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Dough Dynasty: The rise of American pizza

Cartoon pizza carries a pan of pizza, saying "ciao italia"
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio

If you’ve been to Ypsilanti, Michigan, you may have walked past a relic of pizza history without even knowing it.

Domino’s are a dime-a-dozen these days. (By 2021, the company claimed to have 18,000 locations worldwide.) But before the international franchises, before “the Noid” of the 1980s, and Domino’s mea culpa of the aughts, there was an unassuming brick building on Cross street in Ypsilanti: the first ever Domino's storefront.

In fact, Michigan is home to four pizza chain businesses that land on the top 20 chart of profitable pizza companies. Domino’s is number one, Little Caesars number three, Hungry Howie’s number 12, and Jet’s number 14.

Many may bemoan the tastes of the humble chain pizza, but without them, pizza wouldn’t be what it is today. These companies helped transform pizza from a snack mostly enjoyed by Italian migrants to something ubiquitous.

Scott Wiener, columnist for Pizza Today Magazine and New York pizza tour leader, has built his entire career around pizza. And while the chains aren’t typically what he reaches for, he said that without them, he wouldn’t have a job.

“The chains are absolutely responsible for there being 70,000 pizzerias in the United States right now, and they're responsible for there being such a diverse style set of pizza in the United States and globally,” Wiener said.

How pizza came to the U.S.

The first pizza commercial license in the U.S. dates back to 1905 from a shop in New York City. But historian and author of Pizza: A Global History, Carol Helstosky said that Italian Americans and Italian migrants were eating pizza in the U.S. before then.

By the late nineteenth century, there were mass out-waves of Italian migrants, especially from Southern Italy where there was little economic opportunity.

“[W]hen they got to wherever they were going, whether that was New York or Buenos Aires, they tried to replicate the foods from home,” Helstosky explained.

Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio

But these foods, including pizza, most likely weren't eaten widely by people outside of the Italian diaspora. The U.S. has a long and sordid history of exclusion; a reality that was no different for the recent migrants hailing from Italy. Helstosky said that textual records reveal that people outside of the Italian diaspora often scrutinized Italian immigrants and their customs.

“There's commentary from social workers, from other authorities … that Italians ate a lot of fruits and vegetables,” Helstosky said. “They were known for growing these foods on any little scrap of land that they had … And they were also known for consuming, of course, wine and garlic. And these were greeted with much, I won't say disgust, but certainly suspicion.”

Popularizing pizza

If you Google how pizza became popular in the U.S., you may come across one story that suggests that U.S. soldiers brought back their taste for pizza after returning home from Southern Italy. Helstosky, though, doubted this origin myth.

“If we think about Italy circa 1943 to 1945, we know that the economy was devastated and had been devastated for some time even before the war. So I don't think American soldiers would be stationed in Naples thinking, ‘Wow, this is really great, filling, wonderful food,’ when in fact, most Neapolitans and most Italians throughout the Peninsula did not have enough food to eat.”

So while the exact reasons why pizza became so popular (aside from it being delicious) are hard to verify, we do know that during the 1950s, pizza began appearing in mass media. Newspaper articles started extolling the wonders of pizza to their audiences, and cookbooks provided recipes, albeit muted versions, to try at home.

Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio

“[T]he recipe would be: put a slice of American cheese and ketchup on an English muffin,” Wiener of Pizza Today Magazine said. “The smell of garlic and oregano today is just so accepted. But we have to remember that even in the late 1950s … they weren't accepted flavor combinations. They weren't accepted smells.”

How pizza became huge

Post war, the U.S. was changing fast. A network of highways, two-car family homes, and a shifting workforce set the stage for the fast food revolution to come.

As people kind of went back to peacetime living and thought about, you know, what they were going to do for their careers or their lives, we see sort of a growth of small businesses. And to set up a pizzeria was a pretty decent opportunity,” Helstosky said.

