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How Come Every Takeout Pizza Box Has Different Artwork?

Guess what I was looking at when trying to think of pitches this morning

Michelangelo had his chapel, Da Vinci had his Mona Lisa and the purveyors of pizza have their box. Per Serious Eats, more than one billion pizzas are delivered each year and every single one of them is transported to its destination in a corrugated cardboard box. Most of these are adorned with clip-art level graphics that appear appropriately, well, cheesy, and though the geometrical shape of the pizza box is almost always the same, the graphic atop said box is usually unique. 

Assuming every generic local pizza place gets its boxes from the same handful of distributors, how come they’ve all got different art?

Before I answer that question, though, I should first note how the corrugated pizza box came to be. Originally, pizza was transported in copper containers known as stufas (i.e., stoves) in the early 1800s. “Jump ahead 100 years and pizza starts to catch on in New York and other industrialized American cities,” reports Serious Eats. “Legend has it that pizzas were being sold ‘to-go’ rolled into a cone, wrapped in paper and loosely tied with twine at Lombardi’s (America’s first licensed pizzeria).”

To that end, it wasn’t until the founder of Domino’s, Tom Monaghan, whose entire business was built on delivery pizza, that the cardboard box was developed with the help of Triad Containers, a Detroit-based corrugated box company. But while Dominoes helped streamline the corrugated pizza box, the same wouldn’t be true of pizza box graphics. 

According to Scott Wiener, the world’s foremost pizza box collector and founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours, pizza box graphics are offered in two types. “There’s stock art, which is when the pizza box distributor has their own little design,” he says. “If you buy pizza boxes directly from the distributors, its cheaper and the box usually just has some kind of imagery that says ‘oven fresh,’ or ‘you’ve tasted the rest now try the best.’”

If you want to customize a pizza box it’s usually 10 to 20 percent more expensive, Wiener tells me. “So pizzerias in New York City tend not to customize their boxes,” he says. “New York City isn’t a custom box town.” 

But if that’s the case, how come it still seems like every pizza box graphic, however standard seeming, remains slightly different? “If you’re seeing three or four different ones at three or four different pizzerias, it just means they’re using different distribution,” explains Wiener. And since there’s a number of different pizza box distributors, each offering two or three stock images, there’s an endless number of stock art pizza boxes at the pizza maker’s disposal. “Sometimes there’s seasonal variations, like a seasonal Christmas box or Easter box, but even that’s pretty rare,” says Wiener. 

Still, Wiener does say that though it’s still more likely for a pizza restaurant to opt for the cheaper stock art design, there’s been an uptick in the number of pizzerias who are choosing custom designs. “The extra expense is worth it as a marketing device,” he says. “Except for in New York City, where a slice of pizza is still the most popular way to order pizza.” 

And of course, no one needs a box to carry a slice.