Crazy Bread and Circus: Little Caesars For The People
I have stood and observed the birth of greatness. The Italian maestro, lovingly creating the latest of thousands pizzas that came before and the dozens more he has yet to do before the day finishes. He measures nothing, all done by feel, and sight, and generations of tradition funneled through his person and into his hands. The dough is made to be perfect, all the individual ingredients sourced directly from local providers. All that greatness, tradition, and pride manifesting itself in the finished product, a pizza so perfect, so divine, that no language could do justice to the lovingly made, painstakingly crafted, perfect bite of pizza. Some folks search their whole foodie lives for such a moment. Writers write books and stories about it. Songs have been sung, and movies made, and quests begun for the experience of a perfect bite of pizza.
But when it’s 6:48pm on a Tuesday, you are broke, and the kids won’t shut up, you are going to Little Caesars for a $5 Hot-N-Ready and will sing a song of thanks for it both ways.
If availability and consistency are the base alloys of greatness, then Little Caesars is base-level great. No one will honestly argue that they have the best tasting pizza, or the most inviting aesthetic of locations, or even much in the way of flashy accouterments outside the pies, bread sticks, and such. But Little Caesars is always there when you need them.
That is by design. By the time Mike Ilitch died, his little “pizza treat” place went from him and his wife selling 49 pizzas on opening day in 1959 to 2500 locations worldwide. He had bought that first store with his life savings, and by the time he died had invested millions, probably well over a billion dollars, in Detroit itself. Unlike most other pizza chains, they do not deliver.
Little Caesars’ CEO told CNBC that its “Hot-N-Ready” model is working just fine. The company is one of the last big, national pizza chains not offering delivery.
“Our customers know that it is exceptionally fast to pick up a pizza [at Little Caesars] versus waiting 35 [to] 45 minutes or an hour for delivery, ” David Scrivano, CEO of Little Caesars, told CNBC.
At a time when many other restaurant chains are adding delivery — including fast-food giants such as McDonald’s — Little Caesars’ business model relies heavily on ready-made pizzas, wings and crazy bread that customers can purchase with little to no wait time. Scrivano said its value proposition and convenience have made it one of the fastest-growing chains over the last decade.
Many of Little Caesars’ locations are in economically challenged communities, Darren Tristano, chief insights officer at Technomic, told CNBC. These customers are less likely to pay for delivery fees or tips, he said.
“Cost-conscious consumers will stop in as part of their regular routine and will find the Hot-N-Ready products within their definition of convenience,” Tristano said. “While everyone else is chasing delivery, Little Caesars is letting the customer come to them.”
Yes, who would have thunk it, that us lowly rabble might need a low cost option, one where the whole pizza is the price other places charge for delivery. How elitist of them.
The snobbery. The affrontery.
But the thing is, it’s not bad pizza by any means — the dough is made fresh daily on the premises — and the Crazy Bread is soft, garlicky deliciousness. And the DeepDish, the $8 alternative to the regular $5 Hot-N-Ready pie, is great if you like a thick crust more akin to pizza cake than some wafer-thin artisan offerings. Nothing wrong with that, but we are trying to feed a nation on the cheap here, to put the substance in sustenance — if you will — and a glorified cheese cracker isn’t going to cut it to the hungry, income-inhibited masses. For cheaper than you can get lesser offerings from the freezer at your grocer, Little Caesars can have you in, out, and stealing a bite the second you clear the door if you so wish.
Little Caesars is Pizza! Pizza! for the people. The real, everyday, salt-of-the-earth people, who want to walk in, or drive up, grab it, and go without anything further process encumbering them. Like their fellow innovators and titans of giving the people what they want, McDonalds and Walmart, Little Caesars has been unjustly derided, mocked, ridiculed, and looked down upon. It is a grave injustice to the American way to not realize the power that is feeding your family on short notice with the change in your car.
That convenience is what keeps the Pizza! Pizza! flying off the shelf and out of the cool pizza vending machine some locations have. Little Caesars always has “limited time only!!!!!” promotions to keep it fresh for the masses, but it’s that convenience that keeps them coming back for more. Not that we didn’t enjoy “pizza by the foot”, or the “wrapped in six feet of bacon!” or the dozens of other crazy things Little Caesars has tried over the years to sell more Pizza! Pizza! But it’s that unbeatable combination of value and convenience that keeps frazzled parents, youth group leaders, and that person that forgot it was their turn to bring snacks, coming back again and again.
