If you think about stuffed crust pizza at all — and why wouldn’t you? — chances are you associate it with Pizza Hut, which rolled out its game-changing product 29 years ago with a star studded ad campaign that featured everyone from Ringo Starr to John McEnroe to Donald Trump.
Of course someone had to have the idea to stick cheese inside the crust before baking the pie, which in retrospect, seems like a no brainer. And it seems like a natural thing to come from a nationwide fast food chain.
However (you had to know a “however” was coming) a young man by the name of Anthony Mongiello actually obtained a patent for the method of making stuffed crust pizza in 1987. You can look it up, it’s patent number 466 1361A. Patent in hand, he tried to license his idea to all the big chains. After talking to the research and development department at Pizza Hut — the only company that answered his call, he says — they passed on his idea.
So imagine his surprise when the chain rolled out Stuffed Crust Pizza in 1995.
After Pizza Hut rolled out their product, Mongiello sued the chain for $1 billion in 1998. That lawsuit, which ended up being rejected in a summary judgment, is the subject of last year’s short docudrama “Stolen Dough.” A little silly? Maybe. But the facts are the facts: Mongiello had a patent for stuffed crust pizza before Pizza Hut came out with the same product with the same name.
Today Mongiello is the CEO of Formaggio Cheese. We talk about growing up in Bensonhurst, how he came up with the idea of stuffed crust pizza, why all these years later he worked to tell his story in a short film and what he wants now.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
There is a short documentary that was recently made with you called “Stolen Dough” about your claims in the ’90s that you had patented this stuffed crust method of making pizza in 1987, and that Pizza Hut violated that patent when they came out with their stuffed crust pizza. Is that accurate?
Yes, it’s an accurate statement. There’s a lot more that goes to it, but yes, accurate statement.
This had made headlines in the ’90s when you initially sued Pizza Hut. We’ll talk about how that concluded dissatisfactorily for you, but why now? Why are we kicking up this dust now?
I’m getting older, and the movie, the film, the docudrama is all about what I went through as far as the case is concerned. It talks about all of the facts. There is some reenactment, but a lot of it is archived footage from, let’s say, my deposition, when I was deposed by Pizza Hut for three days’ worth of video deposition. And I wanted to tell my story for a very specific reason, Brian, and that’s what it comes down to: Being a young man that grew up in Brooklyn and in business now for over 32 years, I’m getting older. When I tell somebody, “Hey guys, you know that product that you’ve probably seen on TV, or probably eaten, called stuffed crust pizza? Well, I’m the creator of that.” And people look at me like I’m crazy. In my industry, what I do is, I am a.k.a. The Big Cheese, product creator.
CEO of Formaggio Cheese.
There you go. And that’s what we do. I’ve been creating food items in the cheese space for 32 years now, and this was my biggest claim to fame. So being in the food industry, what I really want is my recognition for creating a billion dollar concept. Here we are so many years later, Brian, and the commercials are all over television, whether it’s Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Little Caesars, everybody’s making stuffed crust pizza. I just wanted my kids to be able to feel proud of what their dad did. And this is the gist of the movie, and it all comes out when you watch the film, but it’s about the recognition I feel I deserve. I don’t want any money from anybody. I don’t even want to hurt Pizza Hut.
You want your propers, you want your dues?
Yeah. The truth is, I buy stuffed crust pizza, because I’m proud of it.
Well, let’s talk about it, because it’s an interesting story. You filed a patent in 1987, number 4661361, a patent for the method of making stuffed crust pizza, which would in theory grant you a monopoly over the production process. What made you file this patent? Certainly the idea of baking cheese into dough is not exactly your invention.
Well, this is true. My patent was issued in April of 1987, and I started out on the endeavor, I actually created the product when I was 18 years old, that would’ve been 1982. And my dad was a machinist and he made Italian cheese machines for the Italian cheese industry. Every time he would build or come up with a new concept for a machine, he would patent it to protect it. So when I came up with this concept for a stuffed crust pizza, I went to my dad, I said, “Pop, what do you think about this?” And he actually really liked the concept, and he’s the one that said, “You should apply for a patent. You should think of every way and any way someone would try and look at this patent and try and circumvent it,” meaning get around it and try and make a change that could cause you not to be able to protect it under your patent. But the truth is, although we say a lot of people have enclosed food inside dough, that’s correct, but not on the crust of a pizza, see?
