Few cities have needed as much help since the 1960s as Detroit. And few people have done as much to attempt to help a troubled hometown as Detroit native Mike Ilitch, who built a pizza franchise and turned it into a sports and entertainment empire.
He was born in the Motor City in 1929, at a time when the auto industry, like the country itself, was booming, but soon the great stock market crash would put an end to that. As the auto industry struggled along with all others, its U.S. hub, Detroit, fell into strife, with the United Auto Workers forming and facing backlash from the car company owners. Ilitch's father, an immigrant from Macedonia (then part of Yugoslavia), was a tool and die worker with Chrysler, so even with the downturn in car production, there was always work, so while the family struggled, it was spared the harshest aspects of the Great Depression.
After graduating from high school in 1947, Mike Ilitch enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving for four years, including during the Korean War. His hometown Detroit Tigers signed him to a minor-league contract, but after four years with the Tigers', New York Yankees' and Washington Senators' organizations, a knee injury forced him to quit without having reached the major leagues. During his his playing days, he married Marian Bayoff, a fellow first-generation Macedonian-American. Together, they had seven children.
Ilitch had supported himself in baseball's off-season by working in a pizzeria. He recalled being fascinated by the process of making pizza, and in 1959 used $10,000 of savings to open his first pizzeria, at a strip mall in the suburb of Garden City. He wanted to call it "Pizza Treat," but Marian suggested he name it after her nickname for him: "Little Caesar." So it opened as Little Caesar'sPizza Treat, with the "Pizza Treat" soon being dropped entirely.
Mike oversaw the menu, food production and marketing, and Marian handled the cash flow. While Domino's Pizza, founded by fellow Detroiter Tom Monaghan, made pizza delivery the key to their operations, Little Caesar's went the opposite way, not delivering at all, and keeping their staff to a minimum. This kept their overhead low, and they were able to quickly expand throughout the Midwestern U.S. This system of keeping overhead low was a model that Five Guys Burgers and Fries followed in the early 21st Century, allowing them to expand first throughout the Chesapeake region, then throughout the Northeast, and finally all over America.
In 1979, Ilitch hit on the company's biggest idea over, offering two full pizzas for the price of one. This led to the chain's commercials, featuring a cartoon Roman emperor, saying, "Pizza! Pizza!" (That's how it appeared in print, but on the ads it sounds more like one word: "Pizzapizza.") The chain was able to grow from a regional to a national one through the 1980s, and international one in the 1990s. By 1993, Ilitch had used Little Caesar's to build a $300 million fortune.
By that point, he had already bought the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, which was a perennial loser and had not won the National Hockey League's championship, the Stanley Cup, since 1955. His infusions of cash and reorganizing of the front office made them a contender again, and from 1995 to 2009, the Wings had reached the Stanley Cup Finals six times, winning four. In 1992, he bought the Detroit Tigers baseball team from Monaghan, his competitor as a Detroit-based pizza baron, owning the team that had once signed him to a minor-league contract. For years, the Tigers struggled, angering local fans who saw him spend vast sums on the Wings, but not the Tigers. Ilitch got the message, and turned the Tigers into a perennial playoff contender, winning American League Pennants in 2006 and 2012.
Like Monaghan, Ilitch has given back to Detroit in many ways. With the city having been stricken by a race riot in 1967, "white flight" after since, the decline of the American auto industry, and the seemingly intractable problems of poverty, its needs have been many, and the two pizza bigwigs have done a great deal. In 1985, Ilitch established the Little Caesars Love Kitchen, essentially a pizza-based version of the American Red Cross' disaster relief efforts. He established charities designed to help sick children and veterans, and establish and maintain parkland in the Detroit area. He funded the restoration of the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit, and put Little Caesar's corporate headquarters in the floors of the building above the theater. The building is also the headquarters of Olympia Entertainment, which runs the Red Wings, and Ilitch Holdings, which runs all the family's businesses, including Marian's interest in MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit. Across the street from their headquarters, he provided 60 percent of the funding for the Tigers' new home, Comerica Park.
Son Christopher Ilitch is now CEO of Ilitch Holdings, and directly runs Little Caesar's since his father stepped back. But Mike Ilitch is the kind of man who does not retire. "I was born in Detroit and raised here," he has said. "I came from zero. This community helped make me. It's nice to give something back."