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Pizza Hut closing marks end of era in Batesville

The Batesville Pizza Hut was built in 1978 and was one of the few restaurants on Hwy. 6 between Clarksdale and Tupelo when constructed. The building has been remodeled several times since its opening and is now surrounded by bustling businesses of all types. (File Photos)

Batesville’s Pizza Hut restaurant closed abruptly last week, apparently part of about 300 stores nationally that will be closed by the end of the month.  A major franchisee of Pizza Hut restaurants filed bankruptcy recently and part of the restructuring agreement included closing low performing stores and putting another 1,000 stores up for sale.

The Batesville store was built in 1978 by a partnership of businessmen that included Bob Dunlap, Henry Heafner, and Dr. Whitaker. The property eventually became Dr. Whitaker’s solely and was later owned by his children.

The Whitaker family sold the property to an out-of-state investor about a year ago when Dr. Whitaker’s widow passed away.

Pizza Hut was the first national franchise to open a store on what was then a lonely stretch of Hwy. 6. It was an attraction and dining destination for Panola Countians, and a welcome sight for travelers across North Mississippi.

Panola Partnership’s Joe Azar said his office will help market the location for other national brands if asked, and predicted the prime location would not be empty long. “I think the pandemic was a major blow for some places that couldn’t adapt, and unfortunately Batesville was one of the locations that was chosen for closure,” he said.

Azar said he regrets all business closings in Batesville, but has a personal connection to the Pizza Hut.

“It hadn’t been open long when I was in college at Ole Miss and whenever we went home to the Delta we always, and I mean always, stopped to carry PIzza Hut pizzas back with us,” Azar said.

“Batesville was a great place even back then and I’m amazed somehow just how busy and thriving the highway area is when I think back to those college days and stopping at the Pizza Hut when there wasn’t anything else around it. Now there are businesses wanting to expand to Batesville and Panola County all the time,” he said.

Several generations of Batesville area residents made family trips to eat at one of America’s most recognizable restaurants, and hundreds (maybe more)  of children had their birthday parties at the Pizza Hut.

PIzza Hut was often the destination for winning ball teams, teenagers’ dates, and more than a few business lunches in Batesville, especially before the city had the dozens of choices of eateries now available.

Pizza Hut was slow, nationally, to realize the future of their industry would include fewer and fewer dine-in customers, and was a follower in the pick-up and delivery options emphasized by their competitors. News articles indicate the brand has made more delivery focus and has already seen positive results in many of its stores across the country.

Pizza Hut was founded in June 1958 by two Wichita State University students, brothers Dan and Frank Carney, as a single location in Wichita, Kansas. Six months later they opened a second outlet and within a year they had six Pizza Hut restaurants. The brothers began franchising in 1959.

Batesville currently has two business projects on Hwy. 6 west of I-55. Dodge’s Store has begun dirt preparation work and made several permit applications with the city. Construction was put on hold earlier this year when the pandemic began, but that store will soon be open. It will include a full convenience store and the store’s regionally-famous fried chicken and sides.

At the corner of Keating Rd. and Hwy. 6, city officials are continuing to work with corporate owners of Jack’s restaurants who have shown considerable interest in opening a Batesville location. Property owners and developers are still in the early stages of that project, but officials are hopeful an announcement of agreement will be made soon and another store built here.