PizzaForno’s vending machine on South University is the city’s latest pizza innovation, but it’s certainly not the first. The area has a history of pioneering pizza development. | Photo: J. Adrian Wylie

In just three minutes, a vending machine on South University dispenses hot-and-fresh pizza to go. With a button push and a swipe of your credit card, a twelve-inch pie—pepperoni, or up to ten other varieties—can be yours.

This is Ann Arbor’s latest pizza innovation, but it’s certainly not its first: the area has a history of pioneering pizza development.

Why and how has Ann Arbor become an American pizza capital? Whether it’s the result of a vast student clientele or a function of the Midwesterner’s love of carbs, at the center of it all lies a multitude of research, creative and eccentric genius, and tons of cheese.


When Bill Haney arrived in Ann Arbor as a college freshman in 1954, he discovered two “really good” pizza spots: the Cottage Inn on E. William St. and the Brown Jug on South University. Though it was still something of a culinary newcomer, the Troy native recalls, during his years as a student, “pizza started pushing aside the other dishes that people would eat, which were cheeseburgers and French fries and things like that, and pizza started becoming something. 

Haney became something himself: director of publishing at the Institute for Social Research, executive editor at the U-M Press, and top communications officer at several major corporations. Now in his eighties, he still operates a book publishing company in Brandon Township. But before all that, he helped launch Ann Arbor’s most profound pizza innovation: home delivery.

The concept of pizza delivery has become so ingrained in American culture that it’s hard to believe there was a time when it didn’t exist. But in the 1950s, “if you wanted pizza, then you went there,” Haney says. “You went to those places.” There were no apps or websites, no online pizza trackers, just dine-in and primitive takeout operations.

Delivery is usually associated with Domino’s Pizza and its founder Tom Monaghan, who popularized free delivery in the 1970s. “However,” says Haney, “Monaghan was not the father of free pizza delivery.” Haney (and Monaghan, in his memoir Pizza Tiger) credit an obscure Domino’s predecessor: Pizza from the Prop.

In the fall of 1957, as a U-M undergrad, Haney helped a local character named Jim Gilmore clean out an abandoned restaurant adjacent to Wolff’s Red Arrow Motel in Dixboro. Gilmore, a veteran of Red’s Rite Spot and other diners, was launching his latest culinary venture. There was a propeller stuck in the ground by the restaurant, prompting Haney to ask the obvious question: “What’s the deal with this propeller?” 

“God, I don’t know, it’s apparently always been there,” Gilmore responded. No one knew its origin story, but from this propeller, the restaurant’s name was born: The Prop.

According to Haney, Gilmore hadn’t planned to serve pizza—he wanted nothing more than to continue flipping burgers and frying fries. But the last owners had left behind a clunky old Blodgett pizza oven, so he started making pizza—and Haney delivered it, in a 1950, lime-green Plymouth sedan he called the Green Hornet. He deems it “the first pizza delivery vehicle ever.” 

The novel service—advertised as “Pizza from the Prop”—offered free delivery in Ann Arbor. But Haney faced a problem that still plagues delivery drivers today: keeping the pizza hot. He credits a “farm lady,” who helped resolve the problem with a “big metal box,” created by her handy husband, “with cords sticking out the back” to power heating elements.

Haney, then an editor at the Michigan Daily, conceived of an innovative way to drum up business: they would run classified ads for the restaurant in the paper, but they would run them upside down.

“The people on classified ads would always call and say, ‘Hey wait a minute! We got your ad here, but it’s upside down!’” Haney recalls. And he would respond, “‘No, no, no! Don’t straighten it out! We want it to be upside down!’ Because people will look at it and be like, ‘What the hell is this?’ and say, ‘Oh, it’s an ad for pizza! Oh wait a minute, they say they deliver? Let’s do it!’” 


The Green Hornet may have been the first pizza-delivery vehicle, but the most famous one was the VW Beetle Tom Monaghan and his brother Jim used after buying an Ypsilanti pizza place called DomiNick’s in 1960. Jim soon traded his share of the business for Tom’s share of the Beetle—a deal that became a legend twenty-seven years later, when Tom sold Domino’s Pizza for $1 billion.

