Ghosts of Fast Food Past

The awkward second life of restaurant chain buildings

Growing up, I was consistently enamored with the kind of brainteasers that pull one’s mind in two directions simultaneously — like reading the word ‘green’ written in blue ink. I loved the instinct-versus-evidence tug-o-war of those mental challenges and I still recognize the feeling now, when I find myself confronted with contradictory visual cues.

Lately I’ve been seeking out these puzzles in architectural form throughout New Orleans, where I live, and where numerous new, often independent businesses are popping up inside the shells of old fast food chains. Each time I enter a car rental office, a new Chinese restaurant, or a pharmacy that used to be a fast food restaurant, I find myself unable to shake its familiar ambiance no matter how different the new business may be. Just like I struggled to say ‘yellow’ when a word was written in orange, I stand inside a Taco Bell-turned-Enterprise longing to order a crunch wrap supreme instead of negotiate the price of my economy sedan. It’s cognitive dissonance at its finest.

This deeply rooted attachment to the form and function of fast food chains is, of course, no accident. These companies were early adopters of architectural branding — the process of creating easily recognizable, distinctive buildings that reflect a brand’s “personality” and attract customers through a variety of spatial and lighting techniques. The brick and mortar stylings of drive-thru restaurants — from the golden arches on McDonald’s to the chuckwagon shape of the first Roy Roger’s — are seared not only into our personal memories, but the collective public consciousness.

Original McDonald’s architecture.

Architect Elizabeth Danze and psychologist Dr. Stephen Sonnenberg explored this marrow-level connection between architecture and memory in their book, Space & Psyche. “Buildings are inert objects, but our experience of them transcends the physical realm and extends into our deepest consciousness,” Danze and Sonnenberg write in the book’s introduction. “Psychoanalysis is concerned with many things, among them, the means by which places enter our psyches and become a part of who we are.”

Fast food buildings are also deeply engrained in our national identity, cutting across the lines of class, race and gender and providing a rare commonality and cultural touchstone. Whether in Topeka or Tampa, the A-frame shape of an IHOP and the trapezoidal windows of a Pizza Hut are similarly recognizable and — for many — comforting.

For most chains, a great deal of thought and tinkering went into designing the building’s structural aesthetic. Taco Bell’s original “Mission-style” frame work was conceived by Taco Bell founder Glen Bell and architect Robert McKay, who sought to create “an inviting, central stone fire-pit housed by adobe-like tan brick exterior walls, a red clay-tile roof and a brown back drop, in front of a simple, Mission-style bell.”

The signature white, castle-shaped buildings that house the aptly-named White Castle chain were an attempt to convey the purity and stateliness of hamburger meat in a 1920s world skittish about ground beef post-Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The nautical touches at Long John Silver’s — including coils of stout rope by the entrance and a steeple-topped, Cape Code-shaped roof — showed as much as told that it was a spot for a quick fried fish fix.

Former Long John Silver’s.

It’s no wonder, then, when new businesses unfold their wings within the walls of old fast food joints, people can’t un-see the cocoon.

The refurbishing and reuse of fast food restaurants is downright impossible to miss while driving around the pothole-filled streets of New Orleans. Fast food chains have been slow to return to Orleans Parish in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, leaving empty buildings ripe for the taking by inventive small business owners. A former Taco Bell is now the city’s premiere Korean restaurant, serving heat-packed kimchi to the masses and covering up the restaurant’s drive-thru window with a piece of plywood. A former Subway has seen several iterations (including an office for a bail bondsman) before becoming a combination pharmacy-meets-healthy-lunch-spot.

Best Life Pharmacy, former Subway. Photo: Rush Jagoe/Re:form

My favorite, though, is an only-in-Louisiana occurrence: a Burger King converted into a daiquiri shop. Known affectionately as “BK Daqs” among fans, the former Whopper outpost in nearby Luling, Louisiana is a late night spot for slurping a sugary, boozy concoction while playing video poker in familiarly flame-broiled environs. A Louisiana bonus? The drive-thru is still able to sling daiquiris.

“There’s this guy we called ‘Triple D’ because he worked at Domino’s, would come to BK Daqs and then eat at Dot’s Diner every single day,” said Luling-native Meredith Juncker, who notes that the former Burger King was also once a collection agency.

