The Truth About The Brothers Who Started Domino's

There are few things so universally beloved in America like a hot, cheesy, pizza delivery. From birthday to office parties, study sessions to Sunday sports games, there are so many moments in our lives made complete with fresh boxes of pizza. And there's a good chance those pizzas came from Domino's. It's the largest pizza company in the entire world based on retail sales, and operates nearly 18,000 locations. Safe to say, you can almost always find a Domino's to deliver near you when a pizza craving strikes. 

Of course, like so many great business success stories, the tale of Domino's has a humble beginning. In this case, it was two brothers with a single shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan who had no idea about what was in store. While only one brother would ride to the top as Domino's achieved global success, both played an important part in creating one of the biggest names in fast food. This is the truth about the brothers who started Domino's.

The brothers who started Domino's had a rough start in life

Tom and James (Jim) Monaghan were both in their early 20s when they opened their first restaurant, which would eventually launch the Domino's pizza empire. Up to that point, the Monaghan brothers had already experienced their fair share of tough times during a considerably rough and unstable childhood.

On Christmas Eve of 1941, when Tom — the eldest of the two brothers — was just four years old, their father died from complications from severe ulcers. The boys' mother wasn't able to care for them on her own, so Tom and Jim spent most of their adolescent years in an orphanage run by nuns, and in and out of different foster homes (per The New Yorker). 

For Tom Monaghan especially, his upbringing was hugely influential in setting him up for success (via SABR). He developed an obsessive work ethic, a rebellious and determined spirit, and more than anything, the desire to be free to move up in the world — traits that would all come in handy in the early days of the pizza wars.

Neither one of the Monaghan brothers had dreams of being pizza moguls

The fact that the Monaghan brothers built an operation that would one day span the globe becomes even more incredible when you consider the fact that neither of them had any plans to get into pizza. By 1960, when the brothers opened their restaurant, both were looking for a way to make some money, but had other ideas for their careers. Jim was a mailman, which came with a degree of job security, but not necessarily great wages at the time (via NALC). Tom was recently back from serving in the Marines and enrolled at the University of Michigan with a dream of becoming an architect (via The Balance) — and in need of money to pay his way through school after losing all his savings in an oil scheme (per The New Yorker). Then, seemingly out of the blue, an opportunity presented itself.

It was Jim Monaghan who had the idea to buy a pizza place, and Tom ran with it

Anyone who knows a little bit about Domino's history knows that Tom Monaghan is the one who drove the company to success. So it's kind of surprising, and even ironic, to find out that it was actually Jim who had the idea to buy a pizza restaurant in the first place. 

In a 2007 interview with The New Yorker, Tom recalled that Jim — while on his mail route — found out about a man in Ypsilanti who wanted to sell his pizza restaurant. Tom mentioned in a later interview that Jim was interested in the opportunity, but afraid to jump into it by himself. Since Tom needed the money for school, he agreed to team up with his brother, thinking they would split their time at the business so he could keep up with his schoolwork. The brothers borrowed $900 to purchase DomiNick's (it was specifically Jim who had the credit to get a loan from the credit union for them), a pizzeria that also sold sandwiches and other Italian specialties. And after a "15-minute lesson in making pizza from Dominick" (via CNN), they were on their own.

The Monaghan brothers' pizza business struggled to get off the ground at first

The Monaghan brothers quickly came to realize that the restaurant business was a tough one to succeed in. The History Channel recently told their story on its "Pizza Wars" episode of "The Food That Built America," laying out the numerous struggles Tom and Jim faced as they were getting started.

DomiNick's (which would eventually be renamed Domino's) was busier than the brothers anticipated in the beginning, and it was a struggle to keep up with the fast pace of a restaurant kitchen, especially with the vast menu selection they offered (which included five different sizes of pizza). On top of that, they didn't have a lot of space in their restaurant. The result was an overwhelmed staff and angry customers complaining about wait times and canceling orders. These struggles are a big part of the reason that DomiNick's quickly switched to offering only pizza, and started delivering them to people's houses (via CNN). As the business grew and the madness escalated, Tom quickly realized he was going to throw himself into the restaurant, and even dropped out of school. 

Pizza is ultimately what drove the Monaghan brothers apart

It was pizza that brought the Monaghan brothers together into business, and it was pizza that would ultimately drive them apart. Within less than a year of buying DomiNick's, Jim decided the pizza business wasn't for him. Some accounts suggest that he preferred to focus on his career with the postal service rather than pursue a life of entrepreneurship. According to the History Channel's "The Food That Built America," some of Tom's business decisions caused a rift between the brothers. Specifically, Jim wasn't sold on Tom's idea to serve only pizza. The show also suggests that Jim didn't want to play second fiddle to his brother, who was very set on running the company and making it successful. According to the Chicago Tribune, Jim also wasn't thrilled with the long hours he was working and the small profits he had to show for it. Whatever his reasons were, Jim quickly realized he wanted out after not even a year in the business, unaware about what a massive financial mistake he was about to make.

