For over two months now, pizza giant Domino’s has dipped its toes into the world of urban renewal. Back in June, the company announced it would help a handful of American cities and towns fix some of their chronic pothole problems: “We don’t want to lose any great-tasting pizza to a pothole, ruining a wonderful meal,” a press release fretted.
In the “Paving for Pizza” program, Domino’s handed over cash to municipalities across America, cities arranged for workers to repair cracks and potholes, and a Domino’s logo was spray-painted onto some of the newly smoothed streets.
Predictably, the publicity came in droves — the program proved to be an irresistible combination of feel-good charity story and an unusual gimmick — and last week, Domino’s drastically upsized the effort, refusing to let easy viral advertising go to waste. Through its Paving for Pizza website, it encouraged submissions — in some cases, city council members and officials nominated their own cities — and promised to choose one city or town in every state to benefit from $5,000 to be used for road repairs. Some new beneficiaries were also announced on the spot, ranging from the 1,000-person town of Marion, Texas, through to cities like Milwaukee and New Orleans.
“The Domino’s campaign helps us showcase the importance of road safety, how we value partnerships, and how the city proactively and creatively provides quality services,” says Grand Forks, North Dakota, mayor Michael Brown; the city was also a recipient of $5,000. “The concept of getting pizza to its destination ... safely and efficiently resonates with our community,” Brown says, “and again helps underscore how important good, safe roads are.”
Most city councils had to vote to accept the money as a gift of some sort, and as Motherboard noted, cities had to fill out contracts, manage logistics, and field media requests related to the Domino’s program. For their efforts, the actual repairs were relatively minor. In Bartonville, Texas, Domino’s $5,000 bought a solid 75 tons of asphalt that filled eight potholes, and helped repair another three roads (by Domino’s measures). In Athens, Georgia, it paid a dozen workers for just three hours of work, fixing 150 square yards of road.
All up, the promotion means cities get free money for repairs, and Domino’s quietly works in the background to get some goodwill and publicity out of it. The chain did not attach major strings to the money: a representative tells Eater that cities were completely free to choose which streets would be repaired, meaning the pizza chain did not ask them to repair streets around their own stores (some cities confirmed this). Plus, Domino’s did not require the cities to plaster its logo over the repaired streets, although stencils for this were supplied, and some, such as Bartonville, opted to do that.
But beneath the surface, the willingness for cities to take this money is an indictment on the state of American infrastructure funding. Several mayors suggested that getting the money to keep streets in good condition was a major challenge, in some cases blaming a lack of funding from states, or the general difficulties of raising enough tax money to keep roads from falling apart.
Mayor Stephen DiNatale of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, says that the state gives his city, which is just outside Boston, around $1.2 million for infrastructure repairs to roads and bridges each year (as well as for the equipment to do that work). That’s enough to pave up to 1.5 miles of road, he says. “The costs are so extraordinary… when you’ve got over 250 miles of road, that [money is] really not going to make it happen,” DiNatale says. “So my motivation is ‘any help we can get’, and certainly, Domino’s has a very helpful and clever approach.”
Cavalier Johnson, an alderman for the city of Milwaukee, nominated his city to take part in Paving for Pizza for similar reasons. “Considering the the climate that we live in and the fact that our state government is not invested in our roads, and Wisconsin has, I believe, the second-worst roads in the United States… I sent an email over to Domino’s,” he says. Johnson’s colleague, alderman Robert Bauman, called the stunt “almost a joke” during a Public Works Committee meeting, but conceded, “Fine, we’ll accept their $5,000.”
Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba identified similar concerns. “The infrastructure concerns in Jackson match much of the infrastructure woes around the country as we have an aging and crumbling country,” he says, adding a little plug for the chain. “We are very grateful, and for that I encourage our citizens to support Domino’s as well.”
While happy to accept Domino’s help, the city of Milford, Delaware, which has already completed its work with the chain, also acknowledged that the $5,000 injection didn’t seem to make a huge difference on the ground. “Most residents really didn’t notice,” says city manager Eric Norenberg. “Most were aware only after the ad campaign launched and there were news stories. Then, the public reaction was nearly uniformly positive.”
Elected officials may be understandably reluctant to denounce free money, but there are valid criticisms of Paving for Pizza, and one needs to look back about 100 years to find them, according to University of Toronto legal studies professor Mariana Valverde. “There’s a reason why municipalities started to assume ownership and control of roads and sidewalks,” she says. “For a long time, sidewalks would only be built if the resident whose property abutted the road decided to go in on it.
“That turned out to be a disaster — maybe some people got nice sidewalks; you’d have a nice sidewalk for one block then the next block might not have any.”
And of course, all the cities receiving Domino’s pothole money are home to Domino’s stores (two cities do not have a Domino’s, but are comfortably within the delivery range of nearby locations). In Burbank, California, a city representative tells Eater that Domino’s only filled five potholes — “small ones” — for the purposes of making TV ads for the campaign, but didn’t give the city cash.
So while the free money is nice, Valverde hints that it could be just an early taste of the dystopian future where you get Domino’s and nice roads — or an independent pizzeria and some crumbling infrastructure.
“Well, what’s going to be next?” she asks. “Starbucks will start building sidewalks in towns that can’t afford to build sidewalks? It’s extremely peculiar.“