Domino's, the Pizza That Never Sleeps

The imagined community of mediocre delivery pizza, an Object Lesson
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Speaking as a New Yorker, I have a confession. It's big.

Even though I once attended a reading by Colin "Slice Harvester" Hagendorf, the guy who spent a year trying every slice of pizza in New York City, and even though I bought his zine and I had it signed, and even though I can tell everyone else where to get a proper, broad-bellied and mozzarella-loaded slice of authentic New York pizza off the top of my head, and even though I gloat a little inside when my friends come to town and sigh eagerly over the opportunity to eat a Real Slice, even despite all that: I've eaten more Domino's Pizza than I have any other slice available on this island.

"You live in New York!" those same friends rejoin. "Why do you eat Domino's?!"

Because it's the only place that still delivers at 2 AM for one part. This may be the city that never sleeps, but what we do in the weird after-midnight hours rarely resembles work either. If you are a food delivery driver or an actuary or a bike messenger, you get to go do something else come 11 PM, as well you should.

But for another part, if you're a writer, or a web designer, or an app programmer, or a member of any other precarious freelance professions named by the euphemism creative class, you might actually end up working at 1 AM. And maybe having a drink, and probably getting hungry. You check out GrubHub or Seamless, only to see a list of restaurants in your proximity that are utterly closed. They will begin taking orders at 11 AM tomorrow, the website says. In the wan quiet hours after midnight, when your head is buzzing and the sky is ruddy with Martian incandescence, hunger becomes surreal and urgent. What mortal will even be alive at 11 AM tomorrow, let alone hungry?

My initial impulse to start ordering Domino's came from such a desperate moment, one sufficient to make me overcome a brand aversion long baked into my discriminating cosmopolitan crust.

Memories of the Domino's of my childhood are dim: red-and-blue sense memories of cardboard box, cardboard flavor. Industrial food for school parties, the stuff harried parents fed to you at a weekend sleepover. There was also the Noid, a creepy and ill-thought mascot now relegated to the museum of puzzling relics for adult children of a certain age, the kind of thing that gets referenced on Family Guy. A simulation of pizza.

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In 2009, Domino's came in last in a consumer taste survey alongside fellow pizza relic Chuck-e-Cheese. The company could have gone all-out frat-boy retro and cornered the campus market, but instead it seemed genuinely stung, puzzled about the rejection, and committed to reversing its fortunes: "There comes a time when you know you've gotta make a change," said CEO Patrick Doyle in a series of ads themed "Domino's Pizza Turnaround" (the company has a four and a half-minute video on its YouTube channel dedicated to the campaign).

The ad campaign was charmingly earnest, featuring apologetic pizza chefs expressing their commitment to developing better-tasting food, begging consumers to give Domino's another chance. It was so eager, so self-deprecatory, it was almost revolutionary (for a corporate chain). An obvious marketing trick, maybe, but a brave one.

Compare that with, say, my local pizza shop where surly men in stained aprons fling slices at me while trying to look down my shirt. I don't know. I started to feel a little sorry for the underdog. Maybe it's that this is a city where underdogs have enjoyed precious little sympathy ----even if the underdog is a corporation. Maybe we've been waiting a long time for a corporation, any corporation, to make a self-flagellating apology to us, hat in hand.

In some of those Domino's ads, we cringe as the camera highlights ruthless feedback and complaint. You get the idea that the company kind of stumbled onto Twitter a little late, only to face the gut-knotting dread that all along, everyone had been making fun of it. Everyone and everything, from the mega-corporation to the individual writer, is a product to be stridently critiqued in the social media age. I thought about the Domino's CEO reading Tweets about his "boring, bland" food, cardboard comparisons abundant, and thought, "I know that feel, bro."

The company's performance of embarrassing sincerity, complete with a trendy and try-hard box redesign, endeared me to Domino's in spite of myself. Four years later, has the pizza become honestly good, through this apparent committed self-reflection? I mean. I think it's good. I think it's good! I like to think Patrick Doyle continues to meticulously follow Domino's feedback, is reading this right now, maybe quietly says "yesss," with a subtle fist pump.

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Still, it's entirely possible Domino's pizza has simply remained the kind of thing that you just think tastes good at 2 AM, when you've been not-sleeping during a New York weekend and feel like being fed by an over-earnest corporation at an absurd hour. It almost doesn't matter, because it's very easy for Domino's to start feeling like a pal on those nights when you tumble drunk and alone into a taxi and realize that you need to eat, urgently. You leave a party in Chelsea or a venue in Williamsburg, stumble into a car in a pile of your own unraveling frippery, mess clumsily with your iPhone for two minutes, and have a pizza ready to take to bed by the time you get home.

There are times in the life of a harried urbanite that such a thing feels like no lesser miracle. It's some idea you bring home routinely until, in true New York City fashion, you realize you've gotten a little attached to it.

The online ordering interface offers high design for the low-down. An utter lack of pretense and that impression of a meaningfully-earnest desire for approval pervades the entire site. There's a ladleful of quaintness: "Awaiting your delicious selections," it promises underneath the "My Order" header. Popular items are placed front and center in case you have "no time to waste."

