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Sunday

I just saw a History Channel show on the history of pizza. I was part of that later history, at a time when the form of the industry was taking on the characteristics we know today. I was a driver and briefly a shift manager for Domino's through most of the 80's, their golden age of growth, and off-and-on into the early 90's.

There's an often unrecognized benefit to working for a very rapidly growing company: a company focused on growth is not focused on costs. That's not to say that they weren't cost conscious, it's still one of the most anal cost control companies I've ever worked for. What it means is that they were willing to pay for that growth, and as a recent high-school graduate with no college education, it brought me an income that I've only recently surpassed - and that's not even adjusted for inflation.

Anyway, the 30-Minute guarantee was the core of Domino's business. All of their technology and training, ruthlessly pursued at grandiose expense, was aimed at shaving a minute here, a few seconds there off of the process of producing a universally consistent product in the minimum possible time. As a manager, I had to compete in what were called "Two-Tray Times", a competition to see how fast we could produce 18 pizza "skins": slap out the dough and sauce it, 6 large and 12 small. The record time was a little over 4 minutes, and the guy who set it was a celebrity in the company. They had custom-designed or at least cutting edge equipment at every stage of the process. From the then newfangled conveyor ovens to a specially designed and produced sauce ladle, they spared no expense in shaving that time.

They could not compete on quality or price. Neiether was unusually bad, but it was never, and is still not, good enough to differentiate them from the competition. In the early days, ca. 1984, when I started, they rarely had specials, and then never advertised how good their pizza tasted. In fact, it was commonly derided as substandard cardboard, even by employees. They had two sizes, one choice of crust, no side dishes, and the only beveridge available was Coke - not even Diet Coke (umm, I think it was called "Tab" then...) or Sprite, just Coke. They simply told everyone who called: "It'll be there in 30 minutes or less". That was all it took.

Then, sometime around the late 80's, there was a slew of successful lawsuits from people who had been injured in accidents caused by Domino's drivers claiming that the 30-minute guarantee was causing reckless driving in order to meet it. It destroyed Domino's core business, and left it just another producer of a commoditized product that can only be differentiated through slick advertising, gimmiky specials, and schizophrenic product additions.

It was a crime. It reduced one of the most innovative, rapidly growing, and employment generating companies to an also-ran corporate leviathan, going through the motions of competing at the margins. And it completely eliminated the opportunities Domino's had provided for high-school graduates to make a "living wage", or much, much better.

It was all based on a myth. It might sound superficially logical to assume that the 30-minute guarantee made the drivers rush through traffic to make the deadline, but it was simply not true.

All of that technology was aimed at the part of the process that happened inside the store. At the end of my time there, the process was such that your pizza could be in the box and on the way out the door 5-1/2 minutes after you hung up the phone. It didn't always happen, the whole assembly line would gradually get further and further behind once it got busy enough, but even at the peak of business 10-15 minutes was still very typical.

If a pizza left the store 20 minutes old or more, the manager in charge already had written it off as being late. The money didn't matter, it was typically 1-2% of the day's take, and was budgeted for. But the poor service did matter, and in that respect, the difference between 29 minutes and 31 minutes was all but completely irrelevant. So much so that a manager would frequently tell the driver "This one is free", regardless of what time it was actually delivered.

This wasn't an issue of safety consciousness, it was an issue of not pissing off a customer who might be worth $500 or more in sales for the year.

And that was true of the whole process - it was a process that discouraged unsafe situations not because they were unsafe, but did so almost accidentally because potentially unsafe situations were only a symptom of poor service.

The fact is that the driver rarely was the deciding factor in whether a pizza was delivered on time or not. There were circumstances where an incompetent driver would simply get lost, or bite off more than he could chew - taking three or four orders out together, with only 15 minutes to complete the whole route. Those drivers wouldn't last long anyway.

There were also situations where a driver would, as a matter of pride, try to save a delivery that left the store too late. But the hero aspect of this was always played down, again, not because it was unsafe, but because that heroism really just resulted in a customer getting charged full price for a 29.9 minute delivery. It was a service failure with or without the heroics.

