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Pizza Hut Co-Founder Frank Carney Remembered For Entrepreneurial Spirit

Frank Carney, right, and his brother, Dan, stand outside the first Pizza Hut restaurant. Frank died Dec. 2 at the age of 82.

When Wichita University students Frank and Dan Carney opened their first Pizza Hut, they had simple ambitions.

"In 1958, we started it to pay our way through college," Frank Carney said in an interview from the 1970s, after the company had grown into the largest pizza restaurant chain in the world.

Frank Carney, a legendary Wichita entrepreneur, died Wednesday. He was 82.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said Carney was "one of Kansas' most notable entrepreneurs," and Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Pete Meitzner called him "a fantastic person" whose company "created incredible value for our community and worldwide."

Pizza Hut was a source of local pride for Wichitans for decades, even after it was acquired by PepsiCo in 1977. It was mentioned along with other venerable Wichita business brands as Beech, Cessna, Coleman, Learjet and Koch.

Credit Courtesy Dan Carney
Frank Carney, right, and his brother, Dan, founded Pizza Hut in 1958 when they were students at what was then the University of Wichita.

The Carney brothers borrowed $600 from their mother to open their first restaurant in 1958 at Kellogg and Bluff. They named it "Pizza Hut" because the sign on the building only had room for eight letters. The original restaurant is now a museum on the Wichita State University campus, filled with personal memorabilia from the Carneys.

Bill Kentling, then a college student, worked alongside Carney in the original Pizza Hut in 1959. He later worked with him in the company’s towering corporate headquarters in east Wichita.

When Carney and a group of investors bought the Wichita Wings indoor soccer team, Kentling became the team’s general manager.

He said part of Pizza Hut’s success was that the Carney brothers were always looking ahead.

"Frank and Dan Carney always knew the next logical step," Kentling said. "Whether that was a new product, a decision to put in a salad bar or to have different kinds of crusts, they always knew the next logical step.

"I've never known Frank Carney to not do the right thing."

Credit Courtesy
Frank, left, and Dan Carney

The Carney brothers began franchising the restaurant a year after it opened, initially to friends and acquaintances. By 1971, it was the largest pizza chain in the world and dominated the industry for decades.

Today, Pizza Hut has more than 19,000 restaurants in 100 countries, though Domino’s has surpassed it in terms of revenue.

Carney later became an owner in some Papa John’s pizza franchises.

Kentling said Carney’s legacy will include "helping make Wichita famous, whether that was with Pizza Hut or the Wichita Wings or his devotion to Wichita State University."

"This is a guy who never moved to Boston or LA or Chicago. He lived out his life in Wichita, Kansas."

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.