His brother wasn’t the only one who doubted Tom Monaghan’s acumen—he did, too. In a 1982 Observer article, Monaghan recalled how, even as he perfected his recipes and pizza-making process, he was so unsure of his business skills that he took on an older partner—someone who was struggling back from a bankruptcy of a pizza business of his own.

That was Gilmore, who had added Pizza from the Prop to a string of business setbacks. Gilmore had decided that pizza was a fad and persuaded Monaghan to open a sit-down restaurant called Pizza King that sold everything from fried chicken to spaghetti.

A replica of Tom and Jim Monaghan’s pioneering delivery vehicle is on display at Domino’s Farms. But Tom “Monaghan was not the father of free pizza delivery,” says Bill Haney. Haney (and Monaghan, in his memoir Pizza Tiger) credit an obscure Domino’s predecessor: Pizza from the Prop. | Photo: J. Adrian Wylie

By Monaghan’s account, it sucked up the profits from Monaghan’s successful delivery stores for three years. Finally, in 1965, a brief item in the Ann Arbor News announced that Pizza from the Prop, DomiNick’s, and Pizza King had merged, with Monaghan as sole owner: “The new firm,”  the paper reported, “is called Domino’s.”  

Refocused on pizza delivery, Domino’s took off. By the 1980s, it was so profitable that Monaghan was able to buy the Detroit Tigers and build Domino’s Farms. Since selling the company, he’s shifted his attention to promoting conservative Catholic education and building the planned community of Ave Maria, Florida, but you can still tour his sumptuous office there. A large toy tiger with a stuffed animal hitching a ride on its back, a tricolored couch, an oval coffee table covered with books, and a crucifix mounted on the wall are some of its memorable highlights.

Domino’s Pizza is now the world’s largest pizza purveyor, with U.S. sales of $8.6 billion last year and another $9.1 billion internationally. But it’s still headquartered at Domino’s Farms, where it trains new managers to prepare pizzas “the Domino’s way” in a glass-walled test kitchen.

On the outskirts of the complex is the Innovation Garage, a building enclosed with glass walls, with a crane, a line of desktop computers, and men wearing hard hats working on the inside. In the parking lot outside, one can spy a self-driving pizza delivery vehicle being tested. Also on display: a replica of the Monaghan brothers’ Beetle. 


Name any style of pizza, and you can find it in Southeast Michigan. According to, Detroit ranks as the best pizza city in the U.S., as well as the U.S. city with most “pizza passion,” based on residents’ Google searches for widely varied versions. Along with the classic pizza that built Domino’s fame and the deep-dish Chicago-style, the Detroit-style slice has recently gained popularity. Rectangular with a thick and crunchy crust, it’s topped with Wisconsin brick cheese that extends to the edges of the slice, allowing it to crisp at the edges. Detroit-style pioneer Buddy’s Pizza recently opened a south-side Ann Arbor location, and many other places have jumped on the trend.

As a Northeasterner, though, I’ve always been obsessed with the thin-crust New York–style slice. When Joe’s Pizza made its way to the corner of South University in the fall of 2019, hungry students swarmed the premises. Accomplishing the perfect NY slice outside of the Big Apple proved to be a challenge for owners Pete Levin and Ian Lafkowitz, two New York natives and U-M alumni.

“We did originally ship water from Michigan to New York to test it … and made adjustments to end up where we’re at. We’re pretty happy,” Levin shared last spring.

The “water myth” is embedded in New York culture, which credits the self-
professed high quality of NY bagels and pizza to the water in the area. Whichever side of the myth you’re on, this research has benefitted Joe’s, and helped it be crowned the Best Pizza in Ann Arbor by the Michigan Daily in 2021.


While Domino’s specialized in delivery, Little Caesars—founded in 1959 just twenty-four miles away in Garden City—has dominated carryout. Their $5 Hot-N-Ready pies make even ordering ahead unnecessary.