And you called it “stuffed crust” in your patent?
I did. I applied for a trademark, “stuffed crust pizza,” and the trademark office said to me, “That’s a little bit too descriptive and we can’t give you that mark.” But I changed it a little bit and it’s “stuff in the crust,” and I got my trademark, but it didn’t make a difference. Pizza Hut took the method of my patent and went ahead and used the words “stuffed crust pizza” as a description, and I’m out.
Full transparency to our listeners and all that, obviously we’re not talking to Pizza Hut today. They were contacted by the filmmaker and did not talk. So, I guess to the best of my ability, I’m going to play the devil’s advocate throughout this conversation. You actually talked to Pizza Hut twice after the patent and before their stuffed crust pizza comes out. You want to try to lease them your patent, you send it to them and they passed on it. That’s according to you.
They did. In 1988, after I achieved my patent and my patent number, which was issued in April of ’87, again, patent number 4661361, I felt I would be protected and I sent my patents. I cold called them. I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, but I want to live the American dream and I’m going to do everything I can do, and I want to get this into the hands of the pizza giants. Now realize, I grew up in Brooklyn. There’s a pizzeria on every corner.
Yeah, yeah. grew up in a very Italian neighborhood and it was pizzerias on every corner. And I created this product.
I want to tell you, Brian, it happened by accident, because it’s important for me to let people understand, because everybody says, “Why did you come up with this? How did you come up with this idea?” Well, Brian, I’m glad you asked me that question. The reality is here, I was actually dating a girl in Brooklyn. Her mom asked me if I could make a pizza and that she said she would make the sauce. Being an Italian woman, that was something she was used to doing, and I was working for a cheese distributor at the time back then. So I said, “Sure, I’ll bring the cheese and I’ll go to a bakery and pick up some dough and you make the sauce and I’ll make the pie.”
Now, look, I’m not a pizzaiolo guy, but I’ve seen them, these guys behind the counter all my life, spinning dough to make pizza. I figured I can do this. So, when I bought the dough from the bakery and I looked at it, I realized it wasn’t as big as the one I would normally see the gentleman behind the counter using to make a traditional pie. So I took two of the dough balls I got from the bakery, Brian, and I put them together and I proceeded to hand toss this pizza. I realized how thin the bottom layer had to be. I didn’t realize what I did, but I put all the extra dough that I had, because I had more dough than I should have, and I pushed it all to the crust. So if you could envision the size of a cooked crust, that’s what I had in raw dough sitting on the counter.
What are you going to do with all this extra dough?
I just left it on the outside. It looked okay, so I put some sauce, I put some cheese, and I put it in the oven. And Brian, I got to tell you, I started to get embarrassed, because I’m looking through the glass oven door and I’m watching this thing cook, and the crust starts to rise and rise, bigger and bigger. I was like, “Oh my gosh, what did I do?” And it looked like a calzone or a zeppoli forming around the whole outside periphery of this pizza. Well, again, it was in front of my girlfriend’s mother, and I felt weird, but I took it out and I cut it and there was nothing wrong with it. It just looked funny. Well, as I bit into the crust and I watched it, because when you bite into a piece of dough, it’ll close and then it opens, and I saw all of the nooks and crannies and I went, “Wow, if there was something inside here, this would be great.” And that’s truly, Brian, how stuffed crust pizza was born.
So you have the dough and you put a ring of basically string cheese rolls, mozzarella sticks, around the periphery, and then you enclose them in the dough?
