91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

TRANSCRIPT | A crust stuffed with data

April Baer: Laura.

Laura Weber-Davis: Yes.

April Baer: I’m just going to say it: the most amazing thing about pizza today is how we order it.

Laura Weber-Davis: That is quite the hot cheesy take.

April Baer: I know. But lookit…I’m going to grab my phone, open the app for my pizza purveyor of choice…. And I’m going to, Okay, enter a large…hand-tossed crust …toppings, you want your usual…

Laura Weber-Davis: Pineapple.

April Baer: Pineapple thing? Okay this is how I am going to pay for it. The same way I did last time. And we’re done. It’s magic. The major pizza brands are using tech and data collection in ways the founders could have only dreamed of. Fifteen years ago, Dominos added something to its app that is so mind-blowing, some people actually don’t believe it’s real. It’s the pizza tracker.

Jenny Fouracre: You wanna go down the kitchen, I'll show you?

Laura Weber-Davis: Yeah, I want to know.

Jenny Fouracre: Okay.

April Baer: Jenny Fouracre is in the communications department at Dominos. We went out to see her at the company’s world headquarters.

Jenny Fouracre: Because this is, like, a big myth, but I feel like I spent a lot of time myth busting: is the – is the tracker real?

April Baer: The tracker is a feature in the Domino's app. Its design is simple – it's a bar graph that shows you: Your order is processing. Your pizza is being made, by Cindy or Lamar or Brian or whoever. Your pizza is now on the way to where you live. Driven by … Lisa? Is that her real name? Jenny says absolutely.

Jenny Fouracre: So when you come into work, you sign in, and you have a role down in this kitchen.

April Baer: We’re standing there inside the kitchen where all Dominos’ employees get their pizza boot camp. Jenny points up to the computer screen where orders come in. She explains that in today’s Domino’s kitchens, there are now several computer screens. Every person now logs in as they start work.

Jenny Fouracre: So, like, if you're taking an order, you're signed in as the order taker, right? If you're signed in to be the pizza maker in the back, then you're here making the pizza.

She moves along from topping bin to topping bin – sauce, cheese, meats, veggies…

Laura Weber-Davis: Pineapples.

Jenny Fouracre: You click the keyboard for you, put it in the oven, it clears it out. That's how we know it went to the oven. … And then we clock it here so we know it’s been dispatched to a driver.

Laura Weber-Davis: It’s so funny because when I see somebody’s name attached to my pizza, whatever they’re doing, I’m like, “Yes! Thank you Brian! I trust you to shepherd my pizza.”

April Baer: Technology is so much a part of chain pizza operations that today, of the hundreds employed at Dominos HQ, most of them are coders and developers. And the reason it works like this now, my friend?

Laura Weber-Davis: Yes.

April Baer: The reason is pizza. This is Dough Dynasty, the podcast all about Michigan’s pizza empires and the glory they hath wrought. I’m April Baer.

Laura Weber-Davis: And I’m Laura Weber-Davis. This is an Extra Cheese episode. And I think I’m about to get schooled about pizza’s relationship with technology.

April Baer: You got it. Today, I’m taking you into the pizza matrix. This is the story of how pizza chains became tech companies. Now, for the purposes of this episode, we’re not talking about the kind of technology that helps to physically make pizzas.

Laura Weber-Davis: Right, that was in Episode 2

April Baer: Right. Today we’re talking about the tech and data that helped hungry people connect with the makers and vice versa.

Laura Weber-Davis: Big pizza tech!

April Baer: You don’t even know. Here, let’s start with Stuart Degeus. Stuart’s got a long history in quick service restaurants. He’s worked for Dominos, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and more. When he retired at Little Caesars in 2021 his title was:

Stuart Degeus: Vice president of concept and industry intelligence, among other things.

Laura Weber-Davis: Industry intelligence? As in Pizza industry Intelligence?

April Baer: Unhuh. All that secret insider piecraft spycraft.

Stuart Degeus: Our president and one of the vice presidents came to me one day and said, you know, you've done a good job helping us with our research. We'd like to have you start a division.

April Baer: What they wanted him to do was track the trends at other pizza chains, and compare it to what Little Caesars was doing. And Stuart was like, sure that sounds interesting.

Stuart Degeus: And they said, oh, by the way, you've got to go to Boston for a week of training. … It was an intense eight to eight every day of the week, learning from former CIA, former military intelligence.

April Baer: Are you allowed to say what some of the things they were teaching you there?

Stuart Degeus: It wasn't just collect the data that was part of it, of course. But how do you analyze it? What does it really mean?... Should we be in the delivery business? Should we have a deep dish product? You know, what about gluten free crusts?

April Baer: Selling pizza is absolutely about the product. And about figuring out what makes the customer most likely to buy.

But as we’ve told you, in the 60s when the Michigan brands we’ve been talking about – Little Caesar’s, Dominos, and their competitors – when they were trying to break through, they were looking for ways to get an edge over all the burger slingers and chicken fryers of the quick service industry. Which is how the first major development of big pizza tech emerged.

Laura Weber-Davis: You mean, ‘ye old rotary telephone?

