As winter storm Stella bore down on the US East Coast last March, Larry Manning had much more than snow to worry about.
Manning directs the Domino’s Pizza supply chain center in East Granby, Connecticut, one of 18 such facilities the company operates in the US. These supply chain centers are tasked with preparing—from scratch—the fresh dough that Domino’s distributes several times a week to its nearly 6,000 franchised stores in North America.
The East Granby center supplies dough and other ingredients needed to make a Domino’s pizza—cheese, sauce, pepperoni, and pre-sliced peppers and onions—to about 425 stores in New York and New England. It produces about 18,000 trays of dough, or 126,000 dough balls, in a single day.
To make and ship all that dough, the East Granby center operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But on March 14, 2017, production ground to a halt when Connecticut governor Dan Malloy closed state roads to prepare for Stella. The travel ban kicked in promptly at 5am local time. Manning’s team wasn’t able to get things up and running until past 9pm that day.
In Domino’s time, that 16-hour lapse in production put it behind by about 112,000 dough balls. The East Granby center also hadn’t been able to put any delivery trucks on the road all day, even to places like Providence, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which had escaped the worst of the storm. For a facility that delivers to franchisees as far north as Presque Isle, Maine—a small town less than 20 miles from the Canadian border—that was a significant setback. It was also exactly the sort of problem Domino’s was prepared to handle.Rethinking the recipe
Domino’s, built around delivery, has been quick to embrace the 21st century. The company lets customers place orders through Google Home, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, and Slack, among others, or automatically, when they open the Domino’s app. It has tested delivery by drone and, more recently, self-driving car. But behind that flashy technology, the core of the business is still the supply chain that Domino’s has been building and fine-tuning for the last four decades.
The core of Domino’s business is the supply chain it’s been building and fine-tuning for the last four decades.
Tom Monaghan started Domino’s Pizza in 1960 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with a single store and a $900 loan. The first franchise opened there in 1967. By the early 1970s, Monaghan found he spent more time sourcing ingredients than selling pizza, so he created the company’s distribution arm.
Today, that division includes 18 supply chain centers, an equipment and supply division that sells ovens and other hardware to franchisees, a plant that presses shells for thin-crust pizza, and a vegetable processing plant that slices green peppers and onions.
Not so long ago, Domino’s was the generic cheese pizza that parents served at team sports and birthday parties, with slightly congealed cheese and crust that tasted like cardboard. Then, in 2009, the company redid its recipe, from the crust, to the sauce, to the cheese. The revamp was well-received and, since then, the US-traded stock has soared, outperforming Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon this decade. Supply chain centers staffed up to support the sudden pop in demand.
“Operations, both back-of-house and at the corporate level, continues to be one of Domino’s competitive advantages,” Erik Thoresen, principal at restaurant industry consulting firm Technomic, said in an email. “While many chains focus on continuous improvement, Domino’s has demonstrated a tendency to take it one step further, focusing more on innovation and investments than aim to reinvent their platforms and systems.”
Behind the scenes, the dough-making process is a source of pride and a key ingredient to keeping stores running smoothly all year round.
Most people probably don’t realize Domino’s makes its pizza dough. As fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Sweetgreen have swung toward organic, locally sourced ingredients, Domino’s has stuck by its fast, cheap, and, well, cheesy branding. But behind the scenes, the dough-making process is a source of pride to the company and a key ingredient to keeping stores running smoothly all year round.
After winter storm Stella hit, Domino’s flew people in from around the US to help ramp up production. Many were tractor-trailer drivers, whose service hours are strictly regulated by the US Department of Transportation. Once the center reopened, machines and staff worked around the clock. They broke up deliveries, instructing trucks that normally took 28,000-lb. loads for 10 stores to do five stores apiece instead.
It worked: Stella closed schools, cancelled thousands of flights, and shuttered Domino’s franchisees who couldn’t operate safely in the weather. But in the end, no Domino’s stores ran out of pizza supplies.Key ingredients
Domino’s pizza dough is made from six ingredients: flour, water, salt, sugar, yeast, and oil. In East Granby, they produce a 500-lb. batch of the stuff every five minutes. Water flows into a giant metal mixing bowl followed by yeast and a six-liter container of salt and sugar. The flour is piped in through the ceiling from 70,000-lb. silos, dropping in with a pressurized hiss.
From there the dough is kneaded, then tipped onto another piece of machinery that squeezes and slices it into perfectly round balls. When I toured the facility on a warm day last August, Manning plucked one off a conveyor-belt and tossed it to me. It was warm and a little sticky.
“Every hand-tossed and pan pizza that is eaten in New York or New England comes out of this building.”
“Every hand-tossed and pan pizza that is eaten in New York or New England comes out of this building,” he says of the 40,000 square-foot facility, which employs about 150 people. “It’s a lotta pizza.”
For any given batch of dough, Domino’s knows the product code and temperature of the yeast and other ingredients that went in, the mixer that was used, the temperature of the room, and who handled the dough, ensuring it can recall dough quickly if needed. It saves one dough ball from each batch to check that the dough “proofs”—baker’s lingo for rises—properly, and to test for any defects a franchisee might report.
The dough is chilled on stacked trays and then packed into refrigerated trucks with other ingredients to be shipped out to stores, beginning with those in New York’s five boroughs. A store that placed an order by noon could have dough in its fridge by midnight.
Manning, who has been with the company for 28 years, doesn’t mind that most Domino’s customers may never know about the supply chain division.
“In the supply chain world, we’re rocking, we’re pretty cool,” he says. “We’ve got our own fleet, we’ve got our own drivers, we go in the dead of night, the biggest storms. We’re delivering so our folks can come turn the lights on.”
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