure how he managed to extricate himself from that situation without falling and completely dousing himself, but watching him float in two mop buckets in the middle of our parking lot was fairly surreal.

At the time, PH had a menu item called a "Neapolitan pizza". This was one of their takes, over the years, on the foldable New York City-style crust. It was actually a decent pizza, but it went off the menu shortly after I was hired, so that was that. But we had one regular customer who was quite the pain in the arse, and he always ordered a Neapolitan. He was a cranky old guy who looked the part: old jeans and t-shirt, ball cap with the mesh back that he just kind-of perched on top of his head, and a permanent expression that made quite clear that he remembers how hard things were back in the day. Anyway, this guy would order his Neapolitan with pepperoni, and then he'd stand at the counter staring at you the entire time. Since I would always be working the "cut table" – the spot where pizzas come out of the oven, and are then cut for either boxing or placed on peels or in their pan for dine-in – he'd be staring hard at me. And then, as he realized his time was nearing, he'd start yelling at me: "Don't burn my pizza!" He'd order me to pull the bloody thing from the oven the second I could reach in there and grab it, and I'd indulge him just to get him the hell out of there. The problem there is that pulling a pizza from a conveyor-belt oven before it's completely exited results in underbaked pizza, but that was fine by this guy; he wanted his pizza to be somewhere between "yellow" and "perfect golden brown". The other problem was that on an underbaked pizza, the cheese and toppings will slide all over the place, a problem which I'm sure this guy had because he would invariably tilt the pizza box way up to a 45-degree angle on his way out the door, which had to result in all of his toppings sliding to one side. And yet, every week, there he was.

Anyway, I started by learning how to make pizza the PH way. I have to be honest here, folks: I know that a lot of people think that PH is basically the lowest form of pizza that exists, but I've never had a problem with the PH product itself, as long as it's made correctly. I really think they've got some good food there, at least as good as any corporately-developed product can be. (Well, not always. They did have some misfires while I was there. Their take on stromboli, called simply "Boli", weren't anything to write home about; neither was the "Tripledecker", a pie that came with two thin crusts, between which was sandwiched a layer of cheese, with the sauce, regular cheese, and toppings above the upper crust. That thing was a major pain to make, you could feel your arteries hardening while you ate the thing – and that's not even bringing up the twist they introduced on the Tripledecker, the "Tripledeckeroni", which put a layer of pepperoni on top of the cheese that was inside the two crusts. Oy. As for the Boli, it wasn't very popular at all, but that's probably because they rolled that thing out at the same time they offered a special all-summer-long promotion called "Pizza and More", which meant that if you dined in and ordered anything over and above a medium with cheese, you got unlimited salad bar, breadsticks, and dessert pizza. This thing was a nightmare.)

While I worked for PH, the method of pizza making changed not once but three times. One method involved color-coded cups to measure out the ingredients, which were then layered on the pizza in a specific order; another eschewed layering in favor of tossing it all, cheese and all, into a mixing bowl and then spreading that all over the pie. I have no idea how they do it now, but I thought the system they had when I left was pretty good. That was when they switched from canned veggies to fresh ones, which is probably when I realized that while canned mushrooms taste like rubbery shit, fresh mushrooms are a gift from Heaven.

Anyhow, that little PH is closed now, leaving just one in Olean. That surprises me, a little, although Olean's probably like every other town in Upstate NY, with population slowly leaking away. However, a year or two after I was hired, the end of town where that tiny PH was located became much busier with the additions of a new Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Staples, Home Depot, a new movie theater, and so on. That the place has now closed interests me, since in terms of location, it was in a pretty good spot.

I haven't set foot in those restaurants in nearly ten years, so I have no idea if any of the people I worked with are still there. About six months into my PH career, the manager there (the skipper of the USS Mop Buckets) left to pursue other opportunities, so The Girlfriend was promoted to the job of manager. This meant that I had to transfer to the other, larger restaurant, which was also a lot busier. That was when I started training to become a shift manager, which felt like a big deal at the time. Of course, PH isn't a place that showers money on its workers, and when I eventually left PH, it was for another company that starts its dishwashers at a higher wage than what I was making at PH to run the place in the boss's stead.