Dave Brandon: In 1998, when I first started learning about this company, 80% of our business was transacted over the telephone.

April Baer: Dave Brandon is the executive chair of Dominos. He was the CEO during the first decade of the 2000s.

Dave Brandon: We'd give you a magnet that would go in your refrigerator with that phone number. We would send that out and all of our print ads. Our job was to get that phone number in your head and get it next to your phone.

Laura Weber-Davis: So phones were the first big tech leap forward. What comes next?

April Baer: Well, once you’ve got it established in the customer’s head that the fastest way to get a pizza is to order by phone, all of a sudden, another powerful idea comes into play.

Steve Green :I'm Steve Green.

April Baer: Steve has done a number of jobs in the industry. These days he’s publisher of a magazine called PMQ – it’s like The Financial Times of the pizza industry. Back in the day, Steve Green started out publishing cable TV guides. But he went to check out a job at Dominos – they were looking for someone to do the marketing legwork for soon-to-open pizza shops.

Steve Green got that job, got promoted to be the company’s marketing director. And he was so into it that he eventually bought a couple of Domino’s franchises of his own. And it was during this time, he realized something.

Steve Green: You know we had a secret weapon over other restaurants, and that is we had the home addresses of all of our customers.

April Baer: So in the mid 1980s, Steve Green says very few companies or franchisees were using that information. Then, in 1985 Domino’s created a program called DAOT. It was sort of a really early form of a database.

Steve Green: And that was a simple way for you to input your customers addresses into a computer and then be able to do rough mailings to them. … That was the system I used. And then I realized that I wanted it to do a lot of other things.

April Baer: He figured out that a database could really goose store sales in certain ways. Got some slow days on your weekly calendar? What if you offered a sweet deal on a large one-topping, and bank on folks getting some drinks and a salad to go with it?

Using the data this way, Steve Green created a business called – wait for it – Green Mail.

Steve Green: And I really was sort of an evangelist for it. I was really trying to get Domino's to buy into my system. Eventually they went into competition with me. … That's when I started working for non-Domino's pizza customers.

April Baer: Eventually, Steve Green says he had ten percent of all Domino’s franchisees using his Green Mail system. Coordinate that with mailbox coupons, and a pizza brand’s national TV ad buys, and it’s like a hypnotic refrain whispering in customers’ ears.

Laura Weber-Davis: Pizza. Pizza. PIZZA!

April Baer: See what I mean?

Laura Weber-Davis: Yeah totally. But this is all pretty old – I wouldn’t even call it technology. When do I get to order pizza on my mobile app?

Dave Brandon:We’re getting there. But we’re going to need that spymaster of the industry, Stuart DeGeus, to move us into the next phase.

Laura Weber-Davis: Well I guess we’ll do that right after this break. We’ll be right back.


April Baer: Around the time Dominos’ founder sold his company, Stuart DeGeus had been working there for about eight years. He decided to cross over, and go to work for Mike and Marian Ilitch at Little Caesars. At that point, these two big pizza businesses – they were both making pizza but they were different!

Laura Weber-Davis: Right, Domino’s was leaning hard into delivery, whereas Little Caesars was all about the carryout.

April Baer: Exactly. That means that Domino’s had that huge pile of data that it was putting to work – customers’ names, phones, addresses. Little Caesars, not so much!

Stuart Degeus: When I went to Little Caesars, we had a cash register. That was it.

April Baer: Part of Stuart’s early work at Little Caesars was getting them in on the data game, modernizing operations. And he did. Things were happening at some of the other Michigan pizza chains as well.

Steve Jackson: The biggest change that I would say in the last 30 years has been technology.

April Baer: Steve Jackson is the CEO of Hungry Howie’s, a company that has 535 stores in 21 states – including its birthplace of Michigan! This is a brand that’s been around for 50 years as of this year. And Steve Jackson’s been the CEO for most of it, including the period when computers came into the pizza shop.

Steve Jackson: The computerized POS systems – point of sale systems – that were put in stores, we started putting them in the middle nineties. … You got a hot, floury, dusty environment and you're taking this special piece of equipment, a computer, and putting it in a store. So that was an interesting transition for those developers to to get it to the point that it would survive the battlefield

April Baer: And once they did – hoooohoo – it was the same data gold mine the other big brands had figured out.

Steve Jackson: We have your name, we have your address, your landline, if you have it, your cell phone, if you have it, we have your email address. We know what you eat and we know when you eat it. So when we start dealing with data scientists years ago, they couldn't believe the possibilities – what could be done with that information.

April Baer: It took no time at all for customers to want to send their pizza orders online. Dominos was experimenting with this long before they took it to the shops. And the early version had some bugs. Here’s Dominos executive chair Dave Brandon again.

Dave Brandon: So our first test market for online ordering was in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I flew in there one day and checked into a hotel and got out my computer. And that was back in the days we had to hook it on the cable and then –

April Baer: Probably a dial up system.

