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.

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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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