A PIZZA THE ACTION
Local Domino's nearly felled
BY COREY LEVITAN
I've had some cheesy adventures, but this one takes the pie.
Domino's Pizza called recently, asking if I wanted to write about being a pizza chef. I told them I'd be over within 30 minutes, or else their article was free.
It was a perfect chance for voluntary karmic penance. My college roommates and I used to pull this scam on all the local pizzerias. We'd order a pie to the nearest dorm room we could find with no one home. Then we'd wait in our lobby.
When the dejected delivery person exited the elevator, we'd ask what happened and pretend to sympathize, offering $5 to take the unclaimed pizza off his or her hands.
It was evil, but necessary considering how much it cost to keep our fridge perpetually stocked with the refreshing taste of Old Milwaukee beer.
Now I have the chance to help a pizza establishment rather than harm one.
I report at 3 p.m. to the Domino's in Torrance, celebrating its second month of operation. I tie my apron and request my big white Chef Boy-R-Dee hat. But field operations assistant Ron Kammerer explains that Domino's cooks get only a baseball cap. I adjust the size of mine to abnormally large as I receive a guided tour.
The "make line" station is where Domino's pizzas begin their lives as hunks of dough that are sprinkled with sauce, cheese and meat supplied from a walk-in freezer. (A sturdy, lock-proof inside handle prevents all potential "I Love Lucy" comedy.) Once prepared, the pizzas roll through a 500-degree oven for six minutes on a conveyer belt. Then they're boxed up and placed on a heated metallic table to await delivery.
All Domino's employees are cross-trained, Kammerer explains. They serve as drivers, chefs and order-takers, as the need dictates. Today, the need apparently dictates heavy security. Kammerer and three other Domino's representatives stand within five feet of me at all times, scrutinizing my every pizza-making decision.
"Ah, ah!" snaps corporate publicist Julie Watt, who placed the call opening the door to this adventure. "Wash your hands again!"
I had unconsciously licked my fingers after spilling sauce on them. Domino's employees must suds up for 20 seconds with hot water and soap before touching food.
"Sing 'Happy Birthday' twice," Kammerer says. "That's the best way to insure you've scrubbed for 20 seconds."
Domino's was cool enough to agree to let me make a pizza that they deliver to an actual customer, alongside one made by trained hands. The results will be marked A and B, and we'll call after 15 minutes to ask which tasted better.
I demand a practice pizza first. It's only fair. Besides, I'm hungry.
Kammerer and store manager Sal Macias coach me in "proofing" the dough. This means flattening it out from a ball to a disc as you sprinkle on corn meal, which prevents it from sticking to your hands and arms. The dough feels soft, a grotesquely organic kind of soft, like the extra flesh that hung from my grandmother's elbow.
"It is a live product," Kammerer says, pointing to an elaborate chart detailing the stages of each numbered bread tray in front of us.
"The Saturday-through-Wednesday dough is made on Thursday," Kammerer says, not unlike Russell Crowe's schizophrenic "A Beautiful Mind" professor lecturing about abstract math theorems.
In elementary school I knew a kid whose mom made him keep an underwear chart like that. I was thankful for the pressure he took off me as a bully target.
The walls are plastered with many similarly complicated charts, I notice, such as how many of which toppings go on Domino's pepperoni and meatball pizzas -- with instructions varying for small, medium and large sizes, as well as cheese and extra cheese. Then there are the exotic varities such as MeatZZa Feast, Hawaiian Feast, Vegi Feast and Pepperoni Feast.
I suddenly felt even more sympathy for the pizza guy standing in the lobby of our dorm room.
"What are you doing?" asks store owner Gary Kettler.
I had begun throwing the dough in the air, like every pizza chef ever portrayed on TV.
"We don't throw our dough," Kettler says.
First no chef's hat, now this? Throwing dough is a deal-breaker for me.
"No article unless I throw," I insist.
They acquiesce, and I do the forbidden deed several more times. Aside from providing the prime visual for this column, maybe there's some reason for the dough throw. Perhaps I was about to give my pizza educators an education in pizza.
The dough plops down on my hands, irregularly shaped and with two finger holes poked in it, like Dumb Donald's hat on "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids." Throwing apparently serves to stretch the dough out. Mine is now way too big to fit on Domino's specially sized cooking tray for a 10" pie.
I attempt to plug Dumb Donald's eye holes and reign in an inch and a half of diameter as Kettler flashes an "I told you so" smile. The holes disappear but my pizza dough is ridiculously thick at the edges and paper thin everywhere else.
"Let's cheese your pizza," says Macia after the sauce-licking debacle described earlier.
Aside from my illicit dough-throwing, the coolest thing I discovered about making a Domino's pizza is how the cheese, imported from a New York company called Laprino, gets on the pie. A proprietary gizmo called Khalid's Auto Cheeser finely chops the shredded cheese and rains it down like mozzarella hailstorm.
"Isn't that cool?" Kammerer asks.
While attending the University of Michigan in 1960, Tom Monaghan and his brother devised a way to get pizza even cheaper than ordering it to empty dorm rooms and waiting at the elevator. They borrowed $900 and bought a small pizzeria called Dominick's in Ypsilanti.
They changed the "ick" to an "o" and business went so well they opened two more stores.
"That's why we have the three dots on our logo, for the three original stores," says Kammerer, who notes that this fact was once a 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' answer. (The contestant got it wrong.)