Dave Brandon: Oh totally. Dial up system. So I hook up my – my computer and I'm going to order a pizza from Dominos online for the first time. And I set my watch next to the computer, and I started going through screens and filling out this and filling out that and putting this information in. Thirteen minutes later, I ordered the – I pressed the button that said, order, please. And the pizza arrived. It all worked. But I looked at the team and I said, we're going to make this better than a telephone experience.

April Baer: They kept at it. The technology got better. Brandon’s successor, Patrick Doyle went to the tech team in 2011 and asked them to build an app that could complete an order in the time it takes a red light to turn green. And today, 80% of Dominos orders come in online.

The changes of online ordering go so far beyond the convenience that you and I might get out of it. Suddenly, chain pizza stores knew a lot more about what kinds of toppings they should keep in stock, and what kind were unlikely to ever sell. They know more about peak times and low spots, and what actually affects sales.

Steve Green: It's easier to make money now with the digital technology that's available to pizza operators … thanks to many of the pizza chains, they invested heavily in pizza technology and delivery technology over the last five years.

April Baer: And That level of efficiency? Steve Green, the trade magazine publisher says it’s actually made the pizza business itself more profitable!

Steve Green: They also taught our whole industry how to do it. And they more importantly, created an army of technology service providers that are now going in and helping independent pizza operators and other restaurants learn how to transform their pizza businesses. There’s just so many tools available for selling pizza and making pizza better.

April Baer: All this just in time for an entirely different tech innovation to blow it all up.

Steve Jackson: I mean you want to talk about another game changer that's evolved over these recent years is third party delivery.

April Baer: When companies like DoorDash started popping up, Hungry Howie’s CEO Steve Jackson was a total skeptic. And maybe not for the reason you think. It’s not that he didn’t think third party services could hire drivers on par with pizza chains.

Steve Jackson: The one thing about the pizza business, it's always been a coupon driven discount business. So what happens is the prices can tend to be on the higher side, but the offers are way less than what the normal menu prices are. So when these third parties came in and they wanted to start charging 30% of the order, I said it'll never work. Well, we devised a plan. And that plan pretty much was if they order through third party, they pay menu price. I said it will never work. People aren’t going to pay menu price.

April Baer: But a crazy thing happened. All those customers really enjoyed getting food delivered – at menu price or even above.

Steve Jackson: And in the last 24 months, we developed a relationship with DoorDash. … They're handling about 6% of our business, which is baffling to me.

April Baer: Steve Jackson isn’t entirely at peace with pizza’s marriage to the third party companies.

Laura Weber-Davis: It’s crazy how fast they’ve inserted themselves into pizza companies – which have employed their own drivers for decades.

April Baer: Yeah. And Steve Jackson points out almost all of them have been operating at a loss. For sure, the tech investments we’ve been talking about – point of sale computer systems in pizza shops, apps for mobile customers – they are a lot harder for independent mom and pop pizza shops to get. One restaurant industry analyst figures we are losing independent pizzerias at a rate of hundreds – and often thousands – per year. These are shops who have fallen behind the big chains’ investments in tech.

Laura Weber-Davis: But tech can happen for small pizza makers, too. There’s this app called Slice that launched in 2010. It’s like a portal that indie pizza shops use, so they don’t have to build their own apps to connect with customers.

April Baer: It’s not the only tool the indies need. But it’s a start. No one knows for sure how this is going to turn out for local pizza makers. We’re going to have to leave this episode sitting in a big pile of uncertainty for some of our favorite indies – in Michigan, and all over. But we do know that technology has and will continue to play a role in how this durable, inventive industry evolves.

Consider this: Dominos is now experimenting with delivering to just about any location, based on a pin you drop on a mobile map. Your soccer game, a sidewalk, anywhere.

And we do know this: pizza finds a way, every time.

You’ve been listening to Dough Dynasty Extra Cheese, a limited run podcast series from Michigan Radio. I’m April Baer, mushroom and pepperoni on thin crust.

Laura Weber-Davis: And I’m Laura Weber-Davis. Pineapple Detroit-style deep dish with ranch

We have had such a blast sharing slices of pizza history with you! Over the holidays, over a deep dish with halal pepperoni and artichokes, maybe. We hope that you can share this podcast with your family, your chosen family, your delivery guy, whoever you think maybe might be into it!

April Baer: This episode was produced by me, nerd of all nerds April Baer.

Other producers on the podcast are Ronia Cabansag, Mercedes Meijia, April Van Buren, and OG pizza driver Mike Blank.

Laura Weber-Davis: Rachel Ishikawa is Dough Dynasty’s podcast editor extraordinaire.

April Baer: Our web team is Jodi Westrick and Paulette Parker, with help from Emma Winowiecki. Special thanks to Pizza Consigliere Holly Eaton. And to Tessa Kresch, Cate Weiser, and Olivia Mouradian.

Laura Weber-Davis: Our theme music comes from an Ann Arbor original, the band called Gemini. Additional music from Audio Network and Blue Dot sessions.

Dough Dynasty also has a newsletter, where you can get exclusive pizza related content and more fun stuff. Sign up at michiganradio.org/dough

Laura Weber-Davis: Bye

April Baer: Bye.