Jim Monaghan quickly sold his half of Domino's for a used car

Next time you're feeling regret over a lost opportunity, remember that it will probably never be as costly as Jim Monaghan's decision to walk away from Domino's. Eight months into their partnership, for reasons that may never be truly known, Jim Monaghan decided to give his half of the restaurant (still called DomiNick's at the time) over to Tom. In exchange, he walked away with a used '59 Volkswagen Beetle — the car they'd been using to make pizza deliveries (via CNN). It's estimated that the car was worth the equivalent of about $12,000 today (per Jalopnik). However, we can't help but point out that if Jim would have kept his half of the company, he would have netted nearly half a billion dollars (assuming a 50/50 split) when the company was sold (via Los Angeles Times). 

Adam Richman, a contributor on History Channel's "The Food That Built America," spoke to Mashed in an exclusive interview, and reflected on Monaghan's monumental misjudgement. Richman explained that Jim "didn't like this whole just switching to pizza thing, just doing delivery. He didn't like it. So he left. He said, 'you can have my half of the company, and I get to keep the Volkswagen bug.' And his half of the company is worth $800 million now ... That's a bad trade baby. That's a bad call." Yeah, you can say that again.

At least one brother found true love through pizza

The pizza business brought with it a lot of long hours, stress, and eventually success for one of the Monaghan brothers. It also led one of them to true love. According to Domino's, Tom met his wife while on a pizza delivery. Even more special, it was apparently his first-ever pizza delivery, and it happened a little over a year after getting into the business. Monaghan was making a delivery from his newest store in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to a nearby dorm at Central Michigan University. A woman named Margie was working at the reception desk. 

As the story goes, their eyes met and the rest is history. "After our second date, I gave Margie a heart-shaped pizza for Valentine's Day. It was a big hit with her friends in the dorm" Tom recalled in his memoir "Pizza Tiger" via Mental Floss. "On our third date, I looked into those big blue eyes and realized I was in love." They got married the very next year, and Margie Monaghan spent decades working for Domino's.

Jim Monaghan held a range of working class jobs after leaving Domino's

The fates and fortunes of the two brothers who started Domino's couldn't be more different. While Tom Monaghan eventually amassed a huge amount of wealth, and a lifestyle to go with it, Jim Monaghan lived out his life as a working-class everyman. When he walked away from Domino's in 1961, he was working full time as a mailman (via The New Yorker). However, it looks like that didn't turn into a full-time career for Jim, who passed away in October of 2020 at age 81. According to his obituary, he spent the 1970s working as a security guard, and then worked as an electrician for the Ypsilanti School District throughout the '80s and '90s. Jim was also remembered for maintaining a variety of hobbies — his obit described him as "a machinist, inventor, ham radio enthusiast, Constitutional pamphleteer, steamboat captain, engineer, and a chaplain for the Michigan Militia."

Meanwhile, Tom Monaghan lived a lavish lifestyle for a while

While Jim Monaghan led a quiet life out of the spotlight, older brother Tom's trajectory was the complete opposite. Throughout the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, Domino's continued to grow, along with Tom's wealth and prestige. As an adult, Tom Monaghan used it to claim a lifestyle that he never had as a child (via SABR). In 1983, Tom was able to buy his hometown baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, which he owned until 1992 (via The Balance). Tom didn't stop there, though, and also owned a jet plane, helicopter, and an entire fleet of cars — including a handmade Bugatti Royale as well as the car President Franklin Roosevelt rode in to his second inauguration. The lover of architecture also amassed an expensive collection of works by his hero, Frank Lloyd Wright, such a $1.6 million dining suite (via The New Yorker).

Tom Monaghan sold Domino's after reading a book by C.S. Lewis

After decades of success took Tom Monaghan to the top, the pizza mogul decided to completely turn his life around in the early 1990s. Tom experienced a sort of religious reawakening around that time, sparked by some passages in a book that changed his life. Tom has spoken out about how affected he was by C.S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity." In a testimonial, Tom said that after reading a section on pride, "I stayed up most of the night reviewing my life. As I did, I realized that a lot of the things about me that I thought were good — being competitive, driving for success, always trying harder than anybody else — weren't necessarily that good after all" (via C.S. Lewis Institute). 

Tom Monaghan decided to make big changes, among them, returning to his Catholic faith and selling the Detroit Tigers along with many of his other expensive possessions (via The Balance). And in 1998, he parted ways with his ultimate possession, selling his ownership of Domino's to Bain Capital for $1 billion (via L.A. Times). Since then, he's been actively involved in various philanthropic and charity efforts (via SABR).

It's not clear what kind of relationship the Monaghan brothers had after Domino's

The biggest mystery surrounding the brothers who started Domino's is the relationship between the two men themselves, especially after Jim Monaghan sold his stake in the company to Tom. There's little information to be found online. Tom, who hasn't given a major interview in at least a decade, hasn't really spoken much about his brother's life or their relationship into adulthood. And Jim was hardly mentioned in any news reports. So it's not clear if the brothers had some sort of falling out, or maintained amicable relations that were simply kept out of the public eye. It is worth noting that, other than in reference to starting Domino's, Tom Monaghan was not mentioned or quoted in Jim's obituary. So we may never know just how high the stakes were, and what the true cost was of building the dynasty that is Domino's pizza.