Opening a pizza shop had a low overhead, and was often a profitable option for aspiring business owners of all backgrounds, not just Italian immigrants. Pizza shops opened across the country, spreading from the coastal cities more dense with the Italian diaspora. More pizza shops meant more pizza eating opportunities for the masses. By the 1960s, while not ubiquitous, pizza was no longer obscure.

Here is where the pizza chain story truly begins.

Around the same time, three pizza businesses – Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Domino’s – opened their doors, and would go on to revolutionize the pizza business. Pizza Hut started as a sit-down restaurant by brothers in Wichita, Kansas in 1958, while the other two started in Michigan by two Southeast Michigan men, neither of them Italian, who saw an opportunity to profit off of the burgeoning pizza palate. Their businesses would bring pizza to the world.

Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars

Mike Ilitch was known as a “real Detroiter.” He grew up on the West Side and was raised by his parents, who immigrated from Macedonia. In many ways, Mike Ilitch’s story played upon a very well-worn trope of the American Dream. He was the son of immigrants, who worked hard and succeeded big.

Former Detroit Free Press reporter Bill McGraw said that Ilitch first got the idea for Little Caesars while working as a door-to-door salesman.

“[H]e saw families with three and four pretty young kids sitting around watching TV; mom’s in the kitchen struggling over dinner,” McGraw said. “He made the connection between pizza and making things easier for mom in the kitchen.”

© Tim Smith | Hometownlife.com
A peek inside Joseph McCauley's book shows this team photo of the Cooley Cardinals baseball team. In the front row (second from left) is Mike Ilitch. BHM book photograph Ilitch

Mike Ilitch and his wife Marian opened their first pizza shop in Garden City, Michigan in 1959. Originally they called it “Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat”.

Denise Ilitch, daughter of Mike and Marian Ilitch and former vice president of Little Caesars, grew up in the back of her parents’ restaurant, playing on bags of flour. She said her father loved Italian food and during his professional baseball playing days, spent his free time after out-of-state games exploring the restaurant scenes.

Mike and Marian Ilitch opened the first Little Caesars on May 8, 1959 in Garden City, Michigan.
Photo from Little Caesars
Mike and Marian Ilitch opened the first Little Caesars on May 8, 1959 in Garden City, Michigan.

People told him that the business would fail; that pizza was just a fad.

“I think (my parents) would both say that this surpassed their wildest dreams,” Denise Ilitch reflected. “I would guess they wanted a strong restaurant business … but I don't think they ever foresaw a national chain.”

Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino's

Meanwhile, just 18 miles west of Garden City, another entrepreneur was evolving his own pizzeria dream: Tom Monaghan, a young man hustling into adulthood.

Monaghan’s mother could not support him and his brother, so he spent much of his young life growing up in an orphanage. He developed an interest in Frank Lloyd Wright and in 1960, attended the University of Michigan with hopes of becoming an architect. But he couldn’t keep up with the finances. In a speech at the Ann Arbor Rotary Club in 1979, Monaghan said that “by the third week” of school he “still couldn't afford to buy the first textbook.”

One of the first Domino
Photo from Domino's
One of the first Domino's locations in Ypsilanti, Michigan on Cross street.

Around this time, Monaghan’s brother approached him with a business proposition that could potentially fund his education. There was a pizza shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan called Dominick’s that was up for sale.

Monaghan put college on hold, and went in on the business with his brother. His brother quickly lost appetite for the pizza business, and Tom would later change its name to Domino’s, going on to help build the largest pizza chain in the world.

It’s likely that the founders of these chains had no idea of the dough dynasty they would create. They didn’t know about the pizza explosion, pizza trackers, and pizza apps to come. But their legacy is imprinted on every slice of cheap and consistent pizza we eat. They set the model for every pizza chain to come, and brought pizza from the Midwest to the rest of the world.

This is the first episode of Dough Dynasty. Subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts.

Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.