The failure of the Domino’s 30-minute delivery guarantee

A spate of deaths and lawsuits ended the famous pizza marketing ploy. Is delivery any safer now? 

Dominos delivery car accident

In October 1985, a teenage Domino’s driver was handed a pizza for delivery just outside Pittsburgh. It had been 23 minutes since the customer placed the order. He needed to hurry.  

He accelerated out of the restaurant parking lot and, without yielding, plowed into the car of Frank and Mary Jean Kranack, who suffered injuries. In the moments following the accident, a Domino’s manager allegedly grabbed the pizza from the driver’s car and passed it off to another delivery worker, with a message: There’s still time.  

“You had to wonder what kind of pressure was being placed on that manager and on the drivers that they felt compelled to put pizzas over someone’s life,” says the Kranacks’ lawyer, Kenneth Behrend, recalling the incident decades later.

The pressure stemmed from a now-infamous Domino’s marketing campaign: guaranteed pizza delivery in 30 minutes or less. 

It was a policy that had helped establish Domino’s as one of America’s leading pizza chains — and, ultimately, nearly destroyed the company’s reputation.

Making speed a guarantee

In 1960, at the first location of what would become Domino’s, founder Thomas Monaghan, a former Marine and seminary school dropout, hired two unemployed factory workers to deliver pizzas. They drove the store’s Volkswagen Beetle and made 10 cents an hour plus commission. 

Soon, the typical Domino’s store had more delivery drivers than pizza makers, outfitted gas ovens to work in delivery cars, and made specialized boxes that folded faster than anyone else’s. Its restaurants sold just two sizes of pizza and soft drinks (no pasta or exotic Pizza Hut concoctions) and featured no tables to maintain a minimalist, delivery-centric aesthetic.


Thomas Monaghan (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)  


That focus started to pay off in the 1980s as Americans got hooked on the concept of delivery: 

  • Women’s participation in the workforce was booming, creating a greater need for quick family meals.
  • The rise of microwaves and frozen dinners made Americans more accustomed to convenience and averse to going out in public. (One food industry exec described these consumer habits as “cocooning.”)  

In 1985, Domino’s claimed a delivery customer could expect the staff to cook a pizza in seven minutes and have it arrive at their doorstep, on average, 28 minutes after they placed their phone call. 

That time wasn’t a ballpark estimate. Monaghan was serious about speed, recommending franchises offer free or discounted pizzas if they didn’t arrive in 30 minutes or less. By at least the mid-1980s, the 30-minute recommendation became a guarantee: Any pizza that took longer than 30 minutes was free. (It was later changed to a $3 discount.) 


The Hustle


The restaurants didn’t live up to the guarantee every time (especially when cheap college students tormented drivers with imprecise directions). But the chain claimed it had a national success rate of 89% in 1984 and 95% in the late ’80s. A franchisee that operated 17 stores in Dayton, Ohio, set the company record by delivering 99% of its pizzas within 30 minutes. 

Corporate headquarters audited the stores’ performances by enlisting three mystery customers in every market. They’d order pizzas monthly, judge the timing and quality of the pie, and report back to corporate. Monaghan said Domino’s used these tests to evaluate employee compensation, bonuses, and promotions. 

As he described in his autobiography Pizza Tiger, he considered the 30-minute guarantee to be part of a “defensive mindset.” Instead of spending heavily on marketing, he believed that Domino’s would grow its base by consistently meeting customers’ expectations.


The Hustle


He was right: In the 1980s, the Domino’s share of the US pizza industry increased from a small sliver to ~15%, growing from ~300 restaurants to more than 2k.

Pizza Hut, pressured by its growing rival, introduced delivery in 1986, igniting the “Pizza Wars.” But Pizza Hut didn’t offer any timing guarantee, and analysts gave Domino’s the advantage. 

As Monaghan had put it a few years earlier, the chain focused on delivery “as if it was life or death.” 

Reckless driving, lawsuits, and pressure

At a Domino’s restaurant outside Indianapolis, employees kept a tally of drivers who took longer than 30 minutes to deliver a pizza. Every week, the driver with the most late deliveries had to wear a badge that said “King of Lates.” Jesse Colson, a punctual teenage driver, never had to wear it.

On a rainy Saturday night in early June 1989, Colson fatally crashed into a utility pole while speeding to deliver a pizza. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt —  his girlfriend, a fellow employee, told the Indianapolis Star he may have done that to save a few precious seconds when he got out of the car at the customer’s house.


A Domino’s delivery vehicle follows a rival from Pizza Hut in 1989. (Greg White/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)


It wasn’t an uncommon scene in Midwestern and Sunbelt communities, strongholds for chain pizza restaurants. The night before, a Domino’s delivery driver was involved in a nonfatal crash in another Indianapolis suburb.

