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A new podcast looks into how Michigan became home to some of the biggest pizza chains

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When I say the word pizza, your mind might wander to Italy or New York or even Chicago for deep dish. You probably do not think of Michigan, but some of the most profitable pizza chains, like Domino's and Little Caesars, call the state home, and they've helped shape the pizza industry into what it is today. The history and influence of these chains are the subject of a new podcast from Michigan Radio called "Dough Dynasty." April Baer is one of the podcast's co-hosts and joins me now. Welcome to the program.

APRIL BAER, BYLINE: Ayesha, it's such a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So what was it about Michigan, say, for Domino's that made it an attractive place to kind of lay down roots?

BAER: Right. OK, so once you get any kind of company town, you know, there's a certain critical mass. It's like in Detroit. You've got Ford and General Motors and Stellantis, right? There's just going to be a lot of engineers and people in the industry and people who worked on lines for the different companies. To some extent, that's the story of Michigan pizzas. A lot of it, we found, had to do with technological innovations that Domino's and Little Caesars came up with. Fun fact - Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's, is the originator of the corrugated cardboard pizza box.

RASCOE: Oh, OK. I think I heard this. I think I heard about this. So the box that we know of for the pizza...

BAER: I know. I'm just blowing your mind.

RASCOE: OK.

BAER: I mean, there's people probably thinking, like, OK, so? But if you think about it, prior to that, pizzas were delivered in these paper boxes - like, kind of like what you get at the bakery. And, like, that pizza is not going to stay fresh during the delivery trip. But the corrugated pizza box was a big deal. The other thing is issues of the technology of supply chains. Domino's was a big innovator in that field. Little Caesars also had control of its ingredients kind of, like, up the stream from a very early point in the business history.

I was talking to Denise Ilitch, who is the daughter of Mike and Marian Ilitch, the founders of Little Caesars. And she was telling me, like, her dad was, like many other industry people - was very obsessed with quality of ingredients and consistency. It all began with this preoccupation he had with mushrooms and how they were going to get good fresh mushrooms for all of their different shops.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DOUGH DYNASTY")

DENISE ILITCH: And so what he decided to do as a young entrepreneur is start a mushroom farm. And it was on Telegraph Road in Southfield. But it was like an office building, but they started growing mushrooms.

RASCOE: And so Little Caesars and Domino's - I mean, they are obviously no longer local restaurants. They are all over the place. What kind of economic impact did they have in the state?

BAER: Oh, man. Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino's, really had a major impact in American politics and legal culture in terms of his investments in conservative law. I mean, he founded a whole law school that is currently based in Florida - Ave Maria, the Thomas More Legal Society. Some would say that you can't look at the composition of today's Supreme Court or the conservative legal movement in this country without talking about Tom Monaghan.

RASCOE: For those, you know, listeners out there who are not as worldly and haven't been around as much and may not know about the glory of Detroit-style pizza, tell us about what that is.

BAER: I would just like to take this moment to say to my friends in New York, New Jersey and Chicago - just open your ears. Open your mind. Open your heart. It has a light, airy crust - kind of like a focaccia bread. It's got air bubbles, and it's, like, crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. It makes for a very different bake. And I have to say, Ayesha, in the course of this project, there was one weekend where I tried six different kinds of Detroit-style pizza from chefs around downtown, and I don't think I've ever been happier.

RASCOE: April Baer, co-host of "Dough Dynasty" podcast from Michigan Radio, thank you so much for joining us.

BAER: Great pleasure, Ayesha. Save a slice for me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.