Monday, August 19, 2019

Pizza for One

♬Cheese by the ton on a Margherita
Just pizza for one, 
And one for pizza
Just me for pie
And pie for me alone. 

Strangers a-souring 
At my wanton devouring,
Extreme gurgitation 
On my Keystone vacation 
Pictures of my Pappy, dear,
On my iPhone, crappy, dear

Yum! Brands announced last week that they’d be closing 500 sit-down Pizza Hut locations and increasing the focus on pizza delivery. It’s a move that is hard to watch for anyone who grew up eating pizza under a distinctively-shaped red roof and behind trapezoidal windows, but it's hardly a surprising move. From the rise of the American sit-down pizza parlor started by Shakey’s in the fifties to the present-day, dine-in pizza experiences have slowly become a rarity. Over the years, people discovered that pizza traveled well in a flat cardboard box, and was the perfect food for a delivery business model. Reducing the overhead and complexity of operating a sit-down restaurant in favor of a carry out/delivery setup made business sense for both parent companies and franchisees, and pizza became the default delivery food in North America. People, in general, seem to prefer to eat pizza at home, and with the rise of delivery services, the idea of enjoying a meal out at an inexpensive restaurant is becoming increasingly antiquated. Is it any wonder then, in a time when Postmates and DoorDash will deliver food to your door from nearly any restaurant, that the largest pizza chain in the world, who has been slowly, but steadily, closing sit-down locations for years to the point that entire blogs are devoted to the phenomenon, is set to close 500 of its remaining dine-in locations en masse? 

My local Hut's days are probably numbered.

With market trends being what they are, it’s tough to make a long-term business case for any sit-down pizza chain, but for anyone who grew up having meals out at Pizza Hut, Shakey's, Godfather's, and innumerable other regional chains and mom and pops, it’s a little sad. However, as with most chain restaurants, there are always holdouts that cling to a bygone era and anachronistic business model in the face of a changing marketplace.

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present.” 

That's the standout line of the younger Edith Bouvier Beale in the 1975 documentary, Grey Gardens. The film showed the everyday lives and interactions of an eccentric, reclusive, mother and adult daughter both named Edith Bouvier Beale, living in a derelict mansion in the Hamptons. They had been wealthy socialites decades before, but their failure to adapt to a changing world and their own changing fortunes left them living in squalor and obscurity, clinging to their memories of happier and more prosperous times. I saw the film for the first time recently, around the same time I was studying Pappy’s Family Pub, a suspiciously Shakey’s-like chain of pizza joints that operated In Pennsylvania, Maryland, and perhaps other nearby states in the seventies, and perhaps other nearby decades.  

Ignore the modern vehicles, and this picture would look like it could easily be from the late '70s

Like countless other pizza chains before it, Pappy’s locations gradually closed their doors as Domino's and Little Caesar’s made it increasingly clear that delivery and carryout were the future of the pizza business, but somehow, a single Pappy’s location remains open to this day, standing STAUNCH in the face of a changing pizza business. Based on a tip from a reader (Thanks, Aiden!) I visited the world’s last operating Pappy’s located in Johnstown, Pennsylvania a few weeks ago, and I was delighted to find the line dividing the past from the present was nearly nonexistent there. 

Pappy's Dixieland style of dress seems to be borrowed from the general vibe of the Shakey's Pizza locations of the same era. 

I arrived late on a Friday afternoon, having been run out of East Hampton, New York the previous day because I happened to be wearing red shoes. My costume for the day consisted of my second best Taco Tico T-shirt and a pair of raw denim jeans that I’ve been trying to break in. (The best thing is to wear shorts under the jeans, so if it gets too hot you can take the jeans off and use them as a cape.) I parked at the corner of the expansive parking lot in the shadow of a tall vintage sign featuring the mustachioed cartoon countenance of Pappy himself, who in my made-up mythos of chain restaurant mascots, is likely a blood relative of Uncle John of pancake fame. I pondered whether Pappy and Uncle John were brothers, cousins or perhaps father and son, as I made my way to the fanciful red and white doors of Pappy’s entryway. 

These doors could just as easily lead to Santa's workshop
The hostess sat me in one of many well-worn wooden booths, covered in the carved initials of decades of past patrons. My booth was next to a window which was adorned stained glass panels and outlined with round, incandescent light bulbs giving off a faint yellow glow. The dining room was dimly lit by Narnia-esque faux gas lampposts standing at every booth. They appeared to have been modified to include ceramic shades at some point. A fireplace with a brick hearth stood at the center of the room, serving as a cozy focal point, though no fire was burning during my mid-July visit. The dingy red and white paneled walls were adorned every few yards with vintage signage featuring the Pappy, who also bears a striking resemblance to Reddy Kilowatt, if he were to join a barbershop quartet. Aside from a modern internet jukebox on one wall, just about the entire interior of the place looked original, or at least without a significant update in my lifetime. My surroundings made it clear that very little had changed at Pappy's in the past 40 years or so. While I doubt anyone was feeding bags of Wonder Bread to feral cats and raccoons in the attic, the place had clearly seen better days. 

The view to the right of my table...

...and to the left

My booth was not the only one covered in Nixon-era graffiti. In fact, all the booths and tables along with several spots on the walls were similarly defaced. Tiles of the drop ceiling were stained and mismatched. I was seated near the restrooms, and every few minutes, a waitress would check the ladies’ to make sure it was clear before ushering a marble faun of a male plumber through the door, presumably to deal with some horrific plumbing issue I’d rather not be thinking about while ordering dinner. 