“If anything good could come from my son’s death,” Colson’s mother told the Star, “I hope that Domino’s does away with that 30-minute or less delivery policy.”

The chain wasn’t interested. Domino’s emphasized it didn’t ask deliverers to speed or drive recklessly and said the foundation of its delivery guarantee was its efficient cooking process. The company claimed it rejected two-thirds of driver applicants and its franchise manual contained an all-caps line that said: “FAST DELIVERY DOES NOT COME FROM SPEEDING AND RECKLESS DRIVING.”  

Domino’s confirmed it knew of 20 people who died in crashes involving its drivers in 1988 (the National Safe Workplace Institute would later claim Domino’s delivery drivers had about the same death rate as miners, who had a fatality rate of ~35 per 100k). In the company’s annual report that year, Monaghan described the failure to honor the 30-minute guarantee as “one of the big disappointments of 1987” and called it the restaurant’s biggest priority for the year ahead.   

But Colson’s death happened around the same time that Kenneth Behrend’s lawsuit for the crash involving Frank and Mary Jean Kranack made national news.

Before Domino’s, Behrend’s most high-profile cases involved lawsuits against a prominent lender and a regional branch of the Bell System. But, with a degree from Cornell in hotel and restaurant administration, Behrend had a grasp on how the restaurant industry worked.  

He started the Delivery Services Negligence Litigation Group and took calls from attorneys across the country to explain how to structure their lawsuits using a negligent corporate policy claim, a tort technique he pioneered that would allow them to tie a car wreck from a franchisee back to the 30-minute corporate policy of Domino’s.   

“That was the heart and soul of their corporation,” Behrend says. “And their entire mantra, their entire business model, their entire focus of all operations was on 30-minute service.”  


Attorney Kenneth Behrend helped organize many lawsuits while representing the Kranacks in Pittsburgh. (Illustration via Herald)


When he complained to the press that Domino’s wasn’t providing any data on its crashes, he’d receive packages filled with company documents in the mail from anonymous employees. He learned the most common crash happened when a driver overshot somebody’s house, put their car in reverse, and slammed into a car behind them. 

A 1984 company survey revealed that:

  • 17% of Domino’s drivers felt stressed trying to reach their destination in under 30 minutes.
  • 10% admitted to driving recklessly.    

By 1990, Behrend estimated at least 200 lawsuits had been filed against Domino’s, and pressure mounted from legislators and labor unions.

In late 1993, a case for a woman who’d been struck by a Domino’s driver while taking her kid to a bowling alley went to trial. The jury found Domino’s liable for $750k in actual damages and $78m in punitive damages — the same amount the company lost in late fees to customers the prior year. (A settlement was eventually reached.) 

An announcement from Monaghan came shortly after the trial ended. Domino’s, which did not respond to interview questions from The Hustle, was ending the guarantee. In a prepared statement, he said that the restaurant chain had heard the message “loud and clear.” 

“No matter what we do in the areas of safety and training for our drivers, some of the public still have a negative perception about us because of the guarantee, so we are eliminating the element that creates that negative perception.” 


The new dangers of delivery driving

Behrend says his Pittsburgh case, which had crawled through the court system, settled after the St. Louis decision. So did other lawsuits. But the Domino’s litigation, according to Behrend, also had an unintended consequence. He says baseline personal insurance policies stopped covering drivers who were using their cars for business purposes. 

That’s an important distinction today, with the US food delivery market having doubled during the pandemic and gig workers facing uncertainty over coverage.    

Depending on the app and the specific point in the delivery process, they may not be covered by insurance from the likes of DoorDash or Uber Eats and risk steep costs if they get in an accident — a too-frequent occurrence.

Georgetown researcher Katie Wells, who wrote Disrupting D.C.: The Rise of Uber and the Fall of the City, authored a report based on interviews with 41 gig delivery drivers in Washington DC, finding that roughly a quarter had been involved in a collision on the job. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fatality rate of driver/sales workers (a group that includes delivery drivers) was 14.6 per 100k in 2022 — higher than the rate for protective services workers like police officers and firefighters (10.2 per 100k) and miners (11.7 per 100k).


The Hustle


Gig drivers don’t face an edict for speed like past Domino’s drivers, but Wells says the requirement to be fast is built into the job, with drivers hurrying to make financial incentives, avoid bad ratings, and ensure the food is warm upon delivery.   

“Your livelihood depends on you getting somewhere and getting there fast,” she says.

That kind of motivation can be dangerous. 

When Behrend was preparing his Domino’s case, he remembers speaking to behavioral scientists who explained that delivery drivers stressed by time constraints get a form of tunnel vision. They focus on their destination and less on the world around them, leaving themselves and everyone else vulnerable, because they must arrive a little bit faster.

The 30-minute guarantee may have ended decades ago. But its legacy lives on. 

Topics: Food

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