What Was The First Pizza Chain In America?

Correction 11/4/2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Pizza Hut as the first pizza chain in America. 

What do Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, and Little Caesar's have in common? The answer is, of course, pizza. These are some of the most recognizable pizza chains in the United States, each offering different takes on pizza, whether deep-dish, stuffed, or made with a pretzel crust.

Of course, these pizza chains aren't the first to bring pizza to America. The earliest known time pizza was introduced to the United States was in 1905 (via What's Cooking, America?) when Gennaro Lombardi opened what is credited to be the first pizzeria in New York. Since then, pizza has become a recognizable staple of Italian-American cuisine, existing in different forms and styles across the nation. You may like the thick-crust, almost casserole-like Chicago-style pizza, or you may be a fan of the classic thin and chewy New York-style pizza. You may even be a fan of the style offered in what's been called the Pizza Capital of the World, located in Pennsylvania (via Visit NEPA).

While we love regional variations on pizza, you can't argue that the national pizza chains are wildly successful. Who out of all of these cheesy pie slingers was the first to discover just how lucrative the pizza market in the United States is?

Shakey's Pizza is the oldest pizza chain in America

While it is true that many mainstream pizza restaurants have been around for a long time, none of them are the oldest operating pizza chain in the United States. That honor goes to Shakey's Pizza, a pizza chain not from New York, Chicago, or any other stereotypical "pizza capitals," but instead from sun-soaked California.

According to Shakey's Pizza, Sherwood "Shakey" Johnson opened his first pizza restaurant at 57 and J Street in Sacramento, California all the way back in 1954. For context, Pizza Hut first opened in 1958, making Shakey's Pizza the oldest pizza restaurant by only four years. By the time 1956 rolled around, Shakey's Pizza Parlor and Ye Public House were already becoming so popular that a second Shakey's location opened in Portland, Oregon (via Pizza Hall of Fame), and by the late 1960s, the chain had already expanded to an impressive 300 restaurants. 

"But wait a moment," you may be thinking, "I've never heard of Shakey's Pizza before!" This is not because Shakey's Pizza went out of business or is too obscure to mention. It's because, according to Shakey's map of its current locations, most of its restaurants are located in and around California and parts of Washington State, making it more of a "West Coast" specialty in line with places like In-N-Out

Surprisingly, while Shakey's Pizza can't be found on the East Coast or the Midwest, it has a few locations based in the Philippines

How is Shakey's Pizza doing today?

Shakey's Pizza, during its first decades of operation, seemed to pride itself on being a fun, rollicking experience for the whole family — one that included plenty of pizza, beer, and even banjos.

According to Recollection Road, it wasn't uncommon to be serenaded by banjo and piano music while you ate, considering that Johnson was a fan of jazz music and employed live bands to play at most locations. Although thin-crust pizza was Shakey's specialty, customers could also order fried chicken, "Mojo" potatoes (which Food. describes as being battered and deep-fried potato coins), and a variety of beers. Family-friendly games were also popular at Shakey's locations, which added to the appeal of Shakey's being a place for families to gather and make good memories.

Today, Shakey's Pizza, which made our top 35 pizza chains of America list, has transitioned to meet modern-day demands. Charlie Phoenix, while revisiting Shakey's Pizza (via YouTube), showcases a modern-day interior with flat-screen TVs meant for watching sporting events on, replacing the classic live band. Games and prizes for kids, however, are still a part of the company, as one Facebook post shows an arcade section of the restaurant and a prize counter. The famous thin-crust pizza, Mojo potatoes, and fried chicken still remain popular and beloved items on the menu.

As if being the pioneer of pizza chains wasn't enough, Shakey's Pizza has also been honored by the American Banjo Museum for its heavy use of banjo music.