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Pizzendämmerung
July 8, 2014 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Monaghan and Ilitch barely know each other. The Domino’s founder says in an interview he can’t recall ever tasting a Little Caesars pizza, “though I must have a long time ago.” A sculpture hanging in the archives at Little Caesars’ headquarters makes fun of a Domino’s slice as having “hard, tasteless crust, topped with artificial, flat, and runny cheese.” It’s a fluke that the chains emerged from the same corner of Michigan at roughly the same time more than 50 years ago. Yet, in different ways, Domino’s and Little Caesars changed the way Americans eat pizza, helping to make it one of the country’s most popular foods. The pizza barons were great at selling pies. Now one wants to save Detroit, and the other wants to save everything else.

Tom Monaghan founded Ave Maria University, and the town of Ave Maria, FL. Previously and previouslier

Mike Ilitch, Detroit's delivery man and dealer of sweet stadium deals.
posted by the man of twists and turns (36 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Gyrene ( Is that like gangrene?) Burgers? Military outfits? Salutes upon delivery?

The article about detroit is probably way less depressing.
posted by sio42 at 7:51 PM on July 8


The article about detroit is probably way less depressing.
posted by sio42 at 11:51 AM on July 9


That's one hell of a sentence right there, but you're kind of right. The main article about the two pizza magnates of Detroit is actually pretty interesting — despite having worked at one for half a decade through high school and college, Domino's basically gets no loyalty overall from me (with the exception, of course, of the one I worked at, but that's because it's still owned by the same franchisee). For my money, on the rare occasion I'm near one, Little Caesar's makes the better pizza, and I will basically choose them over Domino's 100% of the time. It doesn't hurt that their owner hasn't kind of gone off the deep end with Onward Christian Soldiers whatnot down in it-seems-obvious-in-retrospect Florida.

It's always great to read stories of people trying to revive Detroit, though, because, man, that city has been through a LOT. Someone like Ilitch may even have the means to accomplish something.
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:00 PM on July 8 [5 favorites]


They both make awful pizza. Though dominos has improved a bit recently.
posted by empath at 8:00 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


Little Caesar's's deep-dish pizza is surprisingly good for something from a chain. They absolutely nailed it with making it two smaller pizzas so you get more edge pieces, because, c'mon, those are the best. Just in general.
posted by DoctorFedora at 8:01 PM on July 8


I just finished the one about illitch, interesting cat. And yeah, waaaaay less depressing than religious law schools and military-theme burgers.

Go Detroit!
posted by sio42 at 8:02 PM on July 8


Businessweek's mobile redirect seems broken. Does this link work for other people?
posted by zamboni at 8:02 PM on July 8


Both Dominos and Little Ceasears suck, as does Pizza Hut. If you must patronize a chain, Papa John's is OK, but it's not as good as even mediocre pizzeria pizza.
posted by jonmc at 8:03 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


Little Caesars tastes like what it costs, which is fucking great when you need to feed your teenager and his 3 friends.
posted by Brocktoon at 8:13 PM on July 8 [12 favorites]


I think the article doesn't focus enough on what really made both chains successful: technology.

Not the car or online ordering, but conveyor-belt "impingement ovens". They're basically little blast furnaces for pizzas, using gas (usually) to superheat air and then blow it forcefully onto the item being baked as it rolls through the cooking area.

That's how Little Caesars can turn out $5 Hot-n-Readys and Dominos' can make a pizza quickly enough to get it to your house in "30 minutes or less". They both ruthlessly Taylorized the pizza production process to eliminate labor inputs. The comparison to Ray Kroc is very apt.

Both chains jumped on that particular belt-fed bandwagon, while others (Papa Ginos, which was big in the Northeast but has waned in recent decades, and whose big rotating-shelf ovens I clearly remember, comes to mind), unfortunately didn't. And although I think Pizza Hut has switched now, they took their sweet time about it as well, providing the national-scale opening that both chains were able to exploit.