The one thing that does make drivers want to rush around like madmen is their own bottom line. Deliver this one faster, get back sooner for more, repeat for an eight or ten hour shift, and it might mean an extra 20 or even 50 bucks in his pocket at the end of the night. And that didn't change when the guarantee was removed.

Even in that, it was the smarter drivers who succeeded, not the more reckless. First, there was the issue of tickets. The local cops knew all the Domino's drivers' cars on sight. They were watching, and once the evening got late, we were sometimes the only cars on the streets. Even before the days of the cartop signs, we drove around with giant bullseyes on our cars for the sharks manning the mobile tollboths. Afterall, they had a bottom line to meet, too.

More importantly was the fact that all the speeding in the world couldn't make up for not knowing where you were going: things like knowing that if you took Elm street instead of Main street, the lights were timed better; like the fact that a certain side street goes all the way through to the subdivision you want without any traffic or stoplights; like the fact that the 400 block of Oak street has the odd numbers on the wrong side of the street, or that the 1200 building of that apartment complex can be accessed more easily from the back parking lot instead of the front - and that it's rear security door was usually left propped open by the kids who lived there.

A driver could make up 30 seconds or maybe a minute speeding for the 3 miles that was by Domino's rules the furthest away any part of the delievery areas could be. But then he'd lose it waiting at a light that he could have avoided, or searching in vain for an address that was not where he thought it was supposed to be.

I drove at over 30 different Domino's locations, and delivered more than 10,000 pizzas with only one accident - when a less-experienced driver (we were all very experienced drivers after a few months on the job) crossed the center line and hit me head-on. I've worked for probably more than 50 store managers, area supervisors, and regional directors. In all that, I rarely if ever found a situation where there was any significant pressure or incentives for reckless driving. There was no reason to, no money in it, the guarantee was made or broken in the store before the driver ever entered the picture.

But the judges and juries couldn't or wouldn't see past their first impressions, their superficial out of context logic, and so they all but ruined one of the great American companies, and one of the best jobs I've ever had.

Comments

I worked for Dominos during the same time period as you did and agree with most of what you wrote. However, the franchisee that I worked for penalized store managers on their bonuses if the late-pie percentage was too high. Even though most late deliveries were late before they left the store, this situation still lead to many Friday and Saturday nights where the store manager/MITs would be screaming at drivers to try to make up time on the road for pizzas that were getting old, or even for pizzas that were over 25 minutes old and were already supposed to be counted as late if they were still in the store. In short, while it didn't happen every day, I regularly experienced pressure to ignore my training and common sense on the road and try to speed things up.

Posted by jim at Thursday, July 06, 2006 07:15 PM

Jim,

I'm really surprised. There was of course some occasional subtle pressure, but I really never, err, rarely, saw anything overt or continuing like that. Was this just one store/franchisee, or was it a pattern?

In my experience, managers who regularly got into that situation lost customers fast, and their bonuses along with them.

One shift I ran, we got caught off guard on a weekday by a big basketball game or some such. I was alone in the store with only three drivers, and we hit a 30-pie hour (this before there were doubles, so that's 30 deliveries as well). I ended up with no lates, because, fortunately, the three drivers were three of the most experienced, but also because (not to brag) of how I managed inside.

I was routing the deliveries in my head while I was still on the phone, and made the pies out of order, things like that. I'd give a driver directions like "there's three lines on hold, take exactly one phone call - line 2 is the oldest - then cut two pizzas and leave with x, y, and z.", while I went about making sure the pizzas the next driver would need were being made first.

It was the manager knowing everything that was going on, knowing his delivery area (I had been a driver at that store previously) and having a plan that made more difference than speeding.

I'm sure those drivers pushed it a bit, but agressive is not the same as reckless, and knowing them, I don't think they were reckless. They'd been around too long to have that kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm. Besides, they knew that whatever lates they took, it would be chalked up to a fluke day or bad scheduling, not on them.

What area of the country did you work in?

Posted by kylben at Thursday, July 06, 2006 07:55 PM

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