So the elites may turn their noses up, and the purveyors of haute cuisine may not appreciate the simple pleasures of crazy bread at the end of a long hard day, or the beginning of a long, hard night. Perhaps the food critics at flagship publications won’t darken the door of their local strip mall Little Caesars for their $5 lunch deal; a “single serve” deep dish that easily could feed two, and a drink. Food Network probably won’t send anyone to taste the wares or chronicle the eternal debate among the great unwashed masses of cheese or pepperoni $5 Hot-N-Ready.
But that is fine, because for a pizza chain that doesn’t deliver, Little Caesars sure does make a lot of meals for a lot of folks, not to mention that as a company they deliver more than just pizza. Since 1985, they have funded the Love Kitchen, a tractor-trailer version of the Little Caesars stores that goes to disaster reliefs like hurricanes, floods, and even 9/11. More than 3 million people have been served over 6 million slices of hot pizza by over 50 thousand Little Caesars employees no matter the condition they find themselves and at no cost. When founder Mike Ilitch died, another delivery was made public, one that was done quietly for years but ought to be known:
In his chambers in Detroit, Judge Damon Keith holds a copy of a check in his hand and has a story to tell. It’s about the time Mike Ilitch came to the aid of Rosa Parks, whose legendary defiance of segregation in 1955 led to the black civil rights movement.
“It’s for $2,000, dated November the first, 1994. It’s from Little Caesars Enterprises to Riverfront Apartments, and I know it was just one of many,” said Keith, 91, who has been a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Detroit for the last 46 years. “It’s important that people know what Mr. Mike Ilitch did for Ms. Rosa Parks because it’s symbolic of what he has always done for the people of our city.”
On Aug. 31, 1994, Parks, then 81, was robbed and assaulted in her home in central Detroit. Keith called real estate developer Alfred Taubman, the owner of Riverfront Apartments, about finding a safer home for Parks. Taubman pledged to find the best home available.
When Ilitch read about Keith’s plan and Taubman’s promise in the newspaper, he called the judge and said he would pay for Parks’ housing for as long as necessary. (Parks passed away in 2005 at the age of 92). Keith served as the executor of the trust established for Parks’ housing.
The episode is just one of many throughout Ilitch’s life when he stepped forward to help, usually outside of the spotlight.
“Mike Ilitch is totally committed to Detroit,” Keith said. “He brought the Little Caesars corporate offices here. He saved the Fox Theatre. He built Comerica Park, and he kept the hockey and baseball teams thriving here when times were tough. But of all the incredible things he has done for the city, people should know what he did for Rosa Parks.”
When the debate moderators and talking heads remarked about the historic and fabulous Fox Theater in Detroit during the Democratic Primary Debate a while back, it was Mike Ilitch’s company and funds that footed the restoration that saved the building that would also house offices for the company upstairs. The new downtown Detroit arena that houses the Red Wings and Pistons is Little Caesars Arena, so of course airline passengers in Detroit are greeted to everyone’s favorite toga’d pizza holder in giant form emblazoned across the roof. Not bad for a company that can’t get the respect its pizza slinging brethren seem to get. And yet, Little Caesars just keeps on keeping on, putting up low cost pizza at high volumes and letting the world think what it may.
Even that not delivering thing has worked out, as time and technology has made third-party food delivery a booming industry. So if you just absolutely, positively have to get your Pizza!Pizza! craving dashed to your door in a uber hurry, there are apps for that.
There is an old Johnny Cash song about an autoworker who smuggled a car “One Piece at a Time” off the assembly line and over many years built himself a frankestein’d car at home. A fitting ballad for the Motor City, and not too far from what Mike Ilitch did starting with those First 49 pizzas, all of which his wife wrote down in a little notebook to keep track of. Building a business empire, helping everyone from disaster victims to frazzled poor folks that just want a pizza on the cheap, and even revitalizing the city where it all started. One pizza at a time. Hot-N-Ready pizza, of course.
Hail, Little Caesars. Pizza! Pizza!