That they both took their fortunes in very different directions is interesting, but not necessarily linked to their original success. Like Bill Gates, it looks suspiciously like both of them just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and were able to run with a particular piece of equipment at a time when the market was eager for it. I'm sure a lot of people, particularly fans of Monaghan's fundie-ism, will try to link his success to his beliefs, but I don't think it follows any more directly than the beliefs of someone who won the lottery. The odds of striking it rich were probably about the same.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:14 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


On the whole, Mike Ilitch hasn't done a thing for downtown Detroit but suck up more public money for his parking lot empire. They promise the public money for the arena will bring mixed use development, but that's the exact same thing they said 12 years ago when they wanted public financing for Comerica Park.

Little Caesars just ripped off Jets for their "8 corner pizza" idea -- theirs is a couple bucks cheaper, but not as good. In any case, the best Detroit-area pizza is Buddy's, hands down.
posted by wikipedia brown boy detective at 8:25 PM on July 8 [5 favorites]


"Yet, in different ways, Domino’s and Little Caesars marijuana changed the way Americans eat pizza, helping to make it one of the country’s most popular foods."
posted by vapidave at 8:25 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]


The Domino's Pizza which served my little town while in college was Monaghan's original store... I have fond memories of that era...and, yet, I view Monaghan as an evil, evil, person...

I would eat Little Caesar's, but it truly, truly sucks...
posted by HuronBob at 9:14 PM on July 8


Wikipedia Brown, I am jealous of your username and you are also correct. I get Buddy's every time I go home--the 7 mile and Mack location even has gluten-free crust (and it's freaking amazing).
posted by Tesseractive at 9:30 PM on July 8


In any case, the best Detroit-area pizza is Buddy's, hands down.

Ooooh. I have Buddy's fairly often when I'm up that way. Has no business being so good, and so far away from my house. An hour isn't so far to go for pizza, right? (Though, I do have a great local joint that I love, so.)

I worked for a Domino's franchise for a while in college, and had a pretty good time. Management drew some...interesting...characters, though, and as the phone bank supervisor, I was tasked with investigating excessive lates. It was A Thing for certain drivers to claim they were late and had to give the customer $3 off. If you crossed a certain number in a night, it triggered an audit, where I had to come in several hours before open and call back all the lates with the bullshit line of a survey.

We fired at least one driver a week for that shit.
posted by MissySedai at 9:41 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


A sculpture hanging in the archives at Little Caesars’ headquarters makes fun of a Domino’s slice as having “hard, tasteless crust, topped with artificial, flat, and runny cheese.”

Anyone having any luck finding a picture of this? I'm suddenly obsessed with seeing it, and the internet doesn't appear to have any information on it that didn't come from this article.
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:01 PM on July 8


Wait...isn't one of these pizza baron people an absolutely hideous human being, who threw a huge hissy-fit from his 30-jillion-square-foot mansion about obamacare and how he was going to have to fire everyone because of it? Hobby Lobby levels of awful.

Ah, it's the Domino's guy. Fuck him and fuck his pizza.
posted by maxwelton at 10:07 PM on July 8


Wait...isn't one of these pizza baron people an absolutely hideous human being, who threw a huge hissy-fit from his 30-jillion-square-foot mansion about obamacare and how he was going to have to fire everyone because of it? Hobby Lobby levels of awful.

Ah, it's the Domino's guy. Fuck him and fuck his pizza.


Monaghan had an issue with the mandated birth control coverage provisions. You might be thinking of Papa John's.
posted by gyc at 10:19 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


My Detroit! Facts! may be misremembered and incomplete, but it was my impression that the Ilitchs were shitty negligent landlords to a lot of buildings in downtown Detroit. Maybe that was their ninja move to Bring Detroit Back with a bunch of ruin porn tourists?

I mean, Jesus, it doesn't take much to look less shitty As A Rich Person compared to Monahan. It's an awfully low bar.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:19 PM on July 8


Or I can't read. Never mind.
posted by gyc at 10:20 PM on July 8


Yeah, the Obamacare remarks were definitely "Papa" John Schnatter.
posted by Austenite at 10:21 PM on July 8


(That article reminded me that Herman Cain made his fortune through Godfather's pizza, as well. What is it with pizza...?)
posted by Austenite at 10:24 PM on July 8


[A couple of comments deleted, and a couple of notes: Let's go ahead and skip mass insulting anyone who's eaten pizza from these places, and also making Nazi references and/or broadbrush insults about a whole state. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 12:36 AM on July 9


jonmc: "Both Dominos and Little Ceasears suck, as does Pizza Hut. If you must patronize a chain, Papa John's is OK, but it's not as good as even mediocre pizzeria pizza."

