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Dough Dynasty: The secret sauce of a pizza chain

A cartoon slice of pizza is dressed like the Monopoly man while standing in front of a Monopoly board.
Emma Winowiecki
Michigan Radio


The 1960's and 70's saw an era of post-war pizza proliferation. By 1965, both Little Caesars and Domino’s — two pizza chain giants from Michigan — had opened their doors, and were experimenting with expansion.

Little Caesars founders Mike and Marian Ilitch had the kind of partnership that allowed their business to grow and thrive. Where Mike was bold in testing new ideas, his wife Marian was mindful of the financial details.

“My father was very marketing-oriented,” Denise Ilitch, Mike and Marian’s daughter, said. “He was a genius at marketing and creativity, and my mother was extremely financially astute. And so together, they made a wonderful combination.

After opening up the first Little Caesars in Garden City, the couple focused on expanding their business in Metro Detroit. Little Caesars quickly became known for offering fast, take-out pizza and 15-minute service.

A newspaper ad for Domino's Pizza from 1976 includes two coupons. One is for a discount on any pizza, and the other offers two free Pepsis. Along the top of the ad, "Super Special" is printed in bold, capital letters. Below it, "Fast, free delivery!"
Courtesy of The Michigan Daily
A Domino's ad in a 1976 issue of The Michigan Daily markets "fast, free delivery" to University of Michigan students.

Meanwhile, in Washtenaw County, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan and his brother opened up three pizza shops, with a different niche in mind: quick and easy delivery.

“(The Monaghan brothers) knew students didn't have a lot of money and wanted quick, cheap food,” Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, said. “And if you think about it, that goes back to the origins of pizza in Naples as being quick, cheap, filling food, you know, food for the poor, food for the workers. ”

Both businesses soon found themselves in a brewing contest of expanding pizza places in a small geographic area. Throughout this era, both Ilitch and Monaghan developed ways to streamline pizza production.

Innovation #1: Supply chain systems

As each business continued to grow, their brands and products had to stay consistent across locations. Mike Ilitch’s strategy was to take control of the supply chain.

In the early days of the business, Denise Ilitch recalled, Little Caesars mushrooms came canned from China.

“And Dad did not want that, but no one was doing fresh mushrooms because that was a lot more expensive,” Denise said. “And so what he decided to do as a young entrepreneur is start a mushroom farm.”

Little Caesars Mushroom Farm eventually grew into a full-service supply company called Blue Line Foodservice Distribution. The company is still around — still in Michigan, based in Farmington, and still owned by Ilitch Holdings. But now, they supply food and packaging to companies all around the world, Little Caesars being just one of them.

Tom Monaghan took the supply chain strategy just one step further, developing a central commissary system that did all the food prep work and sent ingredients out to storefronts. The commissary that supplied those first three locations has since evolved into a massive operation that serves Domino’s franchisees all around the country.

“So how it works is the supply chain center driver comes into the store after the store has closed or before it opens, takes out all of the old inventory, refreshes with new inventory, locks up the store, and leaves, so that when the manager comes in, they're stocked and ready to go,” Jenny Fouracre, current senior director of communications at Domino’s, said.

Three white dough balls sit on a bright blue conveyor belt, presumably headed toward the next step in the food prep process before being packaged and shipped off to a Domino's storefront.
Courtesy of Domino's
Dough balls roll along the production line at a Domino's supply chain center.

And coordinating the modern commissary system isn’t as easy as some might think, said Dave Brandon, executive chairman and former CEO of Domino’s.

“Dough is a living, breathing product, right?” Brandon said. “It's driven by yeast, which is incredibly sensitive to time and temperature.

So why would the company go through all the trouble? According to Brandon, Monaghan was “just obsessive” about creating a store format that was as efficient as possible for his growing business.

“And as these concepts grow and spread geographically... you can imagine a world where they read that mushrooms are on sale at Kroger... or they find a cheaper cheese," Brandon said. “Pretty soon you start to lose what is truly the definition of a brand, and that is the promise of consistency. So I think the genesis of the whole supply chain was really a function of quality control and consistency.”

Innovation #2: The conveyor belt oven

Rising demand called for faster production, and faster production called for a new and improved oven.

Keith Heim’s company, Big Guy Service and Repair, has been fixing the ovens of various pizza chain franchisees all across the state for the past 12 years. He knows all the ins and out of what is perhaps the most critical tool in any pizza kitchen. According to Heim, the conveyor belt oven, which is what you’ll find in most pizza chain kitchens today, changed the game.

A bright red conveyor belt oven in a Domino's store. The machine looks as if there are two ovens stacked on top of each other. A pizza could be baked on either the upper or lower conveyor belt.
Ronia Cabansag
A bright red conveyor belt oven in a Domino's store.

