It all started in the kitchen at Buddy’s Rendezvous way back in 1946. At the bunker-like restaurant and bar, situated in a neighborhood about a 15-minute drive from Detroit’s city center, Buddy’s owner Gus Guerra took a Sicilian-style pizza recipe with thick, focaccia-like crust and adapted it by gently pressing dough into rectangular blue steel pans used by automotive workers. He layered that base with pepperoni, melty Wisconsin brick cheese, and a drizzle of sauce on top. The Detroit-style pizza with its perfectly porous crust and crisp, caramelized cheese corners was born.
The cult of the square Buddy’s pizza spawned numerous spinoffs throughout metro Detroit. Guerra would eventually transport the popular recipe to a restaurant called Cloverleaf in an area formerly known as East Detroit (now the suburb of Eastpointe). Another former Buddy’s staffer opened Loui’s Pizza in Hazel Park, Michigan. Spots like Shield’s Pizza and Niki’s Pizza also took up the tradition with their own versions. But in contrast to other regional pizzas like New York-style or Chicago deep dish, for quite a long time Detroit-style pizza mostly stayed a Detroit thing.
Then something changed. Within the last 10 years or so, the square pan pizza has undergone an explosion in popularity across the U.S. Out of this trend, two different camps have emerged: On one side are the local Detroit pizzerias and restaurants devoted to their normcore, family-restaurant roots with toppings directly on the crust, a layer of processed brick cheese, and sauce on top. Then there are the “artisanal” square pizzas, with their aged doughs, organic toppings, unprocessed cheeses, and “frico” crust. These designer square slices are sometimes baked in a wood-fired oven and often served on Instagrammable metal trays in perfect lighting — a departure from the checkered tablecloths, no-frills boat drinks, and generous displays of bocce ball plaques at Buddy’s. And in this new era of Detroit-style pizza, it’s this photogenic version that many Americans are discovering first.
Metro Detroit’s mom-and-pop shops and regional Southeast Michigan chains have mostly shied away from the potential to capitalize on the new trend. Buddy’s chief brand officer Wesley Pikula, who’s been with the restaurant group since 1975, says that Buddy’s slow reaction to a national sensation wasn’t for lack of opportunities. “There were many times through the years [where] people came around that wanted to either invest or take it to a national level, and there was just no interest,” Pikula says. “So we had slow growth and we had growth in our own community, because that’s all [the owners] wanted to do.”
But now, the restaurant is seizing the moment; Buddy’s announced in January 2018 that it would finally expand its presence nationally. “[Buddy’s] started the pizza, and it would only make sense now that the group that’s originated the pizza would then take their concept out of the city,” Pikula says of the company’s decision. However, unlike in the past, the market has a lot more Detroit-style competition. Is Buddy’s too late?
The basic recipe for Detroit-style pizza is old, but the term “Detroit-style pizza” is actually relatively new. The region, after all, is home to numerous prominent pizza brands, including Little Caesars and Domino’s. Pikula says he had never heard the phrase used to describe a distinctive genre until trade magazines like Pizza Today labeled it that way in the 1980s. Even then, “Detroit-style pizza” was seldom used outside national trade articles. “It’s really Buddy’s style,” Pikula says.
Zane Hunt believes that the more recent trend and the wider use of the “Detroit-style” terminology can be traced back to roughly 2011. That year, he and his brother Brandon, both expats from Riverview (a Downriver suburb of Detroit), introduced square pizzas to Austin, Texas, with their first Via 313 trailer. For Hunt, whose restaurant group has ballooned to five Austin locations, leaning into the Detroit origins was a way to differentiate the Via 313 product from the other slices on the market. “Calling ourselves Detroit-style pizza, we did that on purpose,” he says. “And here we are eight years later seeing it flourish around the country — it’s mind-blowing.”
In 2012, longtime Cloverleaf employee Shawn Randazzo founded the Detroit Style Pizza Company in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. “I thought that was really bold of him to do that in Detroit,” Hunt recalls thinking, when Randazzo told him the company name. “Nobody was doing it.” In the spring of 2012, Randazzo further spread the gospel of the Detroit-style pizza when, at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, he was named World Champion Pizza Maker for his version. He’s now a Detroit-style pizza consultant, who not only trains restaurant owners in his techniques, but also sells his own brand of steel pans.
Restaurants like Via 313 pay homage to old-school Detroit traditions, but the more “gourmet” category of Detroit-style pizzas that’s become so popular owes much of its credit to Matt and Emily Hyland of Brooklyn’s Emmy Squared. When developing the menu prior to Emmy’s opening in 2016, Matt Hyland says he was initially planning to serve a more New York-style grandma pie: the grandma pie is also square, but baked in a lower-walled pan for a thinner cross-section than a typical Detroit pizza. The texture of the grandma pie, however, didn’t meet Hyland’s standards, so he decided to experiment with alternate recipes. “We took the aspects of the Detroit pizza, like the sauce on top and the cheese crust and made a pizza style that’s our own,” he says. “[With] the whole proliferation of Detroit-style pizza everywhere, people were making pizza that looks like Detroit pizza, but down to the core, it’s not Detroit-style pizza.”
What sets Emmy Squared’s pan pizzas apart from their ancestors comes down to preparation and ingredients, according to Hyland. The focaccia dough, for example, gets a longer 48-hour proof. Emmy Squared also skips brick cheese in favor of mozzarella and ricotta, while using mostly organic ingredients and toppings. “It is Detroit pizza at heart, I guess, but a little bit different,” he says.
Nevertheless, by introducing his interpretation of a lesser-known pizza style to New York City, Hyland has become an ambassador of the square pie by proxy. Hyland admits that he’s tried a few Detroit-based pizzas through online ordering, though he’s never visited the actual city to try the style in person. “They taste very different [from] what we’re doing.”