Here’s what I did. So I got the concept from a plain bread crust that was really big, it was like a zeppoli or calzone, and there was no filling in it. So when I thought about the concept, I went ahead and I started getting pizza dough now from a pizzeria, and I started playing with it. And the beautiful part about it, Brian, was I stuffed it with everything you could think of, because growing up in Brooklyn, what was available in a pizzeria? A sausage roll, maybe meatball, parmesan, broccoli and cheese roll, I stuffed the crust with everything I could find in an attempt to say, “Look, let’s create two products in one.” See, in order for me to achieve a patent back then in 1987, there had to be a benefit for the consumer.
And it had to be a non-obvious, it had to provide a utility and had to be unique.
And indeed it was, because there was no stuffed crust pizza on the market or for sale anywhere. The benefit of it was I was working at one point through the process of obtaining my patent, doing construction. I was a construction supervisor on big jobs in Manhattan, and I had all different trades that worked on the job. So I’d walk over to where these guys were sitting eating lunch, and there would be a couple of boxes of pizza that they had just finished eating, and I’d walk over and I’d open it up and boom, you’d see four, five, six pieces of crust in there.
They’d leave the bones. Yeah.
There you go. People call it the bones. And the point is, I says, “If you stuff the crust of the pizza, people will not throw it away. They’re going to eat it.” And that’s another reason that I was able to obtain my patent, because that was the beneficial aspect of the product.
I was looking through some of the court documents and it looked like your initial patent was declared unpatentable over a prior art practiced by someone named Giordano and Chapman. I couldn’t find out what that was, but it took you a couple tries to get the patent through.
The patent examiners even said, in writing, to my attorney that I was infringing on or I couldn’t get a patent, because of an apple turnover. They were not getting it, they weren’t truly understanding the concept, so I had to pay. And back then there was no money, I had no money, I had to fly the attorney of mine to the patent trademark office to sit with the examiner. And after that meeting and after clarifying that this is a closed crust on a pizza with various fillings inside, I was granted my patent.
And that’s in ’87?
That’s right. April of ’87. I was granted the patent.
You call Pizza Hut, you call everybody. Pizza Hut’s the only one you get through to, you send them the patent, but they pass on it. And then here we have, lo and behold, 1995, they launched stuffed crust pizza.
Yes. Now I want you to know something, when I called Pizza Hut, they wanted me to send my patent and my concept to their R&D department.
Which you did.
But I said to myself, “You want me to send this to the people you’re paying hundreds and thousands of dollars a year to, to come up with items and I’m going to send them my item? I don’t get it.” But you know what? It was the only fish on the hook, so I did it.
And if you have the patent, you’re assuming that—
But you weren’t.
But that’s a big mistake I made, Brian. I would love for your listeners to realize this, when you have a concept like I did, you think you’re going to be protected by that patent. Now, even though I sent it to them, it’s very easy for them to go ahead and get the patent, and in my summation of what happened, gave it to their attorneys and said; they liked the item, they want it, “How do we get this thing without having to make a deal with this guy from Brooklyn?” Because that’s what it came down to, because they sent me a letter back after they reviewed my patent, said, “Thank you very much for sharing it with us, but we really have no interest in the product.” I sent it again to all three of the top chains in 1991.
And then in 1994, Brian, I get a phone call from a friend of mine congratulating me on selling or partnering up with Pizza Hut for my stuffed crust pizza. And these are kids I grew up with who I made the pizzas with back when I was 18 years old.
And they congratulate you, because they saw the commercial, because Pizza Hut came out with it?
Yes, it was amazing.
Was Donald Trump in the first commercial?
He was. Here’s the truth, man, if you realize this, I couldn’t believe what was happening, and I started cold calling Pizza Hut, and I was amazed. They knew exactly who I was. They even made me an offer on the phone. I couldn’t believe it.
They offer you 50 grand to go away basically?
Exactly. Now, they offered me $50,000. So in 1995, I opened the newspaper and it says, “Pizza Hut is launching a $45 million advertising campaign for what they call stuffed crust pizza.” I nearly fell off my chair, I couldn’t believe it. And then after I read this and I called them up and they offered me $50,000, “Wait a minute, you’re spending $45 million dollars to hire Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Ringo Starr.
