How Domino's avoided Super Bowl fumbles

The three phones ring incessantly, making the storefront unit sound like a telethon call center to the 10 takeout customers waiting in line, witnessing what’s clearly not a routine day for their local Domino’s. They can surmise from the chorus of “Hello, Domino’s” that the outlet would be hard-pressed to handle more call-in orders. What they don’t realize is that a takeout or delivery order is being placed via the Internet for roughly every two that light up the phones. In one hour on this particular Sunday night, the shoebox-sized outlet will produce 239 pizzas. On a normal Sunday evening it’d bake 100.

That’s not counting the dozens of chicken wing and Cheesy Bread orders that slide across the counter to takeout customers, several wearing New York Giants garb and trash-talking into cell phones about Big Blue. It’s a half-hour to the kick-off for Super Bowl XLVI, but it’s already game-on for the Domino’s in Roslyn Heights, N.Y. and sister units across the country.

The three hours leading into the Super Bowl is the busiest time of the year for the chain, by a blowout margin. Rob Crookston, franchisee of the Roslyn Heights store, will see business soar even in that unit, which is roughly the size of a single-car garage. One of his units in Manhattan, which handles three times the orders in normal times, will contend with double the usual Sunday volume.

With that much business at stake, the franchisor asks nearly half its chainwide information-systems staff—some 57 members, each with a tech specialty—to forego the rec room Barcalounger and gather at Domino’s Ann Arbor, Mich., headquarters for the game.  Normally, 10 people are on call.

Each of the Super Bowl safeties uses two 22-inch screens, working off their laptops, to monitor Internet ordering and scout for disruptions.

“We do monitor the online ordering connection to every store 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Lance Shinabarger, Domino’s vice president of infrastructure and security.  “However, there is a heightened sense of urgency if they go offline during the Super Bowl. We immediately contact the broadband provider and do everything within our power to get them back up as fast as possible.”

If the store can’t be brought online, customers are asked to relinquish their mouse and dial a local unit. But the restaurants typically have redundancies in place to spare patrons the effort. Crookston’s 19 stores, for instance, each have a phone and wireless modem as fallbacks to what he hails as “a state-of-the-art system.”

The game is shown at headquarters on big projection screens, but not just for rooting purposes. When the commercials roll, the tech team sees an upswing in online ordering activity. “At some points during the game, we were processing more than 1,000 orders per minute,” recounts Shinabarger.

But the process does have its party aspects. Another 43 employees, relatives and friends volunteer to cook pizzas for the working tech team. It’s customary, according to Shinabarger, for the tech specialists to put their kids on kitchen duty, resulting in some pizzas that may not meet Domino’s usual standards.

“After the 3rd quarter starts, the tension in the room relaxes and that is when we all get to enjoy the game,” he says. “This really has become a tradition here at Domino’s Pizza and everyone has a great time.”

Like the Giants and Patriots, the tech team drilled rigorously before the game.

“Online ordering is a complex system. It’s compromised of over 700 servers, two data centers and many pieces of networking equipment,” explains Shinabarger. “We work hard to test the overall capacity of the system using computers from around the U.S. to simulate real transactions.”

If the team spots any components that “stress under heavy load,” the system is fortified or otherwise adjusted, then retested, Shinabarger continues. “It’s a rinse-and-repeat cycle until we’re confident that we can handle Super Bowl-plus volumes.”

Those volumes are forecast by Domino’s business intelligence operation, and the tech department computes its own projection, which is usually considerably higher (“I guess those of us in IS think everyone wants to order electronically,” quips Shinabarger.)

“This year was a good one—no scares to report,” he says via e-mail a few days post-Super Bowl.  “You always worry about those technical glitches that you normally have no control over.”

But, with online orders topping 30% of Domino’s business, the team is already considering next year’s big game and what could go wrong given the Internet volume that’s expected.

“We always seem to find a new way to strain the online ordering system,” laments Shinabarger.

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