Hyland credits the Emmy Squared pizza’s near-immediate success, in part, to timing. He notes that when Emmy Squared was first opening, New York and other U.S. cities were still in the midst of a Neapolitan pizza wave, and the Detroit style was something completely different. Emmy’s aesthetic, with its intriguing cheesy corners and pleasingly curled and greasy roni cups, inspired a wave of imitators such as Chelsea’s Lions and Tigers and Squares. “There’s certain things that a Detroit pizza does that we don’t do and people are copying what we’re doing instead of copying what Detroit’s doing,” Hyland observes. Many restaurants, he points out, plate Detroit-style pizza the Emmy Squared way, with a metal tray and a cooling rack. ”We definitely started that.”
As Emmy Squared achieved widespread popularity, the restaurant group was perfectly set up to capitalize on the national hunger for a different type of pizza. Emmy Squared soon added a location in Manhattan and last year took its Brooklynized iteration of the Detroit style from New York to Nashville. With the addition of new investors and a partner in Nashville, Emmy Squared is now poised to open even more restaurants. “We’re going to expand throughout the northeast and maybe down south a little bit more,” Hyland says.
Hunt says Via 313 has also been approached on several occasions about investment for a broader expansion, but so far hasn’t felt the need to grow more quickly. “People get tied up into certain types of food or cuisines because they’re trying to find an algorithm,” he says. “For us it’s a double-edged sword, right? On one hand I love to see the Detroit style gain more attention... There’s that and there’s also the [part of] me that’s protective of Detroit and protective of Michigan,” he says, referring to when he sees non-Michiganders serving the pizza without a connection to its roots. “I think we’re territorial in some respects, but yet we’re the ones doing it outside of Detroit anyway. So are we being hypocrites? I don’t know, but we’re from there.”
The trend has been slower to catch on in its hometown. Only recently have smaller Detroit independents such as Pie-Sci begun to serve updated riffs on the classic style. A Detroit-style pizza with a sourdough crust will also soon be served in the suburb of Ferndale. Meanwhile, some out-of-town Emmy Squared-influenced restaurants are bringing their versions to Detroit. Regional chains such as Jet’s Pizza, founded in 1978, were early to capitalize on its mozzarella-topped version of the local recipe and hold trademarks for 8 Corner Pizza and 4 Corner Pizza (innovations that emphasize the style’s best feature). Little Caesars also stepped up to the plate and took its version of the Detroit-style slice nationwide in 2013, marketed as a Deep! Deep! Dish pan pizza.
As a small, local chain, Buddy’s seemed like a natural fit for a national expansion in the spirit of nostalgic Chicago-style deep dish restaurants like Giordano’s. In 2017, though, Buddy’s still had only 11 locations (plus two more on the way) all within the borders of metro Detroit, and zero presence in Detroit’s rapidly changing downtown district.
Then in January 2018, the original home of the Detroit-style pizza finally seized on the opportunity and accepted a “significant investment” from a private firm called CapitalSpring, with the intention of taking Buddy’s Pizza beyond Michigan. The undisclosed investment made CapitalSpring a majority owner in the iconic business while keeping the minority ownership on to help operate the restaurants and maintain quality, the firm’s managing director Jim Balis confirms to Eater. “A lot of people around the country were actually copying Buddy’s — in some cases giving them credit and in other cases not,” Balis says of the decision to bring Buddy’s to a wider audience. “It’s a pretty special brand. It’s not your average restaurant investment. There’s so much more to it.”
Buddy’s is already showing signs of ambitious growth in the year since the investment. The company has announced plans for four new Michigan locations in downtown Detroit, Grand Rapids, and two other metro Detroit suburbs in 2019. Balis says the chain then intends to pick up the pace with “north of eight” locations in 2020 and between 10 and 15 Buddy’s restaurants in 2021. He adds that while Buddy’s has large enclaves of fans in places like Tampa, Florida, the restaurant group is exploring sites within relatively close proximity to Detroit for now: Cleveland; Indianapolis; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Toledo, Ohio; and Fort Wayne, Indiana are all within roughly four hours of the original Buddy’s.
Part of the growing interest in Detroit-style pizzas seems to reflect the transformation of Detroit’s mainstream national image in the last 10 years from a city associated with crime, blight, and the largest municipal bankruptcy to one celebrated as an under-appreciated cultural destination with food, art, and stunning architecture. “You have to keep in mind [that there was] a lot of Detroit stigma attached to the name,” Pikula says. “It’s not the reason we didn’t grow, but that’s just the marketplace.”
Back when Hunt and his brother were preparing to open their first trailer in Austin, they posted a sign facing the street announcing they’d be serving Detroit-style pizza. Hunt recalls that passersby who were unfamiliar with the square pizzas would frequently make insensitive comments about getting carjacked in exchange for pizza. Emmy Squared also got a small taste of the Detroit treatment when the New York Post editorial board ran a story decrying the pizzas as “hipster horror” and writing, “Let’s hope the dough’s not made with Flint River water.” Today, for better or worse, companies both in and outside of Detroit want to align themselves with the idea of the city’s renaissance. Almost daily, stories of new businesses in Detroit run in local media, with some version of the owner stating that they “wanted to be a part of the city’s comeback.”
“Now everybody is wrapping themselves in Detroit,” Pikula says, “which is great because it’s an amazing story of a city that has gone through what he’s gone through — and been able to recover. And we’re one of the products that is still left standing.”
Brenna Houck is editor of Eater Detroit and an Eater.com reporter.
Editor: Erin DeJesus