It was just a short time ago that dipping pizza in ranch was the Great Debate, with many claiming that the act was an abomination to pies everywhere. Now, the ranch-pizza combo is an integral part of the pizza experience — it’s even found on the menus of many sophisticated restaurants.
But it’s important to ask how something that elicits such an emotional response from diners became a mainstream option — so much so that before you hit the “place order” button in your delivery pizza app, you’re probably adding a couple cups of dipping sauce to the list. America’s four largest pizza chains — Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Domino’s — all offer ranch along with a variety of dips on their menus, tiny upsells that contribute to the $45.15 billion in pizza restaurant sales in 2016. But how did we get here?
It Starts With Breadsticks
According to Saint Joseph’s University professor of food marketing John Stanton, asking “Which came first, consumer demand or restaurant upsell?” is like saying “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” It’s impossible to know, but in food marketing, products tend to become popular because of both consumer demand and restaurants looking to increase profits. “All companies are always looking for something new, a different edge,” Stanton says. “If [the product] becomes something that people will pay for and expect, eventually you’ll see it in more places.”
This is how Pizza Hut, founded in 1958, came to offer dipping sauces: due to customer demand. The chain started as a dine-in restaurant in Wichita, Kansas, and has offered warm marinara with its breadsticks and garlic bread since opening. “Warm marinara is one of the most beloved and requested items at Pizza Hut,” says director of public relations Doug Terfehr.
Although Pizza Hut was the first chain to serve breadsticks with sauce (which it would later add to dishes like cheese sticks and garlic knots), it was the Detroit-based Little Caesars, founded just one year after Pizza Hut, in 1959, that first succeeded in marketing dips as essential add-ons. The company introduced Crazy Bread, essentially garlic breadsticks, as a side dish in 1982. For three years, the sticks stood alone, but in 1985, the chain introduced the option of adding Crazy Sauce, a slightly altered marinara that’s similar to what’s on its standard pizza, for a small fee.
But it’s Papa John’s that gets credit for first creating and marketing a dip specifically for pizza, dislodging the dip from its usual place as a breadstick side.
According to “chief ingredient officer” Sean Muldoon, the brand’s popular garlic dipping sauce is as old as Papa John’s itself, and since Papa John’s founder John Schnatter made it in 1984, it has been included with every pizza ever sold. The tangy dip has a consistency that is a little thicker than melted butter, but not as thick as buttermilk ranch, and it tastes like a mixture of equal parts butter, garlic, and salt.
Muldoon says the recipe has changed a little over time, and was recently updated to comply with the brand’s new clean-label standard — meaning partially hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, and synthetic colors have all been removed — but the bones of it have stayed the same. “The garlic butter sauce has proven to be a perfect complement to our pizza crust,” Muldoon says. “Some people love dipping the crust so much, they’ll do this first, before eating the pizza.”
After Papa John’s launched its signature pizza dip and Little Caesars debuted Crazy Sauce the following year, dips proliferated. "Some people like to try new things and some people like to try what other people like,” Stanton says; pizza dips appealed to both of those groups. Papa John’s is still the only major chain that includes a custom sauce specifically made for its pizza, but Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, and Domino’s all offer a slew of sauces, sold separately, that you can order with any of their menu items for a small upcharge.
(Domino’s was the last to hop on the breadstick-and-marinara train in 1992, but the first to add dips to the dessert menu, with its Cinna Stix and icing cups — which together add a whopping 1,200 calories to an already caloric meal.)
It took 10 years after the introduction of Crazy Sauce for Little Caesars to introduce any other dips to its menu, but in 1995 it started to promote Crazy Dippers, now called Caesar Dips, marking the incorporation of the four other sauces on the Little Caesars menu today: ranch, Cheezy Jalapeño, buttery garlic, and buffalo ranch. The original Crazy Sauce is the only dip sold alongside a menu item. All other dips are sold separately, and were meant to complement not only pizza and breadsticks, but also chicken wings.
Little Caesars corporate communications manager Jill Proctor says that the needs of their customers played a large part in shaping Caesars Dips. There was a demand for spice, which prompted the chain to create the queso-style Cheezy Jalapeño sauce. “We call it a family-friendly spiciness — the flavor of peppery jalapeños and just a tiny a bit of the heat, but not so intense that children who avoid spicy foods won’t enjoy it,” Proctor says.
Pizza Hut didn’t expand its dip menu to include ranch, blue cheese, honey barbecue, garlic sauce, and nacho cheese sauces until 2001. None of these are automatically included with the chain's pizza, but can be added for an under-$1 upsell. (“Don’t Skip the Dip,” the phrase that greets diners on the online menu, is trademarked by Pizza Hut.)
And finally, in 2011, when Domino’s re-launched its chicken line with products like wings and tenders, it also expanded its dipping-sauce options to the variety available now, which includes ranch, blue cheese, barbecue sauce, sweet mango habanero sauce, and “Kicker Hot Sauce,” which is a take on Buffalo sauce. Breadsticks and stuffed breads can be paired with garlic Parmesan white sauce. In 2012, Domino’s also dropped the word “pizza” from its logo, in an attempt to highlight other dishes, stressing in promotional materials that the dipping sauces were meant to complement any of them. That same year, Domino’s saw a dip in revenue during the first two quarters. But by the last half of 2012, the chain reported it was working: Revenue increased by 7.3 percent.
Although upsells are offered throughout all levels of cuisine (ever notice how a restaurant’s specials are more expensive than what’s on the menu?), online ordering has made small, incremental add-ons easier to sell. According to Stanton, the average basket size of online orders is always larger than what people buy in stores, and the same can be said for food. In 2014, Domino’s spokesperson Chris Brandon told Fast Company that the chain’s successful app increased add-on sales. In that same piece, a representative from online-delivery service Eat24 reported that online ordering helped diners “try stuff you never thought about ordering over the phone, and that’s something we see across the board at all restaurants.”
Dipping sauces are now sewn into the pizza-ordering experience. If you place an order online with most pizza chains, you’ll get a prompt that asks if you want to add x sauce for x cents more. Eaters might feel like they are getting a good deal, because if you’re already spending $20 on a pizza, what’s the harm in trying a new 50-cent lemon pepper dip?
“I'm sure [pizza chains] have people thinking about what’s going to be the next big thing,” Stanton says. “But they also have people thinking ‘How do we get an extra quarter out of each order?’ and that’s the key to the dipping sauces.” Small, incremental upsells like this, applied to the millions of pizzas sold every day, end up being very profitable in the long run. Every brand contacted for this piece declined to reveal exact sales numbers for the add-ons. However, according to quarterly reports, so far in 2017, Papa John’s has raked in over $400 million in revenue and Domino’s over $600 million. Last year, Pizza Hut earned over $1 billion.
According to Stanton, more than half of all new products fail, so the big question is: Are dipping sauces sustainable? Right now, it’s hard to imagine them not being offered, but just a few years ago the same could have been said about stuffed crust, an “upgrade” that saw its final frontier with Pizza Hut’s hot-dog stuffed crust pizza, introduced in 2015.
However, according to Stanton, there is also a good chance that dips will trickle into more restaurants. “There are people who like pizza and people who like pizza availability, but it’s all about money,” he says. If a restaurant can see a way to make a dip work for its audience, it’ll be on the menu soon. “Getting someone to try a sauce for 25 cents — it's so easy to say ‘yes.’”
Aditi Shrikant is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Jenny Zhang is Eater’s newsletter editor and will not apologize for her love of mediocre chain pizza.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Fact checker: Dawn Mobley