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TRANSCRIPT | The rise of American pizza

Laura Weber-Davis: Okay…Alright so we are walking up to what was Dominick's, otherwise known as the birthplace of Domino's. … It's an unassuming building, so you wouldn't know. It's currently a burrito place called STUFD.

April Baer: Laura, why are we here?

Laura Weber-Davis: Well April, because this is where it all begins. It’s in Ypsilanti, MI, a small town in Southeast Michigan, tucked between Ann Arbor and Detroit. It’s a college town, home to Eastern Michigan University. But I wanted to come here on a pilgrimage of sorts, to go to the place where this whole pizza saga begins.

Laura Weber-Davis: You know, it's funny. We, like, drive by these sort of inane, innocuous buildings all the time. … There are probably multiple businesses that have come and gone through them. … And they’re so unassuming that a multibillion dollar corporation and the largest pizza chain in the world started out at these tiny little brick buildings. It's sort of amazing.

Laura Weber-Davis: We make sense of the world through origin stories. Tales we tell ourselves of how something came to be.

April Baer: For this story, it all starts here: Southeast Michigan, the pizza capital. That’s right. We said it.

Laura Weber-Davis: It’s a bold claim but tucked between strip malls on busy streets in the suburbs of southeast Michigan is the chain pizza origin story. And we’re not here to fight about the best pizza in the nation. We’re here to talk about the most pizza in America. We’re going to explain why your pizza, wherever you are, is connected to this great state.

April Baer: I’m April Baer – thin crust, with pepperoni, mushroom, and onion, please.

Laura Weber-Davis: I’m Laura Weber-Davis. Usually pineapple and deep dish, but I’ll take just about any topping as long as it can be dipped in ranch.

April Baer: From Michigan Radio, this is Dough Dynasty. The story of how Michigan became the pizza chain capital of the world, and shaped pizza as we know it today. On this episode, the pizza origin story.

Laura Weber-Davis: Pizza night falls on Wednesdays in the Weber Davis house. We can’t ever seem to make it to Friday. It’s like this middle of the week drag on trying to decide what’s for dinner.

EWD: Did you wash your hands?

Laura Weber-Davis: Pizza is a mid-week liferaft. It’s cheap, filling, it has the four food groups. kind of. It’ll do. And because of this little baby Americans everywhere form strong pizza opinions early. My youngest, he’s in preschool.

Laura Weber-Davis: What’s your favorite kind of pizza?

Z: Pineapple pizza!

Laura Weber-Davis: This is a deep dish square?

Z: Yes, it’s because it has crust … and it has this part … and it has the sauce. … I really like sauce.

Laura Weber-Davis: Yeah, pineapple deep dish – it runs in my genes.

Laura Weber-Davis: My older kid falls on the complete opposite side of the pizza spectrum. She can’t stand sauce. And prefers a big, floppy New York-style slice.

Laura Weber-Davis: And what do I sometimes get a little bit upset about that you do that with all of your pieces of pizza?

J: Take all the sauce off.

Laura Weber-Davis: And what do you do with the sauce?

J: Rub it everywhere.

Laura Weber-Davis: You scrape it all over your plate?

J: Yes.

Laura Weber-Davis: I get it. I have strong opinions about pizza, too. Like don’t wipe your pizza sauce off. And you should squirt some ranch on your plate for dipping, absolutely. It makes sense that we have strong opinions about pizza because we eat so much of it.

You may not be surprised that some estimates have about half of us eating pizza at least once a week in the U.S. But here are some numbers that may surprise you. Like in the U.S. alone, the pizza industry is worth 46 billion dollars. Most of that pizza money comes from pizza chains. And maybe you have a Hungry Howie’s and a Jet’s in your area. But I can say with near certainty that you are within driving distance of a Dominos and a Little Caesars. And all four of those chains were started right here in Michigan.

April Baer: So where did American pizza begin? As with all food trends, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint exactly one incident in one kitchen of one restaurant. We can tell you a little bit about before it got here. Depending on how you define it, some people date pizza back thousands of years.