Daiquiri shop, former Burger King. Photos: Rush Jagoe/Re:form

Whether bail bond office or daiquiri hub, there’s something almost noble about businesses that make the decision to inhabit former fast food spots, retaining — whether through necessity or by choice — the architectural ghosts of their new homes. These outposts take the concept of recycling and reuse to the next level: adopting what they can, adapting where they must and figuring out how to make a highly-specialized space work to suit their needs. If companies making notebooks out of recycled newspaper are lauded for their commitment to waste reduction and resourcefulness, second-act fast food businesses deserve a mighty round of applause for humble ingenuity.

Perhaps the most emblematic of these are those formerly-known-as Pizza Huts, with their distinctive trapezoidal shape and cocked-eyed, red-painted roofs. From the beginning, almost every element of Pizza Hut was a matter of structure shaping brand. “The name ‘Pizza Hut’ is derived from the shape of the original building,” writes Andrew Wasson in the magazine Dairy River. “It is told that their sign only had nine spaces. Determined to include “pizza” in the name, they only had room for three other letters. Beverly Carney, [co-founder] Dan’s wife, suggested that their building looked like a hut. The rest is history.”

The name fit, if just barely.

Original Pizza Hut. Photo: Wichita State University

The now legendary, standardized Pizza Hut structure was crafted specifically as a means of differentiating Pizza Hut from early 1960s pizza competitors. Upwards of 6,000 restaurants were constructed in this signature style over the course of 5 decades until the early 2000s, when Pizza Hut shifted away from dine-in restaurants and began the steady process of shuttering the old-guard spots.

When sit-down Pizza Huts began to taper off, their second acts quickly rose to the occasion. Oddball outposts of tanning salons, sex toy boutiques and even funeral homes (looking at you, Navasota, Texas) have all set up shop inside former Pizza Huts. A large majority of these have become Internet-famous on the blog Used to Be a Pizza Hut, created by Hut-hunter Mike Neilson in 2008.

“A Pizza Hut is really difficult to hide in a convincing way,” said Neilson. “You can take an old Taco Bell, and it takes some work, but maybe not as much work to hide it.”

Pizza Hut only recently returned to Orleans Parish in the almost decade-long window since Hurricane Katrina, and few relics of its former glory remain in the city today. One reworked Pizza Hut is now home to soul food epicenter Two Sistas ‘N Da East, which serves stewed rabbit and gravy on Pizza Hut trays in a largely unchanged, low-ceilinged dining room. (It’s not difficult to imagine a claw game still occupying the restaurant’s far corner.)

Two Sisters ‘N Da East, former Pizza Hut. Photo: Rush Jagoe/Re:form

In the New Orleans suburbs, the practice has even expanded into upscale dining. Oak Oven — a rustic-meets-red-gravy Italian joint operated by the grandson of Cosimo Matassa — has reformed and refined the shell of a once-abandoned Popeye’s into a destination locale for New Orleanians looking for veal parmesan. Despite the blooming containers of fresh herbs and oversized, black-and-white portraits lining the walls, it’s impossible not to recognize the restaurant’s form. In his rosy review of Oak Oven, even Times-Picayune restaurant critic Brett Anderson was unable to shake the obvious. “The owners have done an admirable job coaxing a casually classy date night place out of an old Popeye’s,” wrote Anderson. “It’s still an old Popeye’s.”

While there are still plenty of fine examples of inelegant fast-food conversion, the sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing effect of the classic restaurants may fade away in time with decreased architectural branding for national chains. The majority of fast food restaurants are embracing more compact, generic shapes and spaces. The adobe-like flair of Taco Bell has been replaced by a new glass and chrome concept; the Cape Cod fishmonger-influenced architecture of Long John Silver’s now shares a two-for-one fast food building with A&W Root Beer.

“There are a decreasing number of [fast food] places that have distinct architecture,” said Neilson, “most of it is drab, boxy looking space that can be easily converted into anything. One of the elements that’ll stand out with Pizza Hut is that there are so many of them, so I’m not sure we’ll ever see that architecture completely disappear from the landscape.”

Cover photo by Rush Jagoe/Re:form