Chain Pizza Showdown

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Every month, TEAM SPT gets together for an evening of intense pizza study. Past events have brought us to New Havencanned tomato tastings and pizza making workshops. Last month we agreed it was time to get our hands dirty and do some serious trench work, so we ordered pizza from all the major chains within delivery distance of my Brooklyn apartment and conducted a not-so-scientific chain pizza showdown

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First up was Little Caesar’s. I thought they had gone out of business years ago, but it turns out they’re the third highest grossing pizza company in the country! Locations are scattered in NYC and really only in low-income neighborhoods in the outskirts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. I get it — they have a “large” pizza (it’s just 14” as opposed to the usual 16-18” large) for only $5 and there’s little to no wait time to get a pizza. It’s clearly going to be a low-quality pizza, but not everyone wants imported Neapolitan flour and San Marzano tomatoes. Fast food pizza is a necessary evil.

Truth be told, I had only had LC’s once before and I completely forgot about it until weeks after we tried it - so this felt like it was my first taste. It was the first pizza of our test because LC’s doesn’t deliver (they’re take-out only) so we picked up a HOT-N-READY® pie. I have to admit, I was pretty excited to finally try Little Caesar’s. It’s the closest pizza to my apartment and I felt guilty for walking past it every day. I was also pretty hungry, so they clearly had the best positioning of the night.   

While I’d never eat this again on purpose, I thought it wasn’t the worst of the night. The CSR (cheese-to-sauce ratio) was pretty even. I might even say it was the sauciest of the night. Shredded low-moisture mozzarella has a tendency to slurp up sauce and I was surprised at LC’s moisture level. The crust was floppy and soft, as expected from the conveyor oven bake, and the cheese had a reasonable pull without getting in the way. The pie’s temperature upon arrival was 130 F, which (SPOILER ALERT) turned out to be the average for the night. 

Overall, I’d call this a very solid desperation pizza, one you only fall back on when all else fails. You’ll feel guilty immediately upon taking the first bite, but you’ll move on with your life and pretend it never happened.

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The second pie of the night was from Domino’s. We wanted to order the exact same pie from each place, but I think this one’s technically a specialty pie.  I have a longer history with Domino’s than I do with the others we ordered for this test. My family never ate it when I was a kid. I remember the family mantra “Domino’s tastes like cardboard” and that alone prevented me from ever ordering it even in my darkest hour. Then Domino’s famously changed their recipe in 2009 and I felt it was my job — no, my responsibility — to give it a go. If the new version was an improvement, I’m glad I never had to deal with the old version. A couple years passed and decided it might be fun to get to know the pizza industry better by working some pizza jobs, one of which was as a delivery boy for my local Domino’s. I worked for about three weeks and made just over 100 deliveries.

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Undercover Pizza Lover Part II: Domino’s Delivery Boy

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I don’t have many photos of this job since it was 100% undercover.

Delivering pizza has never been a career goal of mine. I suppose it’s a good gig for a college student, but those days have passed. It has always seemed like a unique job, and certainly a position of some significance since over 1 billion pizzas are delivered in the United States every year. To learn more about this corner of the pizza industry I had to go undercover with the industry leader, a company with a great history of success and failure that just so happens to be riding a tall wave at the moment. After filling out an online application, interviewing with the manager, and producing all necessary ID and insurance information, I was hired as a part-time delivery driver at a Domino’s in Brooklyn. None of my co-workers had any idea that I spend my days leading tours to NYC’s top pizzerias and I liked keeping that secret to myself. After all, I was there to learn about delivery from the perspective of the person ringing the doorbell.

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If nothing else, I expected a massive company like Domino’s to be extremely organized. Incorrect. After a detailed online interview process, the seemingly tight structure of the organization seemed to slip into utter chaos, with a mandatory orientation that felt like its purpose was to satisfy a district manager rather than introduce trainees to the company and its methods. But I made it through and signed up for a shift the next night, figuring I’d be doing some training. Wrong again. With little more instruction than “bring people their food and then come back,” I went out on my first delivery. Maybe this isn’t the most complicated job ever, but I would have liked some guidance about how to conduct the transaction. Oh well, I guess I’ll just learn on the job.