Laura Weber-Davis: I love leftover pizza. I don’t really care how old it is.

April Baer: That is really old. But for this story, we’re taking you to Italy. Naples to be exact.  

Carol Helstosky: What we now know or what is called pizza, meaning a baked yeasted bread with the toppings baked into it ... dates back to about the 1700s and 1800s in Naples, Italy.

My name is Carol Helstosky. I'm a professor of history at the University of Denver and the author of “Pizza: A Global History.”

Laura Weber-Davis: How do you like your pizza?

Carol Helstosky: My favorite is really just a classic … just a plain cheese pizza with mushrooms on it. Like, to me, that's — that’s happiness.

April Baer: When Carol says that pizza dates back to the 17- and 18- hundreds, what she means is this is the time when people, mostly travelers, first started writing about pizza.

Carol Helstosky: That is based on not the eating record, because I don't have a time machine to go back and see what people were exactly eating, but that's based on the textual record.

Laura Weber-Davis: And that textual record describes pizza like this…

Carol Helstosky: A flatbread topped with … usually bits and pieces of fish or herbs that people would forage … so it was known as a kind of a fast food. … I like to also refer to pizza as a creative process in the sense that, you know, people were rummaging around and trying out different toppings and using what they had on hand.

April Baer: So picture it: seaside Italian ports with the tangy scent of salt water drifting through the air combined with sweet margerum, and basil. But the people writing about pizza were not so enticed by the sights and smells.

Carol Helstosky: They were disgusted by it. … If there was a storefront pizzeria people who observed them said, you know, sort of these – how do I want to put it? Unsavory characters would be sitting around outside eating pizza.

Laura Weber-Davis: Yes! Unsavory pizza eaters… my kind of people! But who are they?


Carol Helstosky: Mostly the residents of Naples. The workers. There were an awful lot of sailors in Naples because it's a port city. There were also soldiers stationed in the city and the working poor. … I called it street food. And I literally mean that in that there would be mobile venders … and they would sell them, I guess by the slice or by the piece depending on what the buyer could afford.

April Baer: Pizza was the people’s food. Still is. Pizza for the people!

Laura Weber-Davis: So how did pizza make its way to America? It came with the pizza eaters.

Archival audio: In this migration millions of Europeans left their homelands to settle in new countries across the seas. Almost two thirds of them came to the United States.

Carol Helstosky: By the late nineteenth century, there were massive out-waves of Italian migrants … including many Italians who left from the South where there was little economic opportunity. …When they got to wherever they were going, whether that was New York or Buenos Aires, they tried to replicate the foods from home.

Laura Weber-Davis: Like pizza!

Carol Helstosky: There's an awful lot of origin myths about pizza … and so if you look at any standard history of pizza, people make a big deal about the first pizza commercial license in New York City was from 1905. But I think it's safe to assume that Italian-Americans or Italian migrants were eating pizza before then.

April Baer: I mean I think a lot of people also know that when Italians did start first migrating to the U.S. in numbers they were completely vilified. Was their food vilified in the same way?

Carol Helstosky: Yes you’re absolutely right. Italian immigrants and their – their habits, right. And those included food habits were treated with some suspicion. … There's commentary from social workers, from other authorities … that Italians ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. 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 don’t want to say disgust, but certainly suspicion.

April Baer: How did pizza go from something treated with suspicion, at best to something ubiquitous on the American table.

Laura Weber-Davis: Well there’s one story we came across a lot in trying to answer this question. It goes like this: during World War II U.S. soldiers went to Italy, ate pizza, and loved it. So much that when they returned home they set out on a quest for pizza. But historical reality has some holes to poke in that story.

Carol Helstosky: 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.

Laura Weber-Davis: Alright, so maybe we don’t know exactly why pizza started becoming so popular in America, but we do know how it became popular.

Carol Helstosky: You begin to see … American published cookbooks referencing this food called pizza.