"Up your nose with a rubber hose!"

Pizza and so much more!

I examined the menu, and found that it had much more than pizza. I found that I could order ribs, fried chicken, or a steak in addition to the expected pizza and pasta. Could the diverse menu offerings have helped this Pappy’s survive the decline of sit-down pizza joints? I had set out to order pizza for myself, but I was travelling alone as I often do, and no personal-sized pizzas were offered. I settled on a meatball Stromboli (it was pizza-esque, at least) along with a side salad. 

So-so salad; This picture was hastily taken after the first couple of bites. 
The salad was the epitome of nothing special, salad mix from a bag with a couple grape tomatoes and cucumber slices tossed on with a handful of croutons as an afterthought, though it came in a wooden salad bowl, something I haven’t seen at any restaurant in at least two decades. It made me wonder how and if they kept it clean. 

Stromboli, note the meatballs peaking out the vent holes. 
My Stromboli arrived a few minutes later, and as promised by the menu, the baked half moon shaped pizza dough pocket was overstuffed with tiny meatballs, that appeared to be the type that come pre-cooked and frozen. Pizza cheese and a sweet tomato sauce were also present. It wasn’t bad, but a little monotonous to eat. Its flavor and texture could have benefited from some onions and peppers. I’d ask for them to be added if I ordered it again. Still, I had my Stromboli, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted.

There were several other signs that started with, "Hey kids!"

I was a bit surprised when I got the bill, as my Stromboli, salad, and diet brown soda set me back nearly $20 before a tip for my server, but the economics of pizza tend to favor large groups sharing several large pies over a lone diner eating a single pizza pouch. On my next trip to Pappy’s having a few friends along to help me sample different pizzas and entrees would no doubt result in a better experience, though finding a handful of well-wishers willing to ride along with me to Western Pennsylvania for a meal might be too tall an order for most, if not all of my friend group. 

I need to figure out if I can still join Pappy's Birthday club. 

After paying my bill, I took a quick lap of the dining room to ensure I was fully appreciating the Pappy’s experience. I walked past the window into the kitchen that allowed me to look at employees shaping and topping circles of pizza dough, through the Rax-like solarium that housed an odd grand piano that I regret not taking a picture of, and finally into Pappy’s Fun Zone, a small arcade on the far side of the dining room. I had intended to play a game or two of pinball, but I couldn’t get the old woodgrain-covered change machine to accept my dollar bills. I did at least manage to appreciate the Tiffany-style Pappy’s lamp that hung from the ceiling. It was the only one in the place, but I suspect there were more at one time. It’s the kind of unique branded decor that collectors drool over and dream about hanging over their kitchen tables. (I’m talking about me. I’m “collectors!”)

I'm Pappy. Welcome to my fun zone!

This lamp is the kind of thing that would fetch a few hundred bucks on eBay. 

After the death of the elder Edith Bouvier Beale in 1977, her daughter would eventually sell the dilapidated Grey Gardens estate with the stipulation that the house not be demolished. The buyer, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, spent what was sure to be an obscene amount of money refurbishing the property to habitable condition, erasing what had been the backdrop to an iconic film in the process. Grey Gardens’ fate served to show that nothing lasts forever in a patinated state, even cultural icons. For all it’s foibles, The Johnstown Pappy’s Family Pub feels special in the way so many broken chain locations do. Each graffitied table, painted Pappy sign, and overflowing terlet, is a little piece of endangered history, and while Pappy’s is an operational restaurant in original condition today, its overall rough condition and the climate of the Pizza Economy at large may mean its days are numbered. I advise anyone nearby with even a passing interest in broken chains to visit Pappy’s while they still can. As Edith the Elder would say, Pappy’s stands on concentrated (sic) ground. 

The only official account of the history of Pappy's Family Pub that I could find. 

If you’re reading this and feel yourself drawn to surviving outlets of broken chains, consider joining me at the Harlan, Kentucky Rax this November in observance of Raxgiving. Those who attend will learn firsthand that I do terrific dances.


  1. That Pappy's history sign is great.

    Although I wouldn't have the space to store or display such large items, I think I am "collectors," too.

    1. I am very quickly running out of space. There's a fine line between collector and hoarder.

  2. Narnia, Ready Kilowatt, Marbled Fauns all in one article? Priceless. Looking for Grey Gardens to watch now while waiting for doordash to deliver my pizza from Johnstown.🍕

  3. Hmm, in addition to Raxgiving, perhaps the day after St. Patrick's Day can be St. Pappy's Day, and we all meet up in Pennsylvania for some cost-effective pies?

    1. There's an idea I can get behind. I'll give it serious consideration if Raxgiving is a success.

  4. Pappy's had about 75 stores at their peak. Most were in Maryland and surrounding states, but they were also as far afield as Colonie (Albany), NY and Atlanta.

    Pappy's in Catonsville, MD was one of our hangouts in high school in the mid 70s. I've tried to talk up a road trip to Johnstown on my high school class's FB page, but so far no luck (It's only a 4 hour drive).

  5. I worked there in the late 70's as a 16 yo dishwasher. I liked working there but I kinda knew they wouldn't last. When I witnessed a fist fight between the assistant manager and the store manager...I figured they were doomed.

  6. Anyone remember that after the Catonsville Pappy's closed, a Shakey's opened at that location?

  7. I’m from Johnstown and been to this Pappy’s many times. They still have 1/2 price pizza, Stromboli, lasagna nights. It still gets pretty busy at times. I think they ended up selling their colorful player piano years ago on eBay.