But I digress. What else do I remember from my years at The Hut? Well:

I remember the craziness on every other Thursday night, because that was when the biweekly "coupon drops" hit the newspaper. Our business was heavily spiked by the coupons that ran in the paper every other week...except one week, when we all stood around at 5:00 waiting for the phone to ring. Eventually it did, when the little old lady whose phone number had been misprinted in the ad as being our phone number finally called us to see why on Earth everybody in town was calling her to order pizza. Oops.

I remember the cook who'd been with PH forever when I got hired. He lived right around the corner in a trailer park, and he had a monster crush on his next door neighbor, the "Neighbor Lady", as he called her when he talked about her, which was often. I've wondered what became of that guy, whether he was still there, and whether he had to find a way to get to the PH across town. He didn't have a car at the time, and I don't know if he even drove.

I remember a delivery driver whose forehead broke into a massive rash when he wore our ballcaps. I've never seen anything like that, before or since. He came to me and said, "Dude, I can't wear this hat. Look." He had this giant crimson stripe running right across his forehead. It was amazing to behold. There was another delivery driver who was a really bad employee; he just had trouble showing up for work, and when he was finally shown the door by management, he actually asked, "Can I go work at the other PH now?" There was a very sweet driver who was an evangelical Christian, and yet she had a pretty good sense of humor, especially with regards to the fairly salty humor the rest of us tended to display, and another evangelical Christian driver who refused to run a delivery to the local sex-toy shop when they placed an order. Drivers were a fun lot to have around, even if we were always short on them. It got quite maddening to hire a good driver, only to have them come to us a month later and tell us they needed to quit because of the wear and tear on their cars. What did they expect?

I remember working the first night that the company started running advertising on teevee for the newest thing, our "Stuffed Crust" pizza. We got absolutely killed that entire weekend. Cheese in the crust? That was a home run of an idea. What I remember most from that first night the ads ran was a family who let their snotty twelve-year old son place their order; he was such a little shit on the phone with me that his mother called us back to apologize and confirm that we hadn't tossed their order.

Prank orders were fun, too. Strangely, fake delivery orders rarely happened. There were some kids who once a month tried having ten pizzas sent someplace; I always just took the order and then ignored it. The more annoying thing was when people would place a carry-out order at my PH, and then show up at the other one to pick it up, or vice versa. The phone numbers were completely different.

Lunch buffet was usually a fun ninety minutes; we had a pretty cool crowd that included some local teachers who were all really nice people. The bad days for buffet were when there was a half-day of school, because we were walking distance from the middle school. In my experience, unsupervised middle school kids are the worst behaved of all childhood age groups. Those days were nightmarish. On one such day we knew we were going to get crushed, so I called in extra help: this old lady whom we'd hired to do nothing but carry pizzas out to the buffet. She said she'd be right in...and promptly went to her other job, at a local department store, thinking it was them and not us who'd called her in. Oy.

I remember having to call the fire department when one of our inset light fixtures in the building blew. They brought over three fire trucks for this, even though we were literally right next door to the fire department. I mean, right next door. As in, you had our building, the parking lot, and then the fire hall. I never complained about feeding those guys cheap again. (We gave then a fifty percent discount at the time.)

I remember people who genuinely didn't understand why they could call us from ten miles outside of our delivery area and expect our drivers to go to some dark parking lot just inside the delivery area and wait to make the exchange. I also remember people who would get indignant when we had a monster snow storm and we had to shut down delivery service for the night. Funniest were the Canadians who would call us for delivery to the Holiday Valley ski clubs in Ellicottville, which is twenty-five miles from Olean. One funny Canadian once said to me, when I explained that we didn't deliver at such distances, "Wouldn't you think a ski town like this would have a pizza delivery joint?" He had a fair point. I wonder if Ellicottville ever got its own pizza delivery joint?

I remember the guy who called our 1-800 number to bitch because we were closed early; our posted hours were until 10:00, and he was pissed we were closed when he showed up at 9:15. Why did we close? Because half the town, including us, was out of power when a drunk drove his car into a transformer. We were without power for more than three hours starting around dinner time. The guy who complained wasn't about to concede anything to us, not even on the point that had we opened right then and let him in, we wouldn't have been able to cook anything for him. None of that mattered, though; he was going to get his complaint in.

