Frank Carney, who founded Pizza Hut in 1958 with his brother Dan and helped build it into the world’s largest pizza chain, died Wednesday at an assisted living facility in Wichita, Kansas. He was 82.
The cause was pneumonia, his brother said. Carney had recently recovered from COVID-19 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the last decade.
With $600 borrowed from their mother, the two Carney brothers opened the first Pizza Hut on South Bluff Street in downtown Wichita. Frank was 19, a student at Wichita University (now Wichita State University) looking to pay his way through college. Dan was 26, studying for a master’s degree in business and seeking a promising opportunity.
They rented a 600-square-foot building with a pointed roof, inspiring Dan’s wife to suggest the name Pizza Hut. They purchased secondhand equipment for the kitchen.
On opening night, they offered free pizza to attract customers. The restaurant was an immediate hit.
The brothers incorporated the company the next year and began to sell franchises. With aggressive marketing and a focus on quality ingredients and service, Pizza Hut took off.
Frank became president of the company and joined the Young Presidents Association to get an intensive primer in executive management so that he could build a strategic plan. He ultimately created a standardized system for all franchises, while also allowing room for the tastes and preferences of local customers.
The original Pizza Hut pizza, created by John Bender, a one-time partner with the brothers, was thin and crispy. A few years later Frank Carney developed the restaurant’s signature “original pan pizza,” a recipe that endured for four decades.
By 1966, there were 145 Pizza Hut franchises in the United States. By 1971, Pizza Hut had emerged as the world’s largest pizza chain, with strong sales and 1,000 global outlets. In 1972, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and by 1977, as sales reached $436 million (the equivalent of about $1.9 billion today), there were more than 3,400 domestic and international outlets. That year, the brothers sold the company to PepsiCo for $300 million.
Frank Carney left the company in 1980 and embarked on a number of different business ventures as an investor and mentor, including real estate, oil and gas, and other food enterprises, most of which failed. “Frank was a very driven person,” Dan Carney said. “He would pick up an idea and run with it. You just don’t win every time.”
Frank Lawrence Carney was born April 26, 1938, in Wichita, one of seven children of Michael and Mary Frances Carney. His father worked in a meatpacking plant and later opened a corner grocery, where all the members of the family eventually worked. When his father died at 46, his mother took over the store.
Frank Carney attended Wichita University from 1956 to 1961, but his full-time job at Pizza Hut precluded him from finishing his degree. Citing a promise his mother had made to his father before he died, that all seven children would graduate from college, Carney returned in 1999 and received a bachelor’s degree in general studies in 2000. (The original Pizza Hut building was moved onto the campus in 1986 as a tribute to the company and the Carney brothers.)
Carney, a runner and an exercise buff, was married three times. In addition to his brother Dan, survivors include his wife, Janie Carney; eight children from his previous marriages; two more brothers; three sisters; and 11 grandchildren.
By 1993, the millions Frank Carney had made from Pizza Hut were lost to his failed ventures. “I never thought it would turn out as disastrous as it did,” he said in a 2002 interview with Pizza Marketplace, an industry news website. “It’s very stressful when you find out that you’re not as smart as you thought you were.”
He sought a position at Pizza Hut but was unhappy with the offer he received. Instead, in 1994 he became a franchise owner of Papa John’s, a major competitor to Pizza Hut. His embrace of a rival displeased his brother — but, as Dan Carney said, he “did what he wanted.”
In 1997, Frank Carney starred in a television commercial for Papa John’s. Speaking to a group of actors portraying Pizza Hut franchisees at a convention, he said, “Sorry, guys; I found a better pizza.” The ad triggered a long-term feud and lawsuits between the chains, website Mental Floss wrote in 2015.
By 2001, Carney had grown his Papa John’s franchise operation to 133 locations around the U.S., including several in Wichita.
“I’m just a regular guy who worked smart and made some L.U.C.K. — L.U.C.K. means Laboring Under Correct Knowledge,” Frank Carney once said, according to the website Franchisopedia.com. “When you work hard and smart, you get lucky. To build a successful, growing business, you need all the luck you can get.”