The Life Cycle of the Dollar Slice: Waste & Labor

The Life Cycle of the Dollar Slice: Waste & Labor

 

 

Photograph of a dollar pizza storefront at night, neon sign reading "99-cent Fresh Pizza" illuminated
99 Cents Fresh Pizza, 394 6th Avenue. Photograph by Serena Kleeman, 2019.

Whether it is your drunk craving or your lunch when money is tight, dollar pizza is a beloved New York staple. While the slice is no culinary feat, it never pretends to be. Its convenience and sheer affordability is what captures the heart of New Yorkers. As one of the most amazing deals around, it shines as one of those tiny miracles that makes life in the city a lot more bearable.

Because ninety-nine-cent pizza rose to fame quite quickly, many may forget that it is a rather recent phenomenon. Historically, New Yorkers followed the pizza-subway principle, holding that one slice of pizza should equal the fare of one subway ride.1 Now a slice can be found for almost a third of the price of a subway ride, for even cheaper than a bottle of water. With the 2008 economic recession, everyone from the Wall Street executive to the blue-collar worker found themselves with shallow pockets, searching for a more affordable lunch.2 In this exact moment, pizza makers across New York City discovered they could produce slices for much cheaper and still meet their bottom lines. The idea immediately spread, with more than seventy dollar pizza locations in Manhattan alone now serving ninety-nine-cent slices.3

Part of the beauty of dollar pizza is how it continues to stick out in a city that is rapidly gentrifying and growing more and more unequal by the year. It seems a jarring juxtaposition, especially in Manhattan, when neighboring restaurants serve small, “artisanal” Neapolitan pies for up to twenty dollars. Dollar pizza is that rare product that any class can enjoy—a pizza slice for the people, and one of the few foods accessible to New York’s sizable homeless population. Against a swarm of chains, these local pizza businesses keep their prices completely reasonable and feed all members of the community. How could you not support the ninety-nine-cent slice?

Unfortunately, as with all products in today’s consumer age, cheap prices often come with an ethical quandary.4 We felt compelled to ask: What exactly makes the dollar slice possible? We investigated the wider systems that produce the dollar slice and the waste that comes with it. We looked into the production of each ingredient as well as all the labor that is baked into it, from the work of Wisconsin cheese farmers to the people who work behind the counter and serve the dollar-slice themselves. When food is so cheap, we could not help but wonder: who or what bears the externalities to create such an affordable slice?

A dollar-pizza establishment will leverage a variety of strategies to keep prices low, some strategies more innocuous than others. If you’ve ever tried a ninety-nine-cent slice, you’ll remember its distinctively thin crust and the modest layer of sauce and cheese. You will never find a thick dollar slice oozing with cheese. Most simply, these pizza places will reduce the amount of ingredients per slice. If you’ve ever eaten a dollar slice, you may also remember having purchased it in a busy area. In order to maintain their bottom line, these shops need to sell a lot of slices. This often means upwards of 450 whole pies a day.5 To meet this volume, dollar pizza places often locate in high-foot-traffic areas like Times Square, Port Authority, or other busy avenues where pedestrians flock all hours of the day. Naturally, cheaper pizza also means cheaper ingredients: after-market, and the lowest quality products.6 But what does it mean to source “low price ingredients”?

Many of the dollar pizza establishments source their ingredients, especially their cheese, from Restaurant Depot, a wholesale cash-and-carry food supplier with several locations in NYC.7 This national company is known for offering incredibly cheap products in bulk for anyone who becomes a member. As for the cheese Restaurant Depot offers, most of their mozzarella cheese comes from one of the company’s own brands, Supremo Italiano.8 Supremo Italiano explains that it sources its cheese from Wisconsin dairy farms.9 In general, US domestic cheese is currently sold at very low prices, and this Wisconsin cheese is particularly cheap.

Across the country, low milk prices have sent the dairy industry into a state of crisis, and states with high proportions of dairy farmers, like Wisconsin, are being hit the hardest. In 2018 alone, the state lost nearly seven-hundred farms, which comes out to about two farms a day.10 This has not only destroyed the rural economy of this state, but there is widespread concern that suicide rates are on the rise among farmers, specifically among dairy farmers.11 The small-to-medium-scale dairy farmer is looking upon an awfully bleak future.