Great customers? We had 'em, people whose faces and, in a few cases, even names I still remember. There was the older couple who came in each and every Tuesday night around 8:30 to share a medium Supreme, and there was the lady with the incredibly bubbly and infectious smile who came in every other Thursday for a large pepperoni. We also had a very picky elderly woman who would come in for an order of breadsticks and a Diet Pepsi, but she was such a stickler for freshness that she insisted on physically witnessing the cutting of the sticks and the pouring of the Pepsi. One night I saw her walking in the door, so that's when I cut her breadsticks, just so I could hand her the box at the exact moment she arrived at the pickup window. She shook her head and said, "I'll wait for the next pan." Okey-dokey...this went on once or twice a week for months until one day she comes in and says to the other shift manager, "You guys always take good care of me, so I'd like to do something nice. How about tickets to a Sabres or Bills game?" It turned out that she was the wife of John Rigas, then-owner of the Sabres and also then-not-yet-convicted for fraud. So it was because of her that I got to watch a Bills game from the comfy confines of the former Adelphia Cable luxury suite. (The Bills lost. It was the Todd Collins era.)

Of course, there were also the not so good customers. For the first year and a half I worked there, we had lunch buffet on Sundays, which was a colossal pain in the arse, as it lasted two hours (as opposed to the ninety minute weekday buffet) and being Sunday there wasn't much "lunch hour" business, so tables turned much more slowly. We'd fill up with church families, most of whom were all very nice, but there was one family that would insist that their two daughters were both under twelve years old, so as to get the lower price. This despite the fact that I could observe one of the girls driving, and that both were, shall we say, richly endowed for eleven year olds. I was always amazed that this family thought nothing of leaving church on a Sunday and making it their first order of business to come to PH and bear false witness in order to save a few bucks.

Sometimes we'd host childrens' birthday parties. Servers hated these because they required much more intensive attention to the party, which meant that they couldn't take many other tables while the party was there, usually resulting in lower tips. Once a party came in and took up a server for two hours, during which she did nothing but wait on that party. They left no tip at all. Our menus at the time stated a policy of charging automatic gratuities on parties of eight or more people, but upper levels of management directed us not to enforce this policy. I have never understood this; I have never yet met a server who dispute my view that large parties tend to tip less.

My coworkers were, for the most part, all nice people, with the occasional dud. I've often wondered what became of more than a few of them. I attended a couple of weddings for coworkers, and a bunch of them attended mine. A Friday morning ritual for several years was to breathlessly discuss the events on the previous night's episode of ER (this was when the show was fresh, new and good.) Oddly the Bills were never much a topic of discussion, but one guy I worked with was ecstatic when the Yankees won their first of several World Series, in 1996. Back then cell phones were new and only three or four employees had them; I was talking about movies with another employee when he asked me, "Hey, at the bottom of all the movie posters these days, what's all that stuff that says 'HTTP', colon, backslash backslash"? One guy came along who was a terrific geek, and we merrily discussed Star Wars (the Prequels were just rumored at that point) and The X-Files and such, until he left a few months later. I think he became a teacher eventually. Good on him; he'd have been a good one.

For a while, all the PH locations west of Syracuse were in one big division, but apparently there weren't enough area directors right then, so for a while, each area director was responsible for seventeen or eighteen restaurants. So when ours showed up for his monthly visit to go over numbers, he brought in all of his paperwork in a giant binder on our restaurant, sat down with my manager, and...discovered that he'd brought the books for the wrong restaurant. That was pretty funny. I was highly intimidated by that guy, for some reason. Ever since then, I've wondered why. He was, after all, just a guy.

Gradually, the Upstate New York market got chipped up as the company sold off certain markets to franchise operators. For the time I worked for PH, our restaurants were company-owned, but it wasn't long after I left that all of the WNY PH locations became franchise-operated as well. Since then, I've seen ads on teevee for lots of new products they've come out with: another attempt at a New York City crust called the "Big New Yorker"; a calzone thing apparently called a "P-Zone"; baked pasta dishes that come in big foil pans; other versions of bread sticks, and so on. I've never had any of these, although that P-Zone thing looks pretty lethal.

