Mike Ilitch, who turned a little pizza shop that he ran with his wife into one of the biggest pizza chains in the country, Little Caesars, died on Friday in a local Detroit hospital. He was 87.
A former minor league ballplayer, he became a fixture around Detroit, owning the Detroit Tigers and the Detroit Red Wings along with several other businesses. He also worked tirelessly to rebuild his hometown, which had been ravaged in recent decades by the decline in manufacturing.
“My father was a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur, visionary and leader, setting the tone for our organization and our family,” Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., said in a statement.
“He made such a positive impact in the world of sports, in business and in the community, and we will remember him for his unwavering commitment to his employees, his passion for Detroit, his generosity to others and his devotion to his family and friends.”
Mike Ilitch was born in Detroit in 1929 to Macedonian immigrants, Sotir Ilitch and Sultana Tasseff Ilitch, who had come to the U.S. just five years earlier.
Ilitch was an all-city athlete in baseball and track and was offered a minor league contract by the Detroit Tigers in 1947. He instead opted to join the U.S. Marine Corps., where he served through 1952.
The Tigers again offered Ilitch a contract after his discharge and he played in the team’s system for four seasons, making it to the highest levels of the minor leagues before a knee injury ended his baseball career. He then went to work as a door-to-door salesman.
He met Marian Bayoff in 1954 on a blind date arranged by his father. The couple married just a few months later.
They saved their money over the next five years and used that savings to open a pizza shop called Little Caesars in Garden City, Mich., on May 8, 1959. That first location continues to operate today. The concept sold pizza, spaghetti, chicken, shrimp and fish.
The company’s first franchise opened in Warren, Mich., three years later. Franchising would enable Little Caesars to become one of the fastest growing chains in the country.
The chain ultimately focused only on pizza and targeted budget consumers. In 1979 it launched an offering of two pizzas for the price of one, coining a “Pizza! Pizza” phrase for which the chain was long known.
The company struggled in the early 2000s; however, it remodeled locations and started a new $5 deal offering in 2003 for ready-made pizzas for carryout customers.
Based in part on that deal, Little Caesars has flourished over the past decade. Its market share in the pizza category has doubled since 2009. As of last year, the chain was the third largest pizza concept in the U.S., behind Domino’s Pizza Inc. and Pizza Hut, with more than $3.5 billion in domestic system sales and 4,200 locations.
The restaurant is also the biggest, primarily carryout brand in the country.
“He was not only an icon in the restaurant industry and a philanthropist who had a profound impact on the city of Detroit, he was also a worthy adversary,” Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle said in a statement. “We loved competing against him and his world renowned brand.”
The success of that business enabled Ilitch to invest in other businesses that are now housed in Detroit under the name Ilitch Companies. He was a huge sports fan, and in 1982 purchased a struggling National Hockey League team, the Detroit Red Wings. It has since become one of the league’s most successful franchises, winning four Stanley Cup championships.
In 1992, Ilitch fulfilled a lifelong dream when he bought the Detroit Tigers.
Ilitch has become known for his philanthropy. He helped civil rights icon Rosa Parks pay her rent. In 1985 his company started The Little Caesars Love Kitchen, which travels across the country providing free pizzas to the homeless and to disaster survivors. Ilitch also started the Little Caesars Veterans program offering reduced fees for qualified veterans who open a Little Caesars location, making the chain a leader in the drive to encourage more veteran ownership of franchises.
A main focus for Ilitch, however, has been his hometown. In 1987 he and his wife purchased the neglected Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit and worked to restore the building to its original splendor. The theater was reopened in 1988. The next year, the Ilitch Companies moved its global headquarters to the nearby Fox Office Centre.
“They love Detroit,” Little Caesars CEO David Scrivano said at the time of the Ilitches. “I don’t know of anybody that’s given back to Detroit more.”
Ilitch and his wife have seven adult children, Denise (Jim Scalici), Ron, Michael Jr. (Noelle), Lisa (Glen Murray), Atanas (Patty), Christopher (Kelle) and Carole. They have 22 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
A memorial is being held today at Comerica Park, the stadium Ilitch funded for the Tigers. A public visitation will be held on Wednesday in the grand lobby of the Fox Theatre.
“The volume of condolences and kind wishes overwhelms us, and we appreciate it more than words can express,” the family said in a statement on Monday.
“We know that he would’ve been touched by the outpouring of support, especially from this community that he so loved. We will miss him tremendously, and we are grateful, humbled and comforted to know that his lifetime was filled with well-lived moments.”
Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]
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