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Oddly captivating photos show what happened to all those Pizza Hut restaurants

Seoul Hoikwan Restaurant, Belfield, Australia. "Pizza Hunt," Ho Hai Tran and Chloe Cahill.

I grew up eating mostly healthy food, so the Pizza Hut buffet, which I first encountered at a birthday party, made a lasting impression on me. There were arcade games, free refills on soda, ice cream sundaes, cold beer for exhausted parents, and, just to reiterate, a buffet of pizzas.

Looking back on Pizza Hut in the 1980s and 1990s, it doesn’t seem surprising that the brand made such an impression: They had a pretty strong game back then, and clearly spent a lot on marketing to children. Pizza Hut had TV commercials and promotional offers linked with the “Back to the Future” movies and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle” arcade games. They even put a commercial on the VHS tape of “The Land Before Time,” from which it became permanently seared into my memory:

The other memorable thing about the Pizza Hut dine-in buffet was the building that it came in. You probably know what I’m talking about: The “Red Roof” Pizza Hut store, with a lid-like roof shaped kind of like a pilgrim’s hat, and trapezoidal windows:

Pizza Hut started to roll out the vintage “Red Roof” stores, designed by an architect named Richard D. Burke, in 1969, as a way to distinguish the brand from the competition, and they built thousands of these restaurants through the 1960s and 1970s. Other fast food chains, including McDonald’s, White Castle and Chik-fil-A, also designed a specific look for their stores. But the iconic “Red Roof” Pizza Hut building remains by far the most famous and enduring example of such a practice.

I’m not the only one who feels nostalgic for the hey-day of the dine-in Pizza Hut. Ho Hai Tran, a photographer, and Chloe Cahill, a creative director and editor,  have launched a photo project on Kickstarter called "Pizza Hunt," in which they travel around the world and photograph the last of these iconic restaurants. As Tran and Cahill’s beautiful photos show, many of these buildings have been sloughed off by Pizza Hut franchisees and reborn as other businesses and restaurants. (You can click on the photos to enlarge them.)

While their gorgeous photography sets them apart, Tran and Cahill aren’t the only ones with this idea. Mike Neilson, a startup founder in Pittsburgh, has been running a hilarious blog since 2008 that hosts pictures of buildings that “used to be a Pizza Hut” (what he calls “UTBAPH” for short) living vibrant second lives. Neilson solicits photos from people around the world of UTBAPHs in their area, and he has amassed an impressive collection.

Pizza Hut started phasing out these dine-in restaurants in the 1980s, as the trend toward pizza delivery picked up. A Pizza Hut representative emphasized to me that the brand hasn't abandoned the design -- it still operates thousands of restaurants in stores like these around the world. But clearly, the photos show that a significant number of the “Red Roof” restaurants have been sold off to others, who transformed them into pet shops, banks, morgues, sandwich places, and lots and lots of Chinese restaurants.

Some of these outlets now peddle Mexican food, chicken, or liquor:

Some even sell Subway sandwiches -- what Mike Neilson calls "the restaurant real estate equivalent of your wife leaving you for your brother":

Some of the buildings have become churches:

Others are funeral homes:

In Des Moines, Ia., one even served as the headquarters of the traffic police unit (it's now a barbecue restaurant):

As you can see from the photos, companies often shingle over the red roof, re-paint the building, or even erect elaborate structures to disguise the building’s essential “Pizza Hut”-ness. But somehow, that old-school Pizza Hut style shines through, a crumbling monument to a hey-day of dine-in fast food.

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