Dough Dynasty: How they spent their dough
For Michigan baseball fans of a certain age, the Detroit Tigers of 1984 were something special. Heading into the World Series, the team was coming off of what some sports analysts say is still the single greatest season of any team in the sport.
In the midst of “white flight” to the suburbs, a mass exodus of business, chronic disinvestment, and an increase in poverty and crime, the team gave the city of Detroit — and its surrounding suburbs — something around which everyone could rally. When the team won it all during Game 5 against the San Diego Padres, Detroit exploded in celebration. Fans ran onto the field, and crowds outside the stadium partied for hours.
At some point, the celebration got out of hand. White suburbanites led a riot that ended with police cars being set on fire and officers being pelted with stones and beer bottles. The stadium initiated a lockdown, leaving fans, players, and reporters stuck inside.
Luckily, Tom Monaghan, the team’s owner, happened to also own Domino’s Pizza. He and Tigers pitcher Jack Morris hopped on Monaghan’s helicopter to execute one of the most extravagant pizza deliveries in history.
“His helicopter landed on the outfield and brought out box after box of pizza,” recalled Bill McGraw, a now-retired Detroit journalist who was there that day.
The moment offers a snapshot of just how much spending power a pizza chain empire could generate. Both Monaghan and Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars, made it through the tough early years of building a business. Throughout the 1980s, both billionaires found their earnings spilling over into sports, real estate, and politics.
The pizza wars
As Little Caesars and Domino’s continued to franchise and expand beyond Michigan, they found an American audience that was ready to consume.
“It was exciting because people... craved at an unbelievable rate, the pizza in particular, and were so excited when we opened up in their hometowns,” Stuart deGeus, former vice president of concept and industry intelligence at Little Caesars Pizza, said.
The industry rivalries developed into a public spectacle. A 1990 Washington Post article titled “Pizza Wars” said that Domino’s “fired the first shot on July 7, 1983, by introducing Alexandrians to the concept that changed the trade: $3 off any pizza not delivered within 30 minutes.”
Meanwhile, Pizza Hut, a Kansas-based competitor, invested millions of dollars in setting up delivery-only stores, helped along by the deep pockets of its parent company, PepsiCo. Little Caesars offered its own kind of convenience, promising orders that could be placed and retrieved within 15 minutes.
“At Domino’s, you really didn't have to be at the corner of First and Main Street because you needed just parking places and a place to make the pizzas,” deGeus said. “But for Little Caesars in the carryout business, you had to be visible and you had to be very convenient.”
Little Caesars also began offering a two-for-one deal — hence, the still-standing slogan, “Pizza! Pizza!” Then, they rolled out the “Big! Big!” — a two-for-one deal on two giant pies that weighed in at 4.5 pounds. The company saw a 50% increase in sales shortly after introducing the product.
Pizza Hut fired the next “shot” by introducing the Bigfoot Pizza, a 12-by-24-inch pizza that could cover the surface of a small coffee table. Domino’s fired another shot in the form of a 30-slice pizza that was nearly a yard long — the XL Dominator Pizza.
Each brand moved beyond just offering giant products. Little Caesars served up the infamous $5 Hot-and-Ready, while Pizza Hut made its way into school cafeterias with personal-pan pizza. Throughout the 90s, Pizza Hut defeated its competitors in sales.
The Domino’s brand faced a momentary blow while being met with a series of lawsuits that blamed them for deaths and traffic accidents as a result of their 30-minute delivery guarantee. But even so, it joined Pizza Hut and Little Caesars, plus Hungry Howie’s, Jet’s, and Papa Johns, in becoming a household name.
Tom Monaghan’s spending sprees
The rise and revenue of Domino’s gave Monaghan the ability to fulfill “childhood fantasies,” McGraw said. When he owned the Tigers, he engaged with the team in ways that most other team owners wouldn’t.
“Monaghan, on the first day of spring training, was not only at spring training, but he was dressed in a Tiger(s) uniform, fulfilling one of the childhood fantasies of his and many young Michiganders,” McGraw said. “He played catch with Al Kaline, and that just was so out of the ordinary.”