Domino's has since expanded to 7,000 Dominos worldwide. And after I'm done here, it could contract to 6,999.
In honor of my college roommates, I couldn't resist having at least one pizza prank up my sleeve. Actually, it's in my back pocket. I'm a vegetarian, so I smuggled in a package of veggie pepperoni. I'm dying to place it on the pie I make for the actual customer, to see if he or she can tell. But the breath of the pizza police is on my back, and it smells like trouble.
And Cheesy Bread.
So I sacrifice my Yve's soy-based pepperoni on my practice pizza. Kettler informs me it is the first time vegetarian pepperoni has ever entered his store.
"It looks like Play-Do," he remarks. (Now there's a quote Yve's is going to want to redesign its package to incorporate.)
As the pizza runs through the oven, I notice something I only see in New York-style pizzas: the pesky bubble. In fact, there are tons of them, as many as in a can of Dow Bathroom Cleaner. My pizza looks like a relief map of the Rockies.
Kettler offers me a long fork and tells me to pop the bubbles, or they'll turn black and taste burned.
"Bubbles are from the gases you stirred up inside the dough," he explains. "Now you can see another reason we don't throw the dough."
"Mmm!" I say, trying to entice my new bosses with my singed, fake-meat Corey Special once it makes it through the oven and a Domino's pizza slicer.
"We're all pretty excited about this, you know," Kettler says, "especially about eating your butt germs. Not many of our employees carry pepperoni in their pockets."
"The oven probably killed my butt germs," I respond.
Kettler, the first willing test subject, says the pizza "has no flavor."
Watt is offered her own slice.
"I'm allergic to bell peppers," she lies.
Americans order three billion pizzas a year, adding up to a $30 billion pie. The Torrance Domino's averages 100 orders a day. But most come late at night. They knew what they were doing by inviting me on this adventure during the day; there was plenty of time to mess around with little risk of customer loss.
At 3:46 p.m., we are suddenly called into action.
"Pizza on the screen!" Macia pronounces. I feel like Squad 51 paramedic Randolph Mantooth receiving a life-or-death call on the '60s TV show "Emergency."
I move fast, scrubbing, singing 'Happy Birthday' twice and trying to look up a medium pepperoni on the wall (36 slices of meat, two cups of cheese). Kammerer, who simultaneously prepares the authorized Domino's pie, immediately overtakes me. In my haste, my tape recorder nearly falls onto the pie.
"There's a new topping for us," Kammerer says.
I label my box A and Kammerer's B, and Kammerer and I hop in the car of a Domino's driver named Amado.
Domino's expanded to a billion-dollar empire in the '80s with one nifty idea: delivering pizza quicker than anyone else. But the 30-minute guarantee came to a crashing halt in 1989, when a woman broadsided by a Domino's delivery driver in St. Louis suffered permanent head and spinal Injuries. She was awarded $78 million in punitive damages. (The case was later settled on appeal.)
A huge crack runs down Amado's windshield. He denies any correlation to his delivery speed.
"We don't have the 30-minute guarantee anymore," Kammerer responds on behalf of Amado. "But we do have the satisfaction guarantee. If you're not satisfied with your dining experience for any reason, we'd be more than happy to replace the pizza or refund your money."
Apparently trying to head dissatisfaction off at the pass, Kammerer will offer both pizzas to Rebecca Kontorovsky of Torrance for free, along with her order of Cheesy bread, Buffalo wings, and a 2-liter bottle of Coke.
Kontorovsky opens the door as though I am Ed McMahon with a giant check. We explain that, despite the photographer and three strangers occupying her apartment stoop, all she gets is free food -- contingent upon her promise to report back to us the results of a taste test.
"If she chooses A, I might get fired," Kammerer opines as we leave.
The tension back at Domino's is thick enough to divide into eight pieces with a pizza slicer. During our first attempt to reach Kontorovsky 10 minutes later, we get only voicemail.
"Is she at the hospital?" someone wonders.
When the results come in, Domino's is happy. I lose. B is better "because it has more cheese," Kontorovsky reports.
Kammerer breathes a sigh of relief, Kettler tries consoling me.
"You might have put too much sauce on," he says. "That makes it look like there's less cheese."
True. Like an athlete sneaking steroids, I did ladle on a bit of extra sauce, thinking it would boost the flavor.
But I have the last laugh. I came prepared with another surprise for my new bosses. At 5 p.m., the large cheese pie I secretly ordered from Paisano's in Hermosa Beach arrives.
That very morning, America Online came out with its list of Top 10 Los Angeles pizzerias. Paisano's was the only South Bay finalist. No Domino's made the list, South Bay or otherwise.
I had provided Domino's with another first today. Pizza had never before been ordered to a store before. Stunned smiles overtook the gang's faces, as if they were on an episode of Fox-TV's "The Jamie Kennedy Experiment" and couldn't decide on an appropriate reaction.
"I didn't know anything about this," Watt says, apologizing to Kettler.
Unfortunately, there are no customers in the store. I wanted to conduct an on-the-spot taste comparison.
"We'd better get this in the back," Kettler says as he whisks the enemy pie off his counter. He chomps into a slice and pronounces it too greasy and overcooked. He also calls the dough "spotty," explaining that it isn't proofed.
Honestly, it tastes super to me. It's much closer to the New York pizza I grew up on than Domino's is. And all that grease is healthy, tasty olive oil, which Domino's doesn't use.
"Is this good PR?" Kettler asks.
So much for voluntary karmic penance.
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