Sure, they're both kind of terrible, but you know what? When I was unemployed for a few years, Little Caesar's - a $5 large with pepperoni, "poverty pizza" we always called it - was one of the best things about my Friday nights. I'd always see families in there, and I could tell they liked it, too, being able to actually give the kids something nice for about the price of a regular meal anyway. It's weird, I know, and it's just corporate America, blah blah blah - but I think that kind of little thing actually makes a difference in people's lives. Seriously, a whole fresh-ish pizza was never that cheap, at least in living memory and inflation-wise, and Little Caesar's prices have driven everybody else's down.

Also, DoctorFedora is right - their deep-dish is similarly cheap and crazy good for the price.

Of course, now that I can afford Domino's or Papa John's I would never eat at either in a million years. There are far better local places.
posted by koeselitz at 1:00 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


They both ruthlessly Taylorized the pizza production process to eliminate labor inputs. The comparison to Ray Kroc is very apt.

That's funny you mentioned the conveyor impinger, I do work for both Marshall Air (maker of those ovens) and Taylor, who sells a shitload of equipment to McD's. can you elaborate on "Taylorizing"? Just curious.

And if you all remember that recent thread on the Blue about the in-store table touch screens for ordering food, Marshall Air is trying to bring conveyor cooking to the TGI Fridays and Chili's of the world as well.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:13 AM on July 9


It's a reference to Frederick W. Taylor, author of *The Principles of Scientific Management* (1911) and the reason behind why everything sucks now. Short version: assembly line.
posted by spitbull at 4:11 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


> I'm sure a lot of people, particularly fans of Monaghan's fundie-ism, will try to link his success to his beliefs, but I don't think it follows any more directly than the beliefs of someone who won the lottery.

Monaghan's success preceded his faith. He was worth a few hundred million dollars and had embarked on a campaign to build all of Frank Lloyd Wright's unrealized designs before changing his passion (and spending) to conservative Catholicism.

I've been to Domino's HQ a couple times. It's a complex of massive two-story buildings just outside of Ann Arbor city limits, where the property taxes were cheaper. Much of the office space is leased out to small businesses and charities. I remember walking through one of the buildings, past a chapel here, an oil painting of a priest there...

And, yeah, it's kind of weird to hear Illich portrayed as trying to save Detroit when my first recollection is the hundreds of millions his businesses have been able to collect in long-term loans from the city for sports arenas and entertainment complexes, helped by tax exemptions, so that some of the busiest retail operations within city limits don't earn Detroit a thing. Illich is worth over a billion dollars and has the city paying him to glom the remaining prime real estate. Dude has good PR.
posted by ardgedee at 5:04 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


For good cheap pizza, it's Papa Murphy's for us. Especially the $5 Fave.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 AM on July 9


> It's a reference to Frederick W. Taylor, author of *The Principles of Scientific Management* (1911) and the reason behind why everything sucks now. Short version: assembly line.

A little misleading to say that, because he didn't invent the assembly line. It predates him. He wrote up how to apply the scientific process (observe, hypothesize, test, implement) to production processes to reduce inefficiency. He helped make assembly lines move faster. The intention was, in part, to allow people to get an entire quota done in less time so that people could work less. So on the one hand it exacerbated the soul-crushing monotony of work (which is what happens when you only optimize for throughput), but on the other it helped contribute to the rise of the 40 hour work week. Even if that's more an ideal than a reality these days.
posted by ardgedee at 5:18 AM on July 9


In college, you always knew when it was customer appreciation day at Little Caesar's, you'd see other kids in the dorm rushing in with armfuls of pizza boxes. We'd see that, then jump in whatever car someone had. That one day of the year, medium pepperoni pizzas were something like a buck fifty each, and it's basically all we'd eat until we ran out.

