Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.
Poor Domino’s doesn’t find itself in the news for good reasons very often. A few examples from just the past few months:
- This month, they went through what Kotaku called a “free pizza apocalypse,” as internet jackwads gamed an ill-considered “emergency pizza” promotion. (remember the “don’t be a dick to restaurants” rule?)
- In August, their Eurasian franchisee announced the suspension of its Russian operations – not as a principled stance due to the Ukrainian invasion, which of course had already been going on for a year and a half, but just because it wasn’t making money for them.
- In 2022, Domino’s pulled out of Italy after a seven-year foray, which honestly sounds more like a joke than a news story.
Of course, this is all from a company that in 2009 responded to some all-time low customer satisfaction numbers (and a wider economic crisis) by producing an entire marketing campaign to apologize for sucking.1
But the story of the Leaning Tower of Pizza isn’t from the past few months. It’s from those hazy, cocaine-fueled days of the 1980s, when (a) they thought The Noid was a good mascot, and (b) Capcom agreed enough to turn it into an impossible Nintendo game. And they had reason to believe in their Midas touch: Between 1980 and 1990, founder Tom Monaghan once told MLive, Domino’s went from 300 stores to 5,000.
It was around this time, in 1987, that Monaghan hatched a plan to build a 30-story tower near the Ann Arbor, Mich. home of the $2 billion pizza chain – and to make the tower list to the east at 15 degrees, apparently inspired by an unrealized Chicago project by Frank Lloyd Wright. Improbably, Monaghan hoped it would serve not just as a new headquarters, but as a tourist complex: The whole project was budgeted for $80 million ($216M in 2023), including an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, and the tower itself would contain hundreds of hotel rooms. In a local newspaper, Monaghan described the proposed erection as “one of the great architectural masterpieces.”
Instead, Domino’s got the first part of the project – an office building of nearly a million square feet, called Domino’s Farms, and likewise built in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style. (It is also surrounded, for some reason, by a herd of tamed bison.) Thanks to economic vagaries, the office park took so long to build that it wasn’t actually completed until 2005, seven years after Monaghan retired and sold Domino’s to Bain Capital for $1.1 billion.2
As for the tower, it never happened – but you can still visit it, kind of. In the field between Domino’s Farms and U.S. Highway 23, you can see a 50-foot model they built back in the day.3 It’s “A little tough to get a good view of the Leaning Tower,” said one intrepid spotter. “Be sure to walk past all the parking lots [and] continue along the side of the road until you see the pond.”
Ah, what could have been.
- Apparently it worked. Since that time, their stock price has gone from about $8 to $384 – down from a high-water mark of $534 last year. (If anything finally and decisively worked for them, it was Covid-19.)
- If the name Bain Capital sounds familiar, that’s probably because of the 2012 presidential election. Indeed, Mitt Romney himself signed a $385 million check on deal day.
- If we remember our trigonometry – and we do not – then it would be about 51’9” tall if you straightened it out.