Monaghan was also known for his love of cars and architecture. In a 1986 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, he boasted of his latest acquisition: a $8.1 million Bugatti Royale.
“He was really living the life — living large, to put it mildly — of a millionaire,” McGraw said. “You know, he was into collecting Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, meaning both houses and furniture and things.”
The Domino’s Pizza World Resource Center — the company’s Ann Arbor-based headquarters — was crafted and built in the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Monaghan’s heroes. The HQ is still there today, on a street named Frank Lloyd Wright Drive.
Mike Ilitch keeps it local
Ilitch funneled his Little Caesars profits into the city of Detroit.
He’d played for the Tigers’ minor league system as a young man, and was disappointed when owner John Fetzer chose to sell the team to Tom Monaghan instead. Ilitch settled for the Detroit Red Wings, a far less illustrious team. At the time, the team’s nickname had been the “Dead Wings.”
Ilitch invested in the team’s success. The team transformed into an NHL powerhouse through the 1990s, earning the Stanley Cup in both 1997 and 1998.
The city itself also saw revitalization funded by Ilitch’s Little Caesars wealth.
“(The Ilitch family) made it possible to come and redo buildings, and reopen things and reimagine things and not lose your shirt, because that was what was on the line when they started,” Stephen Henderson, native Detroiter and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said.
Ilitch had grown up in an era of prosperity for Detroit. He had seen the birth of a manufacturing industry that built much of America, auto plants that provided good middle class jobs, and a bustling downtown.
“And then it all went to pot after about 1959, and people started to move to the suburbs, and we started to make it easy for people to move to the suburbs,” Henderson said. “And then the racial dynamic of Detroit kind of took hold of that happening and made it worse. White people who were here decided that they didn't want to live with the African-Americans who were growing in number and assuming political power in the city.”
Coleman Young, the city’s first Black mayor, was elected in 1973. He turned to the city’s business owners for help with restoring Detroit to its former glory. Ilitch took on the project of acquiring, investing in, and restoring the Fox Theatre, and was seen as a hero for doing so.
“What I remember about (Mike Ilitch) more than anything else is that gleam. . . he would get in his eye when he would talk about Detroit, and how he felt about it,” Henderson said. “There was always a really clear, emotional motivation to what he was doing. It wasn't just business, it was passion. It was love for Detroit.”
A billionaire’s dilemma and legacy
Monaghan’s and Ilitch’s wealth continued to grow into the early 2000s, but what they chose to do with it faced growing criticism.
In 1992, Ilitch finally found Monaghan ready to sell him the Detroit Tigers. In 2000, the team completed construction on a new ballpark, right next to the Fox Theatre. Five years later, Marian Ilitch, Mike’s wife, became the sole owner of the Motor City Casino Hotel. Then came the opening of Little Caesars Arena, home of the Red Wings, the Pistons, and, on occasion, stadium-worthy music acts.
As the Ilitchs amassed more and more property, the family’s name took on a new reputation. Critics say they failed to deliver on promises for an entertainment district, instead appearing to favor surface parking lots.
It’s unclear exactly how much land the company holds, as there are now at least a dozen smaller firms under the Ilitch Holdings umbrella. When Mike Ilitch passed away in 2017, he had an estimated net worth of more than $6 billion. The Ilitchs’ investments continue to shape the look and feel of Detroit.
Monaghan cut his ties to the pizza industry, selling Domino’s Pizza to Bain Capital in 1998. He also sold many of his luxury cars and much of his Frank Lloyd Wright Collection, and directed the money into conservative Catholic causes.
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia helped shape the curriculum at Ave Maria College of Law in Florida, a school that Monaghan founded. Monaghan also founded the Thomas Moore Law Center, a group that aims to “preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage” and “defend the religious freedom of Christians,” according to the welcome page of its website. The group has been active in right wing legal causes, including anti-Muslim policies and election denialism.
The pizza company Monaghan left behind has since distanced itself from Monaghan’s conservative politics, but Domino’s generally maintains a deep respect for its founder.
Monaghan and Ilitch, cornerstones of the chain pizza industry, created a world where the next generation of pizza makers can innovate new takes on old favorites. But the ripple effects of their returns reached well beyond American food.