Scott Wiener: Newspaper articles had to explain to people what pizza was. It wasn't ubiquitous.

April Baer: That’s Scott Wiener. He’s a writer and columnist for Pizza Today Magazine who also leads tours in New York based around all the pizza hotspots and pizza history. Talk about living the dream.

Laura Weber-Davis: And his favorite pizza…

Scott Wiener: I don't like a singular flavor profile or a singular texture. I like it to be dynamic. And I like my journey through the slice, to be dynamic so that it ends in a different place than it starts.

April Baer: That is so next level.

Laura Weber-Davis: Hm, yes.

April Baer: He’s like a pizza sommelier.

Laura Weber-Davis: Well these articles that Scott’s talking about were there to, let’s say, educate the masses about pizza.

Mrs. Brady: Good afternoon. I’m Mrs. Brady. Today I am going to make the popular Italian dish, pizza pie. You’ve all probably heard about it. And if you like the recipe, please get a pencil and paper and you can take it down as I go.

Scott Weiner: They had to explain, “Oh, it's an Italian tomato pie.” And they would give a recipe … and the recipe would be: put a slice of American cheese and ketchup on an English muffin and – You know, it wasn't at all the Italian thing that we now look at it.

Carol Helstosky: And the toppings? … I recall there was one pizza that they suggested putting liverwurst and raw onions on.

April Baer: UGH!

Carol Helstosky: As I looked at that I thought, isn’t that a sandwich?

Archive: Second topping, we’ll use pepperoni. The men really go for this. … Anchovies … Blood sausage … Fish paste … Canned spiced meats

Laura Weber-Davis: But it’s the ‘50s, remember? Jiggling aspics and tuna-raisin salads and stuff like that. Recall the garlic and wine averse non-Italians of yesteryear who suspiciously eyed the fresh fruits and vegetables Italian migrants grew. Really not that much had changed.

Carol Helstosky: I don’t want to say disgust, but certainly suspicion.

Laura Weber-Davis: Really not that much had changed.

Scott Wiener: The smell of garlic and oregano today is just so accepted. But we have to remember that even in the late 1950s and early sixties … they weren't accepted flavor combinations. They weren't accepted smells.

Mrs. Brady: And I’m sure you’ll all become real pizza fans soon.

Laura Weber-Davis: Canned spiced meats. Shelf stable pizza kits. Liverwurst and raw onions. American cheese and ketchup. Now that’s a pizza!

April Baer: I am so amazed that anybody ate enough food and didn’t manage to starve to death on the truly, the truly awful cooking that period in the United States to even survive to the present day.

It wasn’t just recipes and take-home kits that eased the American masses gently into the unfamiliar flavors of pizza. It was also because there were more places to eat pizza post World War II.

Carol Helstosky: 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 for … not just Italian immigrants. ... It was profitable and there was pretty low overhead.

Laura Weber-Davis: Right. All you need is some cheese, tomatoes, flour. And you don’t need a fancy sit down place to make it.

April Baer: Think about the time when this was happening. The United States is changing – fast. A network of highways, two-car family homes, and the shifting workforce. All of a sudden conditions were ripe for some new, faster food options: hamburgers, fried chicken, french fries – all these fast food chains sprouting up across the country.

Laura Weber-Davis: Right, and here in Southeast Michigan, at that time, there were two guys, who knew nothing about each other or about pizza, who both saw an opportunity in this changing America. What they knew was that Americans were developing a palate for pizza. What they couldn’t foresee was just how huge of an industry this would become.

April Baer: We’ll get to that in a moment.

April Baer: This is Dough Dynasty. I’m April Baer.

Laura Weber-Davis: And I’m Laura Weber-Davis

April Baer: Now that you have heard the story of how pizza came to the United States. We want to tell you about how it became huge. Like, I think we can say this, can’t we? THE American casual food.

