Death of a Pizza Man: Mike Ilitch, Little Caesars and Detroit

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Death of a Pizza Man: Mike Ilitch, Little Caesars and Detroit

In 1959, Garden City, Michigan was a small, unremarkable suburb of Detroit. According to the 1960 census, it had a population of 38,017. This was a time before white flight had caused the population of the Motor City to dissipate across the Metro Detroit area. The city I grew up in, Sterling Heights, which is now the fourth-largest city in Michigan, wouldn’t even be founded for almost a decade. In that year in that small suburb, though, a couple opened their first pizza restaurant. The man wanted to call it Pizza Treat. He was convinced to give it another name, Little Caesars.

The man in question was, of course, Mike Ilitch. You may have heard his name come up recently in the news, since Mr. Ilitch recently passed away at the age of 87. When he died, my dad texted me “RIP Mike Ilitch.” This may seem strange on the surface. Why would somebody send a text about the death of a pizza chain magnate, particularly when the man is a total stranger to the two parties involved? Because my father and I were both born and raised in Detroit, and Ilitch and Little Caesars are intrinsically linked to the area, now and forever.

It may seem strange to think of a massive, global pizza chain as being a “Detroit” company. Little Caesars isn’t a more localized pizza place, a la Jet’s or Buddy’s, the latter of whom is considered the finest purveyors of “Detroit-style pizza.” Detroit-style pizza, for the unfamiliar, is a Sicilian-style square deep dish pizza with a nice, thick, usually crisp crust. Little Caesars is the third-largest pizza chain in the United States. This is how and why Ilitch died a billionaire. However, to me, when I think pizza, I think Little Caesars. I will forever connect Ilitch and his pizza organization to the city of Detroit.

As a child, when my family got pizza, we got Little Caesars. It’s naturally ubiquitous in the area, and the defining pizza chain of my life. The orange-and-white iconography, the short, big nosed Roman-looking gentleman (the physical manifestation of “Little Caesar”), the catchphrase “Pizza! Pizza!” they are all emblazoned on my brain. We ate Crazy Bread, their take on breadsticks. When the big pizza chains were involved in their battle to create the biggest party-sized pizza, any party I remember going to went with Little Caesars.

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Then, in 2004, they introduced the Hot-N-Ready pizza. You could walk into a Little Caesars and order a large pepperoni pizza for a mere $5, and there would be one waiting for you. Hence, the “Hot-N-Ready” name. In a matter of moments, you could be walking out the door of a Little Caesars with a large pepperoni pizza for five bucks. When I first heard about this offer, I honestly thought, “This is going to be the most successful fast food idea of all-time.” I thought it—the idea of me and a few friends being able to run out and get a large pizza for a couple bucks apiece—was genius. Granted, I was also 17.

Of course, now I’m an adult and I can realize that the Hot-N-Ready pizza was not good pizza. The crust was terrible, bland to the point of tasting like cardboard. The cheese was cheap and would congeal really easily, and the pepperoni was low-quality. The fact these pizzas were made in advance, and could be left sitting around under heat lamps for minutes at a time surely didn’t help. Their other pizzas weren’t much better, admittedly, and even the Crazy Bread isn’t any great shakes when you have any standards when it comes to food quality.

However, it’s not like anybody didn’t understand what the Hot-N-Ready pizza was all about. In The Simpsons Homer once asked Marge if she wanted something done right, or done fast. Marge responded, “Well, like all Americans, fast!” Marge spoke for the people who liked the Hot-N-Ready pizza. It was cheap and convenient, and if that was all you cared about it was the platonic idea of pizza. It clearly worked, because the Hot-N-Ready pizza remains Little Caesars’ main selling point.

Although Domino’s was founded a stone’s throw from Metro Detroit in Ypsilanti, it isn’t a Michigan brand and much less a Detroit brand. Ilitch, though, engrained himself in Detroit, and company’s headquarters are located in downtown’s Fox Theatre Building. More to the point, Ilitch owned the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings for many years. He bought the Wings in 1982 and the Tigers in 1992, fittingly from Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s, and made him a vital part of the life of any Detroit sports fan.

Under Ilitch’s ownership, the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups, and go to two more Stanley Cup Finals. Their Cup win in 1997 was their first since 1955, making it a monumental moment for a city that calls itself Hockeytown. The Tigers never managed to win a World Series for Ilitch, which genuinely bums people around here out. There had been an explicit push for the Tigers to try and get a World Series as Ilitch got up there in years, but it never quite happened. Next year, the Red Wings and the Pistons will begin playing in a new arena in midtown. This will be the first time since 1978 that the Pistons will be playing their home games in Detroit, finally meaning all four Detroit sports teams will be in the city proper. The name of this new sporting complex? Little Caesars Arena, of course.

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Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not mention the weird wonder that was Caesarland. What’s Caesarland, you might ask? It was a series of local establishments in the vein of Chuck E. Cheese’s or Major Magic’s but with a Little Caesars flair. Yes, Little Caesars had its own branded version of a kid’s play place and arcade all over the Metro Detroit area. I wish I could regale you with several tales of time spent at Caesarland, but it has been a couple decades since I visited, and my memories are somewhat limited. I recall playing a football arcade game, playing air hockey and spitting on the costumed head of some poor guy dressed as the Little Caesars mascot. I would like to take this time to apologize to the poor person in the suit, who was almost assuredly an underpaid teenager. I’m sure I ate Little Caesars pizza at Caesarland, which I likely enjoyed because, again, it was the pizza of my youth.

I would like to tell you that when I heard Mike Ilitch died that I ate some Little Caesars in his honor. I wish I could say that I picked up a $5 Hot-N-Ready, but alas, I did not. Eating a mediocre large pizza felt like a bridge too far even as an act of commemoration. Ilitch had an outsized impact on my life, and the life of many of us who have grown up in Detroit. Again, he founded Little Caesars in 1959. My parents grew up, just as I did, eating Little Caesars. My dad took me to go see the sports teams that Ilitch opened. My mom took me to Caesarland so I could play videogames and eat pizza and harass hourly wage workers like a jerk. Little Caesars is intrinsically linked to Metro Detroit, now and forever, and it’s all thanks to Ilitch. He was born in Detroit. He died in Detroit. He gave us Crazy Bread and cheap large pepperoni pizzas that you could pick up immediately whenever you felt like it without having to call ahead. I’ve never been deeply impacted by the death of a fast food entrepreneur before. I probably never will again. That’s the strange, intimate relationship Ilitch had with Detroit and its denizens in a nutshell. May the Tigers win a World Series in your honor, sir. May your bread always be crazy.


Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.

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