You can even build your own "Pizza Profile" so that Domino's will remember Your Location and Your Store. There are always coupons available so you can find the "perfect hot online deal," and the Build Your Own Pizza utility promises you can "watch the pizza of your wildest dreams come to life." And you can, through a visual simulation that lets you customize the amount and color of sauce, the density of your cheese, whether you place toppings only on half your pie or throughout.

It feels a little game-like, and it ought: in 2011, Domino's made waves with an iPad game called Domino's Pizza Hero, a complex touch-based simulation that challenged players to learn the demanding ropes of real pizza-making staffers. The game fits snugly among the kitchen sims popular on tablet devices, and aims to be genuinely-difficult ----to play it is to feel as if Domino's takes the craft of pizza-making incredibly seriously. It's also a subversive, avant-garde training and recruitment device where skilled players will be prompted to apply for jobs at their local franchise once their reward centers have been sufficiently flooded with a sense of success and importance.

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Not only that, but the app allows you to submit the pizza you assemble in the game to your local franchise to be fulfilled as a proper order. As such, the company's use of game mechanics and social media has always felt admirably on-point, a success you kind of have to respect when you notice that most corporations have made a tacky mess of leveraging interactive entertainment and social media. Even beloved GrubHub made cynics of its consumers by wincingly offering up animal memes to consumers who lose its random-prize card game, and suggests recent orderers tweet "I just got Grub'd by the Hub."

"Where's the love?"--so a focus tester demands in Domino's 2009 "Pizza Turnaround" ad spot, as executives and line workers soberly accept a barrage of negative feedback. These days, the chain's online ordering tool makes a point of letting you know the names of the pizza professionals assembling and supervising your meal ("Kenyatta is double-checking your order"), and encourages you to send them feedback from a pull-down menu. My personal favorite, fired frequently from the dizzy edges of late-night couches and lurching taxicabs? "I don't know what I would do without you."

Domino's also seems interested in soothing the uncertainty of shouting online orders into an inestimable ether. A third-party digital interface generally means a lot of unanswered questions, a leap of faith into the vague assumption that the human bodies that ultimately receive your transmission will fulfill it accurately and in reasonable time. The company has a unique antidote: its infamous Pizza Tracker, a five-chambered heart that glows red and pulsates gently on your screen to illuminate each stage of your order, from preparation to quality check to "out for delivery."

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Whether the Pizza Tracker accurately tracks one's pizza journey is a subject of popular debate online, where it's frequently believed to be a hoax (anecdotal tales on forums point out that Domino''s will claim your order is at the 'oven' stage even if you've simply ordered soda bottles). It may not matter. Most Domino's fans would prefer not to know ----the Pizza Tracker is among the most tangible, entertaining components of the Domino's mythos. In today's oversaturated media environment, Domino's has managed to make waiting for your pizza feel like better entertainment than social networks or television, and just as tweetable.

Once an order is placed, consumers can watch an unexpectedly innocent, winsome animated pizza chef named Pete the Pizzamaker putter around in a virtual coal oven as they wait for their orders to be completed. Dark disorientation descends on New York City while this little cartoon mimes making you a meal. You can choose other deeply uncool "themes" for the Pizza Tracker too: a calypso theme featuring a parrot, a "heavy metal" theme. Once I ordered one of Domino's new deep-dish pan pizzas, and while on the phone, was startled to realize a Barry White look-alike was cooing sensually at me from the Pizza Tracker, emphasizing the indulgent slow cooking the menu item proudly required. "There's people making babies to my pizza," I imagined him murmuring. The Pizza Tracker themes are so unfashionable that they reverse into trendiness.

It's strange. Of these various elements -- accessible technology, over-earnestness, social media savvy -- none is a particularly remarkable brand-building technique on its own. Yet together, the ordinariness of an effective online pizza ordering routine stands in relief against the background of me-too social networks and superfluous photo filter apps.

Here in New York City, the ultimate behavioral ideal is to be unavailable--apology and accessibility alike are culturally unattractive things. You must always be very busy, very focused on what makes you special. Social success depends on an insufferable uniqueness coupled with an unforgiving drive and an obsession with authenticity and total responsibility. You must neither be corporate nor humiliated. And yet Domino's has carefully done both and somehow pulled it off.

All of its eagerness and dorky sincerity creates the impression that Domino's is, in violation of city norms, making itself available. It is apologetically present, quietly savvy but humble, seeming to sweetly hope for your patronage, promising that it'll be its own fault, not yours, if you're unsatisfied (I regularly receive 50% off coupons emblazoned big with SORRY! for Domino's perception that I experienced a delay in receiving my order, which of course I never even registered). In an unexpected way, this dinosaur corporation somehow stumbled into posing as the refreshing antithesis to our model of the too-busy, too-important, elusive and infallible urban identity. We'd like to think that the Domino's Pizza is antithetical to worldliness, and that embracing its earnest, dorky white-bread corporatism offers a shrewd rebellion staged quietly from within the walls of our brownstones. But maybe it's just a pretty good, easy meal you can get delivered late at night. A pizza touchstone, a way to connect one's solitary, lonely morning with all the others everywhere else.

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Leigh Alexander writes about video games, interactive entertainment, and contemporary culture. Her work has appeared at Gamasutra, Edge, Boing Boing, Nylon, Slate, Wired, and Paste.

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