Laura Weber-Davis: Oh yeah, I think so. But to get there – to that ubiquitousness that you’re talking about – you really have to talk about these three pizza businesses that started around the same time: Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Domino’s. Pizza Hut started as a sit-down restaurant by brothers in Wichita Kansas. But the other two, those both started right here in Michigan, by two guys who knew nothing about each other, and they were just a few miles down the road from each other. First up it’s Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars.

April Baer: Mike was a former minor league baseball player turned door-to-door salesman.

Bill McGraw: One of his close aides, a guy named Charlie Jones, once described Mike to me as a “street guy,” meaning he wasn’t a slick business man, he was just a real Detroiter. He grew up on the West Side. His parents were immigrants from Macedonia. His dad was a skilled tradesman. So they weren't poor, but they weren't wealthy either.

Laura Weber-Davis: That’s former Detroit Free Press reporter Bill Mcgraw. And his pizza of choice…

Bill McGraw: I like Buddy's pizza, actually. And I'll eat almost anything on it. And I like anchovies, too.

Laura Weber-Davis: Do you – do you – do you drink the grease out of the cups of …

Laura Weber-Davis + April Baer: Pepperoni?

Bill McGraw: No. You know what? I use it as suntan lotion.

April Baer: In many ways, Mike Ilitch’s story plays upon a very well-worn trope of the American Dream. He’s the son of immigrants, from humble beginnings, he works hard and he succeeds big.

Bill McGraw: When he talked about his early days and how he got the idea for Little Caesars, he was a door-to-door salesman this would have been after the war.

Archival audio: The house to house salesman symbolizes in a way the function of all salesmen which is to bring goods or services to the attention of the consumer and to help the consumer buy.

Bill McGraw: So he was constantly knocking on people's doors. And he saw the baby boom coming together. And he saw families with three and four pretty young kids sitting around watching TV, mom’s in the kitchen struggling over dinner. And that's where he had the idea when pizza then came in, he made the connection between pizza and making things easier for mom in the kitchen.

April Baer: Mike Ilitch and his wife Marian see an opportunity, and their first pizza shop in Garden City – Metro Detroit – opened in 1959. Originally they call it “Little Caesar’s Pizza Treat”.

Denise Ilitch: I recall sitting on very big flour bags and I would be sitting there playing and they would be at the front of the store, running the store.

April Baer: That, of course, is Denise Ilitch, daughter of Mike and Marian Ilitch.

Denise Ilitch: My favorite pizza is extra cheese, fresh Italian sausage, mushroom and onion.

April Baer: She was a vice president of Little Caesars for years.

Denise Ilitch: When my dad started, he played baseball and he'd be on a bus around the country and he – when he had time off, he'd go into restaurants. … And if they had some kind of pizza or anything Italian – he loved Italian – but when he started, so many people told him he was going to fail, that pizza was a fad.

April Baer: Mike and Marian Ilitch came up with this low-overhead carry-out business model.

Denise Ilitch: We promised 15 minute service from the time you ordered your pizza to the time you picked it up. … I think they would both say that this surpassed their wildest dreams. … I think that they wanted – I would guess they wanted a strong restaurant business, not one, I'm sure they wanted more than one, but I don't think they ever foresaw a national chain.

Laura Weber-Davis: Meanwhile, just 18 miles west, another entrepreneur was evolving his own pizzeria dream. Tom Monaghan, a young man hustling into adulthood.

Bill McGraw: You know, he grew up in pretty rough circumstances, even though he had a mom, but she couldn't support his brother and him. And he grew up in – much of his life – in his childhood – in an orphanage.

Laura Weber-Davis: When Tom Monaghan was young he wasn’t thinking of the pizza business. He was developing interests as any young kid: Tigers baseball, fast cars, cool buildings. These were obsessions he would carry forward in life. He wanted to be an architect.

Bill McGraw: I think the main way I remember Domino's becoming well-known was the fact that Monaghan became well-known and he was such a story in all the things he was doing.