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Day 1

My first delivery didn’t go too smoothly. I forgot the credit card receipt and a 2 liter bottle of soda. I had no option other than to run back to the Big D for the missing goods and get back on the road. If the “30 minutes or it’s free” guarantee hadn’t been nixed due to several major auto accidents in the 1990s, I would have been in deep doo-doo. Every order comes with a tag that lets the driver know what to deliver, the street address, and an estimated time of delivery. That time is calculated based on when the order was placed, and how many orders are in the system. Guarantee or not, there’s a lot of pressure with that estimated delivery time staring back at you. I found myself driving like a madman, but it seemed necessary if I wanted to get back to home base to grab the next order.

Shift length: 6 hours
Total deliveries: 15
Average tip: $2.53

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The World’s Largest Dough Tray Producer

The more I get into pizza making, the faster I slide down the slippery slope that accompanies obsession. First, there’s the obligatory pizza stone you purchase to simulate the direct heat conduction of a real deal pizza oven. Then there’s the pizza peel to help you slide your potential masterpiece safely and quickly onto the hot stone. Next comes the hot-rodded pizza cutter and serving trays to help with the presentation. Those are the absolute basics, but there seem to be more and more products on the market every day that aim to help the aspiring pizzaiolo creep closer to the big leagues.

Enter the DoughMate.

 

This simple box is exactly what pizzerias use to store their proofing dough. The only difference is that it’s just HALF THE SIZE — so it fits in the fridge right on top of what looks like a box of leftover pizza in the above photo. Circle of life, my friends.

I used the DoughMate a few times and did what any normal person would do - I joined their facebook group! One thing led to another and the president of the company, Michael Maddan, invited me and Mark Bello (of Pizza a Casa) to take a tour of their production facility in New Jersey. I was pretty jazzed but nothing could have prepared me for the jazziness that overtook my soul when Michael told me his exact location.

It was none other than Cranford, NJ - my hometown.

Allow me to paint a picture. Cranford is a 4.8 square mile town of about 25,000 people. To use some classic NJ terminology, it’s located off exit 137 of the Garden State Parkway. I have taken this very exit at least a hundred thousand times and can recall the journey down the off-ramp with the ease of tying my own shoes in the morning. I know the location of every pothole, the exact position of police speed traps, the best way to enter the Dairy Queen parking lot in order to architect the fastest getaway. Yet I somehow overlooked the fact that I was driving past Madan Plastics, the largest producer of pizza dough trays in the world.

Madan opened in the 1950’s as a manufacturer of injection-molded pieces for just about every industry imaginable. They only entered the dough tray biz in 1988 after receiving a request from a little company called Domino’s. They wanted a stronger box that could handle the physical demand of a high volume pizza business and Madan had the goods. Now every Domino’s pizzeria is stocked with dough trays stamped “Cranford, NJ” on the bottom (Domino’s is the sole carrier of blue dough trays as pictured above and below). The Madan box was so good that eventually other pizza franchises called with requests, but they get the gray boxes.

 

Michael Madan gave us a great tour of the facility and we learned a lot about the exciting world of injection molding. Michael is a huge pizza enthusiast so we spent quite a bit of time talking about pizza making and pizza eating. Conversation took us past the realm of pizza and we learned the fascinating fact that Michael’s grandfather Ed Madan invented the soft toilet seat. WOW!

 

I have to be honest, I had never thought much about pizza dough trays but after visiting Madan Plastics I have a new found respect for this seemingly benign aspect of the pizzaverse.

Big thanks so Michael and everyone at Madan for the factory tour. You can check out the Madan Plastics website for more info about pizzeria dough trays and mini “artisan” dough trays for home use.