If you’re going to a party to watch the big game this Sunday, there’s a good chance pizza will be on the menu.
According to the good folks at the National Restaurant Association, Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest day of the year for the pizza industry. Pizza Hut will sell at least 2 million pies and Domino’s expects to sell over 12 million slices.
Why are we talking about pizza at a car publication? Well, since game watchers will be too busy, erm, watching the game, they’ll likely have their pizzas delivered. If that pizza comes from your local Domino’s, it’ll be delivered by this: the Domino’s DXP.
Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan is proof you don’t need to be a genius to succeed.
To give you an idea of Mr. Monaghan’s idea of smart, he hired a legendary college football coach, Bo Schembechler, to run the Detroit Tigers. Then Monaghan had Schembechler fire another legend, Cooperstown entrant and famed broadcaster Ernie Harwell, only to fire Schembechler himself the following year as Monaghan prepared to sell the team to competing pizza baron Mike Ilitch, the founder of Little Caesars.
Good ideas are more common than you think. Leibniz and Newton both developed calculus, independently of each other. The smartest idea I ever had was if I have a good idea, chances are someone else already thought of it. While good ideas are not that rare, people who persevere are noteworthy.
Monaghan had one good idea — cheap pizza delivered for free — and he worked it very hard. He and his brother bought a pizza shop named Domi-Nick’s in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960, the idea being that students at the local Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan in nearby Ann Arbor would be a ready and hungry market.
Getting back to this being is a car site, and not one for foodies, I’ll point out Volkswagen Beetles loom large in Domino’s lore. As a matter of fact, a year after the Monaghan brothers bought the pizzeria, Tom bought out his sibling’s half share in the business by bartering a VW Bug.
In the early days, Domino’s used a variety of delivery vehicles, including a Checker Marathon, but Monaghan started using a fleet of Beetles with dominos painted on the sides after opening up a branch in Ann Arbor and renaming the company Domino’s in 1965 (either to make it easier to pronounce or avoid confusion with a restaurant named Dominick’s on the UofM campus, which also served pizza). Tom even had custom warming ovens made to fit in the back of a Bug, which replaced the rear seats.
Monaghan had some love for domestic brands, too. There are archival photos of him in front of the former American Motors headquarters taking delivery of an American Motors Javelin. It was painted in the red, white, and blue racing livery of the Penske/Donohue Trans Am series AMC cars, complete with an illuminated Domino’s roof sign.
The company that was once worth a couple of used Volkswagens was sold by Monaghan in the late 1990s for about a billion dollars, and delivery is still a fundamental part of its business. Over the years, the company has experimented with a variety of vehicles to get you your pizza while it’s still hot, including motor scooters and electric cars. It’s shown robotic concepts and maybe it’s experimenting with drone delivery as I type this, but currently the firm famous for delivering oven fresh pizzas is, ahem, heated up about the Domino’s DXP, a dedicated delivery vehicle custom designed to fill a few roles for franchisees. The DXP acronym stands for Delivery Expert.
Working with Local Motors, Domino’s crowdsourced suggestions for a bespoke delivery vehicle about three years ago. Once it had a design brief, Domino’s brought in former GM R&D exec Ken Baker and Roush Industries to bring it to life.
Rather than build something from scratch, the team settled on the 2015 Chevy Spark. Why the Spark? Domino’s has franchises all around the world and the Korean designed Spark is one of GM’s global vehicles. Also, the company had to consider interior capacity vs exterior size, safety features, and fuel economy. The Spark fit the bill.
Why a dedicated vehicle? Most Domino’s delivery workers use their own cars and are compensated for their vehicles’ use based on a mileage basis. (Domino’s was sort of the Uber of pizzas before there was an Uber.) A dedicated vehicle owned by the franchisees allows them to hire from a much wider pool of potential employees. Not everyone has a car and not everyone who has one wants it to smell like pepperoni.
General Motors was involved in the project, mostly in a supportive role, while the bulk of the work was done by Baker, Roush and Domino’s own personnel. The cars were purchased by Domino’s through GM Fleet Sales and the pizza shops take delivery from a local Chevy dealer.
The response from franchisees was much greater than anticipated. Domino’s initially planned on selling just 10 or 20 DXPs, but Domino’s decided to expand the program after it brought the prototype to a franchisee rally and ended up with 100 orders, representing 25 markets.
With thousands of stores, that’s only a single digit percentage take rate, but the DXP is seen as augmenting, not replacing, the current delivery fleet. In any case, the response was so good that Domino’s ordered up another 50 DXPs from Roush. There was just one problem: the DXP has a built-in pizza warming oven accessible from outside the car via a remote controlled hatch mounted into the no-longer-usable driver side rear door. GM changed the Spark just enough for the 2016 model year that the DXP’s special kit won’t fit later Sparks. Domino’s and Roush had to scour the country looking for new-old-stock ’15 Sparks.