Dairy farmers’ incomes have been dropping since 2014, as milk prices began to tank. In this year, a confluence of events sent dairy farmers into a state of overproduction. As dairy preferences shifted, and Americans’ taste for milk and processed domestic cheese waned, distributors were also failing to export their milk on global markets. With nowhere to sell their dairy, dairy farmers had no choice but to pour their milk down the drains or convert it to cheese in hopes that it can be sold elsewhere.12

This has led to the buildup of a massive, record-breaking cheese glut, with over 1.4 billion pounds of cheese that now sit in storage.13

Amid a massive oversupply and declining demand, dairy prices have fallen, dairy farmers have been pushed out of the business, and those in the industry are desperately trying to fit cheese into anything they can. It was during the explosion of this glut that fast-food chains began rolling out some of their cheesiest menus to date, churning up items like Taco Bell’s 2016 “Quesalupa,” which contains about five times the amount of cheese as the standard “Crunchy Taco.”14 The cheese of this glut either sits as waste, is bought up and haphazardly redistributed by government agencies, or is thrown into whatever cheap food it can, such as our beloved dollar slice.15

When it comes to the pizza sauce, it’s no surprise that dollar pizza shops buy the cheapest tomatoes. While consumers may notice a more expensive tomato in its taste, the difference between a cheap tomato and a pricey one often boils down to labor. The vast majority of tomatoes in the United States are imported, with only 40 percent domestically produced. Those imported tomatoes tend to be the cheapest on the market. Most are sourced from Mexico and Italy, but Mexico continues to supply more than half of the tomatoes shipped to the United States.16

Laborers in Mexico who harvest the tomatoes endure some of the worst working conditions in the agricultural business. Although illegal, more than one-hundred thousand children under the age of fourteen worked to pick tomatoes.17 Moreover, workers receive scant pay, often going months without receiving a paycheck; physical abuse remains common; and the workers are forced to sleep on concrete floors, normally infested with scorpions or bedbugs. Inadequately compensated, most of them can’t afford to buy food, and are forced to starve and beg. Though this exploitation has made headlines, injustice continues due to the fact that these workers have virtually no labor protections.

Italy is no different. Agricultural workers, who are mostly migrant workers, labor in the field for long hours and for little pay. They live together in cramped, makeshift shelters and have to pay to drink water when they are exhausted. Reporters have referred to the treatment of workers in Italy as modern slavery.18 While achieving the dollar pizza depends on purchasing cheap ingredients like these Mexican or Italian tomatoes, those cheap ingredients are made possible by suppliers who make extreme cuts in labor costs. This pizza depends on devalued food products, and, in effect, devalued human labor.

As another attempt to slice costs, the employees working behind the counter are often grossly underpaid and working grueling, long shifts. In 2015, 2 Bros Pizza, a popular chain in New York City, faced a class-action lawsuit when employees accused the establishment of paying their workers below minimum wage and avoiding accounting for overtime. Workers reported working up to seventy-two hours a week, receiving only 6 dollars an hour though the minimum wage in 2015 was $10.50 an hour.19

2 Bros Pizza is not the only affordable pizza establishment in NY to underpay its workers. In 2015, New-York-based franchisees of multiple different national pizza chains came under scrutiny: Papa John’s had to settle $2.1 million for its underpaid delivery workers, and Domino’s Pizza paid $970,000 for labor violations.20, 21 In 2016, San Remo Pizzeria of Ditmas Park was condemned for underpaying its workers, owing $202,000 to pay those individuals back.22 These incidences point to a pattern.

At such a “disposable” price of one singular dollar, customers don’t feel the urge to reduce their food waste. Speaking to a Vice reporter, one woman said of dollar pizza, “If I didn’t like it, I’d just throw it out. Whatever.”23 People are less inclined to finish their slice knowing that they are only set back one dollar. Combine this with the fact that 27 percent of people already throw their crusts away, and it becomes easy to imagine the towers of dollar pizza that is left to rot.24

Like their customers, because products are purchased at such little cost, workers at dollar-slice shops become less incentivized to conserve their ingredients. Typically, dollar pizza places stock enough ingredients to last two weeks before their next trip to Restaurant Depot. This requires them to rely heavily on intuition to estimate the amount of ingredients that will cover that time period. But since the ingredients are cheap, workers will overstock to ensure they have enough. The unused ingredients spoil and go to waste. To place this into perspective, it is reported that, on average, restaurants in the US only accurately estimate the correct amount of ingredients needed 60 percent of the time, leading to an unnecessary amount of food waste.25 Meanwhile, 40 percent of the food produced in the United States ends up in a landfill or is left to rot in the field.26 Landfills are teeming with food tossed out by grocery stores, households, and restaurants. Dollar pizza slices and their ingredients only add greater waste to the piles.

The reality behind ninety-nine cent pizza is far less attractive than its crispy, cheesy facade. Producing this pizza exaggerates food waste issues and deepens labor inequities in our global food system. This forces us to ask: how can a product that acts as such an equalizer, spread so much inequality in its production? It is a product that is, in a sense, “for the people,” easily accessible to people of all different class backgrounds, yet its very existence rests on the people’s exploitation. How should we choose between supporting an affordable meal and denouncing unethical labor practices? Should these unfortunate discoveries stop us from celebrating a slice that provides food to so many New Yorkers? We can only push for systems where cheap food does not hinge on wasteful practices and exploitation.