Lousy pizza, but not actively evil. These days, that's about as good as we can hope for, it seems.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:36 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Thorzdad: “For good cheap pizza, it's Papa Murphy's for us. Especially the $5 Fave.”

Is good cheap pizza really good cheap pizza if they refuse to cook it for you?
posted by koeselitz at 6:47 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I was surprised to learn both chains were from Michigan. Do either share any pizza heritage with Detroit style pizza, the square deep dish variant? The product they sell now is vile and disgusting, a factory food (IMHO). But they had to have started somewhere, did they originate in the local pizza tradition?
posted by Nelson at 7:22 AM on July 9


I was surprised to learn both chains were from Michigan.

Not only are both from Michigan, an Ilitch is one of the Regents of the University of Michigan, while the University of Michigan Health System offers numerous outpatient services from Domino's Farms. The latter factoid has numerous higher-ups at the University up in arms because the facility is owned by Monaghan and his views on women's health issues are somewhat incompatible with, well, women's health. There have been calls internally (and probably externally too) for the University to terminate its lease.

Pizza is a cold business in Ann Arbor.
posted by tempestuoso at 9:30 AM on July 9


can you elaborate on "Taylorizing"? Just curious.

By "Taylorizing" I meant this Taylor, and the associated early "scientific management" / mass production philosophy, not the restaurant equipment people. Should have been more clear.

If you watch someone at Dominos put together a pizza it's clear that they've optimized the hell out of the pizza-assembly process, down to the location of the bins of toppings, customized utensils (the "spoodle"), and guidelines on exactly how much cheese to put on and how to do it. And on the other end of the oven, they have neat one-movement cutters, and boxes which don't need to be pre-made; you can slap the pizza down on the box while it's still flat and then the box is made in a single movement as you close it: as anyone who has worked in a pizza shop and "made boxes" until their fingers bled can tell you, that's pretty damn slick.

Training video of the process at Dominos HQ.
Similar video for Little Ceasars (note the sauce machine, and also ring mold to keep cheese off of the pan)

It's kind of surprising that it took someone that long to apply what's basically early 20th-century "scientific management" to a restaurant kitchen; or, rather, that kitchens resisted it for so long, even at major chains like Pizza Hut.

But I don't think it's totally accidental that so many of the dominant nationwide pizza chains came from the upper Midwest. They basically turned an industrial process-improvement eye on an industry that had ridiculously fat margins (the COGS of pizza is like ... a dollar or two, maybe) but was being run inefficiently.

And although I can accept that many people might not like national-chain pizza for culinary or aesthetic reasons, they probably did more to make pizza a staple food than anyone else before or since. The article says that Little Caesar's pizzas, which I assume were competitively priced (it was started in a college town), sold for almost $20 in today's dollars when the restaurant opened; now they're $5. That's consistent with my own experience of having pizza change, in my lifetime, from a sort of quasi-"ethnic" speciality food that you only got once in a while, to a sort of default that you might get when you're hungry and can't decide on anything else.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:34 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


They are both not very nice people.
posted by Kokopuff at 9:51 AM on July 9


> Do either share any pizza heritage with Detroit style pizza, the square deep dish variant?

I lived in southeast Michigan for well over a decade, time enough for eating many, many pizzas. And I never heard the phrase "Detroit style pizza" until three years ago and after I moved to North Carolina.

What people here call "Detroit style" is probably closest to Cottage Inn's deep dish pizza, which is basically ridiculously thick pizza dough. And it's not particularly good. But at least Cottage Inn cooks their pizzas properly. The stuff labeled "Detroit style" that I've had elsewhere is so badly undercooked that the dough sags through my fingers. Not awesome.
posted by ardgedee at 10:56 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


But at least Cottage Inn cooks their pizzas properly. The stuff labeled "Detroit style" that I've had elsewhere is so badly undercooked that the dough sags through my fingers. Not awesome.


When I was at the University of Michigan I was consistently disappointed with the Hill St. Cottage Inn's habit of undercooking its pizza dough. So YMMV.
posted by gyc at 12:10 PM on July 9


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