The cars are purchased by the franchises, but Domino’s retains right of first refusal to prevent their resale to the public. At the end of their lifecycle, the DXPs will likely be crushed. A Domino’s executive told me the company doesn’t want ratty old cars hurting the company’s image once they are in private hands. That’s a bit ironic in light of the condition of many of those employee-owned delivery vehicles.
When the driver’s door is opened, it triggers a safety light that illuminates the ground in front of the hatch. The DXP also has something it shares with very high-end luxury cars: fitted luggage. There are two custom warming bags when an order calls for more pizzas than the oven can fit. Now a single seater, the interior has been reworked to accommodate up to 80 pizzas, with attendant salads and drinks. There are bins and cubbies for the food, napkins, flatware and whatever else the driver might need to make a successful pizza run. Though you can’t hose the DXP out, the storage areas have been designed for easy cleaning.
I’m not sure if the red and white graphics on the base white Spark are painted on or a vinyl wrap, but there are a number of vinyl decals with cutesy labels, like a warning not to put pizza sauce in the fuel filler. All of the Chevrolet logos have been removed and replaced with Domino’s or DXP graphics. Even the wheel center caps have a Domino’s domino. Considering that franchises have to buy them, however, the ad space allotted for the local store, an address below the door handles, could be larger. In general, the DXP’d Spark looks cheerful.
It’s too early in the experiment to see if the DXP has boosted pizza sales, but they’re tracking brand sentiment. So far, the general feeling is it’s been a good investment for the franchisees. Some have even bought a second DXP. Currently, the program is restricted to the continental United States.
Domino’s headquarters is in Ann Arbor, less than an hour from my home, and the nice folks there arranged for me to test drive a DXP owned by the Domino’s store closest to its HQ, an independently owned franchisee of Pies Inc. The store manager told me the DXP is very popular with both employees and customers. Students at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan in nearby Ypsilanti specifically request it. I forgot to ask if they tip better when their pizzas come in the DXP.
While I didn’t get to fully test it by delivering pizzas, I did get a chance to tool around north Ann Arbor on the same roads used by the franchise’s drivers.
Other than the revised interior, it’s like any other Chevrolet Spark from the driver’s seat, except for obscured vision over your left shoulder because of the warming oven. There’s also a non-factory switch next to the USB port in front of the console that controls the removable illuminated sign on the roof.
This particular DXP had about 23,000 miles on it, so it had delivered a few pizzas, but it didn’t look worse for wear. One of the tires had a slow leak, which they took care of with a fix-a-flat can before I drove it, but it wasn’t like I was going to pull 1g on a skid pad. Actually, that’s a thought: load up the DXP with pizzas, drinks and salads and see what kind of lateral acceleration you can pull before food starts a flying. The “Passenger Air Bag Off” light was illuminated because there isn’t a passenger air bag — or passenger seat for the matter. Once I figured out the controls, the A/C started blowing cold, though one of the drivers told me cooling is marginal with a full load of pizzas on a hot day.
In terms of driving dynamics, it’s a 2015 Chevy Spark, which actually makes it a decent sedan delivery. While our esteemed colleague Mr. Baruth found the CVT equipped ’15 Spark to have “adequate” freeway acceleration, he was driving it in the middle of winter, albeit below the Mason-Dixon line. I drove the Domino’s DXP in the middle of last summer’s late heat wave with the outside temperature in the high 90s. With the air conditioning on, as I’d expect it would be with a hot oven and 80 pizzas in the back, the DXP is dog slow, and I’m not talking about greyhounds. It is, however, easy to maneuver on city streets, likely another reason for Domino’s choosing the Spark along with hopefully city fuel economy. That last hope may be a bit unfulfilled as the instrument panel indicated a cumulative 28 mpg.
Actually, while the DXP can carry more than six-dozen pizzas, that’s for corporate catering and special events. The typical Domino’s delivery order, I’m told, is one pie, one side order, and a couple of drinks.
In any case, the Domino’s DXP is a clever idea from a company that has a history of using clever delivery vehicles. While driving the DXP, my route took me right past UofM’s MCity autonomous vehicle research facility. Perhaps at a party for Super Bowl LXI (that LXI sounds like a trim line on a Honda, doesn’t it?) your pizza will be delivered to your door by a drone launched from an autonomous DXP at the curb.
[Image Source: Ronnie Schreiber, Domino’s]
Domino’s corporate headquarters arranged the drive. The local franchisee, Pies Inc., on Plymouth Rd. in Ann Arbor, Michigan provided the Domino’s DXP delivery vehicle, gasoline, and insurance. No free pizza, though.