U-M regent Denise Ilitch, daughter of Little Caesars founders Mike and Marian Ilitch, says the company’s most popular pies are cheese and pepperoni. Her own favorite is thin crust with cheese—but if she is “feeling feisty,” she may go for mushrooms and onions on top.

With seven children, it is no wonder that her parents sought to support families in need of a quick, affordable dinner. “We very much cater to families and large groups,” Ilitch says. She believes that their “Pizza, Pizza!” two-for-one-price deal, launched in 1979, truly “revolutionized the pizza industry.”

With an estimated $4.2 million in U.S. sales, Little Caesars is third nationally behind Domino’s and Pizza Hut—but leads both by a considerable margin in Michigan.


A brisk, sunny Sunday last spring felt like an ideal time to test out the latest Ann Arbor pizza innovation: PizzaForno. That said, with PizzaForno, any time is the perfect time for pizza: the vending machine offers 24/7 service to satisfy the late-night cravings of hungry college students, whether they’re heading out from the bars that line South University or struggling to stay awake from a study session at one of the two main U-M libraries, both of which are within a six-minute walk.

Bright white, with pictures of red onions, green bell peppers, basil, and olives—and the company’s red-and-green logo—the machine emulates the bright tricolor hues of the Italian flag. With no door or employees manning the orders and preparation, the sidewalk serves as both the line and the dining space for patrons.

Without the hassle of human interaction, the inebriated and the exhausted can procure their pizzas almost instantly. No cashiers. No chefs. No delivery drivers.

The machine offered nine different varieties that particular day, ranging from the basic “four-cheese blend” to “pickle,” topped with “dill weed, garlic salt, mozzarella cheese, pickles, and sour cream.” Prices that day varied from $8.99 to $13, based on the pie’s “sophistication.” Choose a pie (hot or frozen), insert your credit card, and then—the most challenging part—wait three minutes. Once I paid my $12.72, the machine whirred and eventually dispensed my hot, unsliced pepperoni pizza (the machine has a slot filled with plastic utensils for serving).

Based on its fluffy crust and simple ingredients, PizzaForno’s owners describe their pizza as “Neapolitan.” The technological novelty that delivers it, though, was developed in Toronto.

How did this Canadian creation make its way into the U.S.? That was the doing of Tim Ekpo and Adam Page, who opened the first PizzaForno locations in the United States in March, two in Jackson and one in Ann Arbor.

“We sort of have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Page says, via Zoom. Page and Ekpo own multiple businesses together in Michigan, but this is their first culinary venture. According to Page, Ekpo and his wife “stumbled on a pizza machine” on the way to dinner in Toronto, and curiosity got the best of them. 

The couple “decided, let’s buy one or two of every pizza in here,” Page says. They canceled their dinner plans and taste-tested every variety the machine offered.

Ekpo, a Jackson-based doctor, was impressed enough that on his return to the U.S., he tapped Page to research the company. Discovering that PizzaForna operated only in Canada, they arranged to become the company’s master licensees in the United States.

They headquartered the business in Jackson, so that was the obvious place to start. But why Ann Arbor? 

“Ann Arbor was really important to us because it’s our home, and also because of the amount of opportunity that’s here,” Page says. “There’s a whole bunch of things that, especially, the university is doing that is pretty amazing from a technology perspective.” They’ve since added a machine in Tecumseh—and clusters in Houston and New Orleans.

PizzaForno represents the latest—but surely not final—innovation in Ann Arbor’s long history as a hub for pizza experimentation. From Pizza from the Prop to PizzaForno’s vending machines and Domino’s self-driving test vehicles–and, always, new styles and toppings. Ann Arbor has long been the unheralded capital of pizza innovation.

The future of pizza, always in reach but just a step ahead of us, is likely fermenting in some pizza inventor’s brain right now. We can’t see what’s next, but the chances are good that the next fresh pizza innovation is underway already, right here, in Ann Arbor.