It was interesting to work at PH during the 1990s, when all kinds of new casual-dining restaurants, each with its own "concept", were coming along. Shortly after I started, PH acquired a chain of sub sandwich from New England called D'Angelo's, and they then started to roll these out into Western New York, mainly in the Buffalo area. I liked the D'Angelo subs a good deal, but that "concept" didn't last long, and within three years, I think, all of the PH-D'Angelo restaurants had either switched to PH's alone, or had closed altogether.

Interestingly, we didn't spend a lot of time worrying about Domino's or Little Caesar's. (Probably with good reason, since I haven't seen a Little Caesar's in years and I have no idea where the closest Dominos to me is, either.) The big competitors we always had to worry about, or were always told to worry about, were Fazoli's and Papa John's. Fazoli's was a chain of Italian fast-food eateries, like Sbarro but without the pizza. One of these opened up in Olean, right across the street from my first PH (the smaller one), right about the same time that all that other retail showed up on that end of town. It was, naturally, a really popular place for a while, and then...it wasn't. Fazoli's closed down in Olean after less than three years, if memory serves, and there isn't a single one left, that I know of, anywhere in Buffalo. As for Papa John's, we were constantly on the lookout for the major push into the Buffalo and Rochester market that they were certainly gearing up for. That major push never came. I never even saw a Papa John's until we moved to Syracuse in 2002, when we tried it for the first time. We liked it, but the place shut down two or three months after we moved there. So much for Papa John's.

Today, PH still exists in this area, although their footprint is even smaller than it once was. When I worked there, I attended a meeting once that was led by our "Ops Director" (two levels of management above store manager), and he told us in a spiel about business planning that the Buffalo market is hard for national pizza chains because in this city, nearly every street corner has a mom-and-pop pizza place on it. That much is certainly true. I know, off the top of my head, of six pizza joints (Nino's, Capelli's, Papa Geno's, Pizza4U, Roz's, and Ricotta Pizza) within a mile of my apartment, and we live out in the 'burbs. My nearest PH is five or six miles distant. There is a PH about fifteen minutes away that apparently has some kind of "Italian Bistro" theme going on, and another that's about a twenty minute drive away (fairly close as the bird flies, but impossible to get to without traversing heavily-trafficked suburban streets) that calls itself "Wing Street". (I have zero idea what that means, outside of my supposition that it involves chicken wings in some way.)

So, that's what it was generally like to work at PH for four years in the 1990s. It wasn't a great job and it didn't lead me to any particularly fantastic heights, but I did have a lot of fun and learn some stuff about working for a living. Not a bad use of four years when I didn't much know what I wanted out of life.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I replied to this a month ago but I guess it didn't go through. Let me see if I remember what I wrote.

First, great post.

Second, the Pizza Hut next to the Olean Fire Department ironically closed down from a fire inside the building a week before this post. I am unsure when or if it will reopen.

Third, since you worked at the Pizza Hut near Wal-Mart you might be able to answer this question: why did that location not deliver to Allegany starting in the mid-90's? My family called one day and were told Pizza Hut no longer delivered to the village. Allegedly, this was due to St. Bonaventure University students pranking them. I'd tend to agree, as I know many people who work for Domino's now who loathe SBU students but depend on their business.

You say many Pizza Hut locations have closed in Western New York, but I'd like to get your thoughts on the business impact of not delivering to St. Bonaventure University students.

Mark Inman said...

Thought you might want to know the Pizza Hut nearest to Wal-Mart in Olean is no longer vacant! It's now a Subway which moved from across the street from Tops. Opened last week. Has a fireplace and very low ceilings. Last time I was in there I was a kid but I don't remember it having such ceilings. Good times!

Thanks again for such a great blog!

Mark Inman said...

I thought you'd want to know the Pizza Hut nearest Wal-Mart in Olean is no longer vacant! It's now a Subway--moved from a location across from Tops just last week. It has tight seating in booths, a fireplace, and very low ceilings. Last time I was in there was when I was a kid but I don't remember such ceilings.

Thanks again for such a great blog (I am the poster above)!