Tom Monaghan: Back in 1960, 18 years ago, I was struggling to stay in the University of Michigan and I wasn't able to do it because of financing.

Laura Weber-Davis: This is Tom Monaghan speaking in 1979 at the Rotary club of Ann Arbor.

Tom Monaghan: I went to university. I couldn't stay in because I was into the third week and still couldn't afford to buy the first textbook. … One day my brother approached me and said, Dominick’s got a pizza place in Ypsilanti that closed up, how would you like to go in on that with me?

Laura Weber-Davis: That’s right he said Dominick’s. There was a place called Dominick’s that was open in Ypsilanti. And at this point, Tom Monaghan put college on hold. He saw an opportunity in campus life itself. He figured that there was money to be made selling pizza to college students. So he and his brother took on Dominick’s, which was for sale, and it was on the edge of Eastern Michigan’s campus. His brother quickly lost appetite – if you will – for the pizza business and Tom would later change its name to Domino’s. Which brings us back to this busy, unassuming corridor in Ypsilanti.

It was here – next to a church and what’s now a CBD shop – that today’s top pizza giant began. It outsells its competitors, including Little Caesars and Pizza Hut.

Scott Wiener: I'm so curious about why Michigan – and specifically that corner, Southeast Michigan – was the birthplace of these multiple national and global chains. And I haven't been able to isolate the reason.

April Baer: Pizza soothsayer Scott Wiener is not alone in wondering about this.

Laura Weber-Davis: Right! We wonder it too! Why here? Was it because of mass-production manufacturing mindset? Was it because pizza is an immigrant food and auto companies and universities brought people from all over the world to Southeast Michigan? Was it because Michiganders are just, you know, pizza people?

April Baer: Or maybe it’s because they knew, that you and I, Laura, were going to be here to eat all the – every single slice of pizza that they could manufacture.

Laura Weber-Davis: And make this podcast.

April Baer: Maybe it’s all of those things. Or none of them! But these two businesses – just 18 miles apart – were the beginning of a Dough Dynasty that would reach its mozzarella tentacles from Southeast Michigan across the rest of the world, and would forever change American pizza.

Scott Wiener: If the chains didn't exist, I wouldn't have a job right now. 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.

Laura Weber-Davis: In our next episode, we have lots to tell you about how these pizza princes ascended their thrones. Scepters made of sauce. crusty crowns, baubles made of sausage and onion.

Dave Brandon: You know, we make that dough. We – we have our own formula for that sauce.

That’s on the next Dough Dynasty.

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

Laura Weber-Davis: And I’m Laura Weber-Davis. pineapple deep dish. And if you like what you’ve heard, share the pod with a friend. People who pod together and pizza together, stay together.

April Baer: Want to hear about some fun facts you might have missed in the podcast? Maybe get some recipes for ranch? Sign up for our newsletter to get exclusive pizza related content – and more fun stuff at michigan radio dot org slash pizza

Laura Weber-Davis: This episode was produced by Rachel Ishikawa, who – wildcard – likes thin-sliced eggplant on her pizza.

April Baer: Oh!

Laura Weber-Davis: Yeah. She’s also the podcast editor for Dough Dynasty. Other producers on the podcast are Ronia Cabansag, Mercedes Meijia, April Van Buren, and an O.G. pizza delivery guy Mike Blank.

April Baer: Our web team is Jodi Westerick and Paulette Parker, with help from Emma Winowiecki. Special thanks to pizza consigliere Holly Eaton, Zoe Clark, and Rebecca Williams

And to Tessa Kresch, Olivia Mouradian, Cate Weiser. And to the Bentley Historical Library for archival audio.

Laura Weber-Davis: Our theme music is from Personal and the Pizzas, yes that’s a band name. Additional music from Audio Network and Blue Dot sessions. Til next time, eat your crusts and don’t forget the ranch!

April Baer: Actually you can skip the ranch.

Laura Weber-Davis: What about the crusts?

April Baer: Just, just skip it.

Laura Weber-Davis: Bye