“(The conveyor belt oven) is so much less labor-intensive,” he said. “You don’t have to stand there and hover (around) the oven. I mean, I did the same thing when I was 14. I made pizzas in a hot room, a hot oven, constantly spinning them and maintaining. If you walk away — 'ope, that’s burnt!"

Some claim that Mike Ilitch is the inventor of the conveyor belt oven. Denise Ilitch noted that her father “was a pioneer in creating a conveyor oven,” but not necessarily the original inventor.

Mike Ilitch actually does have two U.S. patents to his name, but each is for a different model of a carryout food tray. Little Caesar Enterprises itself has been assigned dozens of patents, including plans for a Little Caesars-themed jungle gym and a pizza-breadstick combo product.

A black and white sketch of a Little Caesar's-themed jungle gym, much like a McDonald's PlayPlace. At the top of the structure, a sign reads, "Little Caesar's Fun Machine." There's a slide, a tube to climb through, and a series of windows throughout the structure.
Little Caesar Enterprises, LLC is listed as the assignee of a 1991 patent for a Little Caesar's-themed, multi-level gym, much like a McDonald's PlayPlace.

But no sign of a conveyor oven patent.

Another Michigander, John Correll, claims that his pizzeria — a place called Pizzuti’s in Westland — first started using a conveyor oven in 1976. That’s one year before others claim Mike Ilitch invented the oven. However, we had trouble confirming this independently.

Regardless of the originator, Ilitch certainly ushered the oven into wider circulation, and used it to expand his business with ease.

Innovation #3: The pizza box

“You have to care about the box,” Fouracre said.

According to Fouracre, Domino’s proudly embraces the fact that their founder pioneered the use of a corrugated cardboard box, rather than the flimsier paperboard box typically used to store baked goods.

Corrugated carboard boxes sit stacked on a metal counter. In the background, a Domino's employee is at work filling an order.
Ronia Cabansag
Corrugated carboard boxes sit on the counter of the Domino's store within the company's World Resource Center, waiting to be folded.

“I think that's part of the core of our history is that, you know, Mr. Monaghan... was very focused on operations and everything that went into making the best store and the best pizza experience,” Fouracre said. “But those boxes were something that he focused on and worked on with our box manufacturer.”

Scott Weiner, author of Viva La Pizza! The Art of the Pizza Box, literally wrote the book on the history of pizza boxes. The corrugated cardboard box, Weiner said, was yet another example of Monaghan’s obsession with efficiency. The box had to look good, stack neatly in the store, and retain heat while in transit for delivery.

“(Monaghan) wasn't so concerned about the pizza itself,” Weiner said. “He was more concerned about how it got to the customer, which is why Domino's became famous as its delivery brand... They weren't the first to deliver a pizza, not by far, but they revolutionized the way that delivery works. And they're still doing that.”

National and global expansion

One thing that made it possible for these chains to expand nationally was the growing craze over American fast food. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, and other chains of the 1950s set a standard of affordability, consistency, and convenience. And for Mike Ilitch, franchising was a convenient and appealing business model.

Marian Ilitch was born in Dearborn and is most known for co-founding Little Caesars Pizza with her late husband Mike Ilitch.
© WILLIAM ARCHIE, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC
Prior to founding Little Caesar's, both Mike and Marian Ilitch had gained some food industry experience. Mike had worked in a kitchen in a Detroit bar, and Marian's family had owned a restaurant.

“Dad said that he was flying on an airplane and he was sitting next to an oilman from Texas,” Denise Ilitch said. “And they struck up a conversation and he started talking about royalties and how lucrative and profitable royalties are in the oil business. And that really piqued his interest in franchising.”

From Metro Detroit, Little Caesars began franchising along the I-75 corridor, from Michigan to Florida. From there, they expanded to the coasts.

Meanwhile, Domino’s franchised in the Midwest, and then the East Coast, focusing first on areas with college campuses, and then military bases. As they grew, the company employed a marketing strategy known as “glocalization.”

“When Domino's, for example, expands into the Northeast, they understand that people there like thin crust pizza,” Helstosky said. “So they offer that in addition to their standard pizza. And that kind of becomes the Domino's model, where if they're moving into an area, they'll stand back and observe and say, ‘Okay, what are local ingredients that people might like?’”

Little Caesars officially became an international company in 1969 by opening a location in Canada. Domino’s earned international status in 1983, also via a Canadian franchise.

But these two were hardly the only pizza chains sweeping the country. Pizza Hut, Hungry Howie’s, and Jet’s Pizza were all founded in the same 20-year span. Papa John’s, a straggler, but still a major player, was founded in 1984.

Each business brought something new to the pizza chain landscape. But the industry contributions made by Domino’s and Little Caesars — some of the earliest players in the game — made it possible for all chains to deliver better, hotter, faster pies to the people.

Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.