DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, Washington Post Magazine, Popular Science, Outside, Men's Health, and many other publications.
Pizza delivery and infrastructure repair go together like ham and pineapple.
Residents of Milford, Delaware, might have come across a peculiar sight on their streets in recent weeks: asphalt patches emblazoned with the unmistakable logo of one of America’s largest pizza chains, and the phrase “Oh yes we did.”
Fire your advertising departments: Domino’s Pizza, a business that devised the name “bread twists” for its appetizers of twisted pieces of bread, just dunked on all of you.
The pizza chain’s expansion into infrastructure is part of a campaign called Paving for Pizza: Over the course of this year, Domino’s will dispense grants of $5,000 to up to 20 locations across the U.S. to help fill potholes and repair cracked roads. Along with Burbank, California, Athens, Georgia, and Bartonville, Texas, Milford played the part of pilot city for the project. Customers can go online to nominate future cities for road repair grants.
In return for this modest investment, the corporation is enjoying a feast of national media coverage and spicy takes, as Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times observed on Twitter.
Consider us guilty of piling on. But we also snagged a copy of the legal agreement that Athens, one of the pilot cities, signed with Domino’s, confidentiality clause be damned. (Private companies, take heed: Once you partner with cities, that stuff becomes public record.) In it, we learned that the $5,000 grant from Domino’s included several stipulations: having repairs completed by the end of May; photographing before-and-after pictures of the repair sites and giving the images to Domino’s; and a promise from Domino’s that any reference to the cities and their pizza-chain-connected paving efforts “will not portray [them] in a negative light, nor will the Materials suggest that [they have] difficulty repairing roadways or [have] an excessive amount of roadways in disrepair.”
According to Milford public works director Mark Whitfield, Domino’s sprung for 40 pothole repairs and provided Milford with a stencil, which the city agreed to spray-paint on top of each of the potholes it fixed. And, no—no pizzamakers were directly involved in the roadwork.
“They gave us $5,000 toward the purchase of materials, but we actually did the work,” Whitfield says.
Delaware was clobbered by severe cold snaps this winter, which led to a bumper crop of potholes in Milford. Poor water drainage, freeze-thaw cycles, excessive heat, and wear-and-tear all contribute to forming them, and in northern climates, good road fixes can really only be undertaken in the warmer months. “More permanent repairs take place later because the temperature of the asphalt has to be high,” says Russ Klettke, principal writer for Pothole.info, the online clearinghouse for anything you might want to know about potholes.
Milford city manager Eric Norenberg first got wind of the Domino’s campaign last winter and submitted an application. The $5,000 supplement to the public works budget represents a significant bump for this small town of about 10,000: As Norenberg wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, Milford only has $30,000 to cover street repairs for the entire year. “It didn’t pay for everything, but it certainly was a nice help,” says Whitfield. “Having three employees work full-time for six weeks doing nothing but fixing potholes, obviously you rack up a pretty good bill in labor alone.”
In Athens, Georgia, the agreement between the city and Domino’s unfolded in a similar way, although instead of multiple pothole patches, the $5,000 was put toward repairing a stretch of road “that gives us fits,” according to transportation and public works department director Drew Raessler. “It was an area where we had constant traffic running over it. It would distress the pavement, which would get pretty cracked up,” he says. Athens has a $7.4 million budget for its paving program, but like Whitfield, Raessler said the free cash from the pizza giant was much appreciated, as well as an “opportunity to do some good within the community.”
As CityLab has often reported, potholes have long been the focus of creative advocacy efforts: Citizens have made them impromptu hot tubs, festooned them with profane graffiti, and planted flowers in them in an effort to draw attention to road repairs that are seemingly never made. But Paving for Pizza adds a Trump-era twist to this formula. Having a fast-food corporation fill potholes as a branding exercise struck some observers as a particularly cartoonish variation on the kind of public-private partnership the White House’s “Infrastructure Incentives Program” is supposed to encourage, with its emphasis on “attracting significant new, non-Federal revenue streams dedicated to infrastructure investments.” But should basic maintenance of public roads be handed off to corporations for marketing stunts? Is this, as Popular Mechanics claims, “a delicious indictment of the country’s infrastructure problems”?
In his Washington Post piece, Milford city manager acknowledged this concern, and then pointedly brushed it off. “A lot of basic services can’t be funded by grants,” Norenberg wrote. “[T]he basics—plowing the snow, collecting garbage, the regular stuff that makes a city function—no one gives you a grant for that. Taking $5,000 from a pizza chain to repair our roads was not a difficult decision.”
And there’s a certain logic in having Domino’s, whose drivers rack up 12 million miles each week in the U.S. alone delivering extra-cheese pies, providing funding to fix potholes. The company, after all, bears some responsibility for the sorry state of the pavement, as well as a business imperative to wanting to see the streets fixed. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the cost of bad roads to American businesses between now and 2022 will be $240 billion. ASCE estimates that fixing the country’s crumbling infrastructure—potholes and cracked roads included—will cost upwards of $4.5 trillion over the next decade. That’s a lot of pizza.
“We might need more Domino’s,” says Klettke. “Think about it: If a hundred companies did it, it might make a dent in the problem.”