What It Was Like To Eat At The First Domino's

Even the biggest chains start small, and that's true for Domino's, which offered a unique dining experience at the very first store in the chain, which opened for business more than 60 years ago. Today, and since the 1980s, Domino's has reigned over the fast food world as one of the most popular and foremost places to enjoy the pizza experience. With numerous crusts, sizes, and toppings, countless permutations of pie are possible, and then there's the array of sides common at pizzerias, like chicken wings, breadsticks, salads, and desserts. Domino's is a household name in pizza and a global enterprise with a familiar beloved line of products, an unlikely final form of a company that started as a single, tiny restaurant in a suburb of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the early 1960s.

When brothers Tom and Jim Monaghan started making and selling pizzas, they did it out of a revived closed pizzeria, selling to a young base of customers who preferred to dine off the premises. Here's what the average 1960s customer would have enjoyed at the very first Domino's Pizza outlet.

The first Domino's was a slapdash affair

In 1960, brothers Tom and James (Jim) Monaghan learned of a shut-down pizza place in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on the market. College student Tom and postal delivery worker Jim pooled their resources and bought the outlet, once part of a small chain called DomiNick's, from owner Dominick DeVarti, who ran some eateries in nearby Ann Arbor. The Monaghans made a $500 down payment, secured a loan for the other $900, and DeVarti delivered about 15 minutes' worth of lessons in pizza-making. 

After about eight months as partners, Jim Monaghan left the burgeoning business to focus on his mail carrier route; Tom Monaghan bought out his brother's share by gifting him his Volkswagen that doubled as the DomiNick's pizza delivery vehicle. Delivery constituted a substantial part of the DomiNick's order base. Customers could get their pizza hot at their doorstep, or they could pick it up themselves from the restaurant, which was only open from 5 p.m. to midnight each night in the early 1960s. Hours would eventually expand, and in 1965, Tom Monaghan renamed Dominick's, slightly, to Domino's.

Domino's was a college student destination

What would become the first Domino's location was manned by brothers Tom and Jim Monaghan in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Opening under their ownership in December 1960, it was situated just barely off the campus of Eastern Michigan University. The closeness of an inexpensive pizza joint to hungry college students proved vital to the success of the first Domino's, at first carrying on the name of the previous owner, DomiNick's. But an EMU meal service policy made business explode. Sunday evenings were by far the busiest for the Monaghans, because the campus dormitories didn't serve meals on that day, leaving it up to the students to find some place to eat. Many chose DomiNick's, later Domino's.

The parlor's smallest pizzas were especially popular with student customers — six-inch pies could feed one or two people and they were inexpensive. One Sunday evening, after an employee didn't show up for their shift and Tom Monaghan worried about getting too slammed with orders, another worker suggested that the place stop selling six-inch pizzas. "It took just as long to make as the big one, and just as much time to deliver, but cost less," he told Fortune Small Business. DomiNick's had a very profitable Sunday night, and the next day, Monaghan cut its second-smallest size, the nine-inch pie, from the menu. "I learned that keeping things simple could be more profitable."

It was all about the pizza sauce

When Dominick DiVarti agreed to let Jim and Tom Monaghan take over one his DomiNick's restaurant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he showed them the rudimentary basics of pizza-making and imparted some words of wisdom. "His statement 'The secret of good pizza is in the sauce,' made a lasting impression on me," Tom Monaghan wrote in "Pizza Tiger." "I vowed right then that I would have the best pizza sauce in the world."

The key to pizza sauce lies in the seasoning, and Monaghan cast a wide net to ensure that his pizza place would have the most superior, most expertly spiced sauce in the Ypsilanti area. He conducted market research, sampled the goods at every other pizza place in town, intimidated by everyone else's sauce quality. A salesman for one of Monaghan's suppliers told him that the best sauce that he'd ever had was on a pizza at an Italian restaurant in Lansing, Michigan. Monaghan agreed that this sauce was the greatest, and when he told the owner, he gave him the recipe. And that's what he used for his own restaurant in its first few years of existence.

Domino's pizzas were delivered in boxes

Customers didn't often eat at or inside the first Domino's, operating under new owners in the early 1960s but under its former name of DomiNick's. It only had enough room for two tables near the counter, which could seat a maximum of four people. The restaurant was almost entirely a carryout and delivery operation, with customers ordering in person or via the telephone. This meant that early patrons mostly ate their pizza right out of the box, a novel concept for the 1960s and one pioneered by Domino's co-founder Tom Monaghan.

Trial and error indicated that 150 F was the ideal temperature for a pizza when given to the customer, in store or at the moment of delivery, which also satisfied food safety laws. Monaghan worked with Detroit-based cardboard manufacturer Triad Container to create a bespoke box for hot pizza, one that was the right depth to hold a pizza and keep it as hot as needed and which could also bear the weight of other pizza-filled boxes stacked on top. With a fold-down lid and specially placed holes on the sides, Triad's box design became the pizza industry standard after Domino's unveiled it.

The menu wasn't extensive

Early in Tom Monaghan's tenure as the owner and manager of DomiNick's-turned-Domino's, he dropped a significant portion of the menu — including submarine-style sandwiches. They weren't an efficient menu item with regards to cost and the time it took to make them. The pizzas were more popular anyhow, and after eliminating the less profitable six-inch and nine-inch sizes, Domino's wound up offering just two sizes of pizza.

Many things that became standard operating procedure at Domino's in the early 1960s remained in place as the chain grew into one of the world's biggest pizza chains by the 1980s. Only one kind of crust was available at the first Domino's, the one and only beverage option was a non-branded cola-flavored soda, and customers could choose from a modest list of 10 toppings. Those selections included meats like pepperoni, bacon, ham, ground beef, and sausage, and vegetables such as mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and two kinds of olives. No side items whatsoever were offered, a shady thing about the Domino's menu.