Photograph of a slice of pizza on a paper plate
Photograph by Serena Kleeman, 2019.
  1. Tim Struby, “Can Dollar Pizza Survive?” Crain’s New York Business, December 12, 2017, https://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20171213/SMALLBIZ/171219962/how-dollar-pizza-joints-plan-to-survive-as-the-economy-continues-to-grow.
  2. Tim Latterner, “The Slow Death of NYC’s Iconic $1 Pizza Slice,” Vice,  June 19, 2018, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evk75k/the-slow-death-of-nycs-iconic-dollar1-pizza-slice.
  3. Struby, “Can Dollar Pizza Survive?”
  4. Michal Jemma CarringtonDetlev ZwickBenjamin Neville, “The Ideology of the Ethical Consumption Gap,” Marketing Theory 16, no. 1 (March 2016): 21–38. doi:10.1177/1470593115595674.
  5. Struby, “Can Dollar Pizza Survive?”
  6. Struby, “Can Dollar Pizza Survive?”
  7. Berlin Schaubhut, “The Dollar Slice: Secrets and Finances Behind NYC’s Cheapest, Fastest Pizza, The Miracle of Feeding Cities, The Food Lab, May 28, 2014, http://miracleofeedingcities.com/the-dollar-slice-secrets-and-finances-behind-nycs-cheapest-fastest-pizza/.
  8. “About Restaurant Depot: Our Brands,” Restaurant Depot, Accessed August 13, 2019, https://www.restaurantdepot.com/about/our-brands.
  9. “Restaurant Depot’s Supremo Italiano Brand,” video, posted by Restaurant Depot / Jetro, December 21, 2015, https://youtu.be/BSm5f4RqTVA.
  10. Rick Barrett, “Dairyland in Distress,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 21, 2019, https://www.jsonline.com/in-depth/news/special-reports/dairy-crisis/2019/02/21/wisconsin-dairy-farms-failing-milk-prices-fall/2540796002/.
  11. David Wahlberg, “As Wisconsin Farmers Struggle, New Effort Aims to Prevent Suicide,” Wisconsin State Journal, The Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2019.
  12. Kelsey Gee, “America’s Dairy Farmers Dump 43 Million Gallons of Excess Milk,” October 12, 2016, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/americas-dairy-farmers-dump-43-million-gallons-of-excess-milk-1476284353
  13. Barrett, “Dairyland in Distress.”
  14. Clint Rainey, “The Mad Scientists Fighting to Save the Dairy Industry,” Bloomberg Businessweek.
  15. Jeremy Hobson, Make America Grate Again? There’s 1.4 Billion Pounds of Surplus Cheese in the US,” Here & Now, WBUR, January 8, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/01/08/cheese-surplus-united-states.
  16. Scott Horsely, “Food Fight: Trump Administration Levels Tariffs on Mexican Tomatoes,” All Things Considered, NPR, May 7, 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/05/07/721172201/food-fight-trump-administration-levels-tariffs-on-mexican-tomatoes.
  17. Richard Marosi and Don Barletti, “Product of Mexico,” The Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2014, http://graphics.latimes.com/product-of-mexico-camps/.
  18. “‘Modern Slavery’ for Migrant Tomato Pickers in Italy,” France 24, February 20, 2018, https://observers.france24.com/en/20180220-slavery-migrant-tomato-pickers-italy.
  19. Stephen Rex Brown and Dareh Gregorian, “Workers File Class-Action Lawsuit against 2 Bros. Pizza,” New York Daily News, June 22, 2015.
  20. Chelsia Ros Marcius and Glenn Blain, “Harlem Papa John’s Workers to split $2.1M awarded after franchisee underpaid them,” New  York Daily News, March 5, 2015, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/ag-schneiderman-announces-2-1m-harlem-papa-john-workers-article-1.2139502.
  21. Ginger Adams, “Domino’s Pizza Franchise Owners in NY Ordered to Pay $970,000 for Violating Labor Laws,” New York Daily News, April 13, 2015, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/domino-pizza-franchise-owners-busted-labor-violations-article-1.2184037.
  22. Shannon Geis, “San Remo Pizzeria Accused of Owing Over $200,000 in Back Pay and Penalties to Workers,” Bklyner, January 14, 2016, https://bklyner.com/san-remo-pizzeria-accused-of-owing-over-200000-in-back-pay-and-penalties-to-workers-ditmas-park/.
  23. Latterner, “The Slow Death of NYC’s Iconic $1 Pizza Slice.”
  24. “Pizza Habits Key Findings,” Kelton Research for Pizza Inn, 2015,  http://origin-qps.onstreammedia.com/origin/multivu_archive/ENR/273608-PizzaInn-KeyFindings2.pdf.
  25. Siva Arumugam and James Cooke, “Fixing A Fractured Restaurant Supply Chain,” FSR Magazine, Foosnewsfeed.com, April 2017, https://www.foodnewsfeed.com/fsr/expert-insights/fixing-fractured-restaurant-supply-chain.
  26. Dana Gunders, “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill,” Natural Resources Defense Council, August 2012, https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf.
 
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