Achieving Pizza Mind Through Books

Compiled by John Dreyfuss.

More than 7 million kids in grades 1 through 6 are reading more books and eating more pizza because Michael Gunther has a reading problem.

Gunther worked hard in school, but never got good grades. It wasn’t until he was 18 that he discovered the problem: he couldn’t read as well as his schoolmates.

Today Gunther, in his mid-20s, is a successful management trainee.

And Gunther’s father, Art, spurred by the firsthand knowledge that “if you can’t read you can’t learn,” and “truly motivated by my son and my love for him,” has launched a multimillion dollar reading incentive program called “Book It!”


While the program does not pretend to solve basic reading problems, it has met with remarkable success in encouraging youngsters to read more books.

Power of Pizza

Art Gunther is president of Pizza Hut Inc. He put the power of 4,421 restaurants and their parent company, Pepsico, behind the reading program.

“The ‘Book It!’ program,” Art Gunther said, “is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life, and I am convinced it is the most important thing I have ever done in my working life.”

Gunther’s program is simple. Give teachers wall charts where kids keep track of books they’ve read, and when students reach a goal set by their teachers, they get certificates for free pizza at Pizza Hut. If all the students in a class achieve their goals for four out of five months, Pizza Hut hosts a party for the entire class.

Like many simple plans, this one was hard to realize. Beginning last January, Gunther met several times with Secretary of Education William Bennett, representatives of President Reagan’s Task Force on Private Sector Initiative, and teachers’ and school administrators’ groups. With input from the educators, Gunther and his associate Sharon Knight designed a program.

Eleven Months Later

Today, 11 months after Gunther went to Washington, 7 million students in 233,080 classrooms across the nation are taking advantage of the program. By June of 1986 Gunther says he expects “Book It!” to include 15 million of the United States’ 23 million grade school children, and the following June he plans on 18 million participants.

“The results have been spectacular,” Gunther said. “Three-fourths of the students in the program went beyond their regular reading level, two-thirds of the classes had 100% successful participation, and 97% of the teachers say they want to continue with ‘Book It!’ ”


Gunther says the program has already cost Pizza Hut Inc. $2.7 million just for the printed material. The corporation and its franchisees (about half the restaurants are franchised) expect to give away about $50 million worth of pizza before this school year is out. But, because the free pizzas qualify for tax write-offs, and because kids tend to buy drinks and other food when they get their free pizza, Gunther figures the total out-of-pocket expense for pizza this year will be in the neighborhood of $10 million.

Whizzzzing By for Safey

Larry Nemkov, a 33-year-old entrepreneur who once sold 30,000 jars of American pistachio nuts to Saudi Arabia, is taking his first plunge into the import market with a bicyclers’ safety device he has dubbed The Whizzzz.

The gadget, a whirling red reflector on a 15-inch plastic stick, attaches to the rear fork or book rack of a bicycle on the left side and, Nemkov said, keeps motorists at bay. When not in use, it folds flat against the bike.

The Whizzzz (Nemkov said he chose the name because of his fondness for onomatopoeia--”It does make a whizzing sound as it spins.”) was developed in Finland, where 500,000 units were distributed by the Red Cross.

The Finnish manufacturer, has given Nemkov’s company, North American International, exclusive U.S. rights.

A neighbor picked one up during a trip to Scandinavia but, Nemkov recalled, “I didn’t know what it was when I first saw it.” He added, “I hate to admit it, but I don’t even own a bicycle.” Since, he has made himself bike-savvy, able to instantly reel off National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics: 91,000 car/bicycle accidents in the United States, including 839 deaths, in 1983.


As of now, The Whizzzz is available only by mail order ($6.95 plus $2.50 for shipping and tax) from North American International, 2960 Nielson Way, Suite 304T, Santa Monica 90405.