I couldn’t believe all of this. Why? Why not work with me? What am I? Lock, stock and barrel, I would’ve been theirs, that many years ago. It’s sad.
For you, the $50,000 was an admission that they knew they were using something of yours and they just wanted to make you go away essentially.
There’s no doubt. When I call Pizza Hut, I’m cold calling a company, I have no idea who they are, and they’re putting me through. I says, “Hi, my name is Anthony Mongiello.” “Hold on.”
“Wait, we know you.” Yeah.
They know exactly who I am, because they anticipated this phone call. How could they not?
So you sue them, ’98?
I sue them. Well, what I do is I go to my dad at the time, his friend, Paul Sutton, who happened to be his patent attorney. He, as an expert in patent law, read my patent, looked at whatever information he had regarding Pizza Hut’s product, and he felt, in his professional opinion, that a cause of action for patent infringement was warranted to the point that they took it for nothing. They took it on a contingency. So if they didn’t win, they weren’t making any money, but that’s how strong these patent attorneys felt about the case. Now, I’m not a patent attorney and I can make all the claims I want, but I’ve got one of the biggest firms in New York City taking on Pizza Hut for patent infringement, you have to think that I have a lot of merit to my case.
You sued for a billion dollars initially?
That was the number the attorneys came up with.
That’s a big number.
See a patent back then, I don’t know about now, was good for 17 years. Pizza Hut had 8,200 outlets across the country, 8,200 outlets with the life of the patent and the money they were making. I’m going to tell you this, staggering numbers, in 1994 Pizza Hut was doing $4.6 billion in sales, billion dollars. It brought them up by over $600 million to $5.2 billion the year they introduced stuffed crust pizza. [Editor’s note: Pizza Hut has said in press releases that sales went up $300 million (not $600 million) that year.]
And the crux of the contention here is that they are saying they made their pizza with a continuous ring, which would not have been in violation of the patent, but they had in fact made it in the way that you had patented it, which was little sections of cheese baked into the dough.
As you look at the film, you’re going to see how these people tried so hard to break me, talk to me like I was a bum in the street, gave me no respect. Even when I tried to talk, all they wanted to do was shut me up.
Yeah, there’s video of the deposition where the lawyer’s badgering you essentially.
Why? “What did I do to you?” I’m only trying to defend my case. And here’s the deal. Look, growing up in Brooklyn, you have to realize that every piece of pizza I ever bought as a kid, whether I paid a quarter, 50 cents, back then, it was by the slice. So I created this in a way that if you wanted to cut this into individual slices and sell individual slices with a calzone filling, a sausage roll filling, or whatever you want in that crust, you could, because that’s how I bought pizza as a young man growing up in Brooklyn.
Now you go to the big chains, like Pizza Hut, selling pizza only by the pie, they figured that they can get away with this by using five cheese sticks, which is an odd number, and then cutting the pizza into even amount of slices, normally being eight, they’re going to cut their pockets open, and that’s different than my product. Well, you want to know something, Brian? You cannot undo patent infringement by adding a step. My patent has many different formulas in there, or formats, to make the pizza, and the one that they copied is very specific; to add a plurality of separate, individual food portions on the dough base. If you want to cut them individually, you can, but the last step of that part of the patent says, “Bake the unbaked pie to create a pizza.” Now Brian, when do you cut a pizza?
After it’s baked.
That’s right. So it never got to cutting. So how does cutting now undo the patent infringement steps, you already did by copying my process? I just don’t get it, man.
This never goes to trial by jury. Pizza Hut demands a summary judgment. A summary judgment means one judge makes the final call. I’m going to quote from the decision, because it’s actually, being a few steps removed, some of this is funny. You have to admit. I’m not belittling it at all, but when you’re reading a legal document and the verdict has language like this, “The walls of the dough dividing the cheese and the crust of samples of the defendant’s baked product that were detected by the Mongiellos are the result of random dough closure and not the result of the defendant’s deliberate method.” They’re really getting into the nuts and bolts of the language and picking apart your argument. But at the end of the day, you’re saying, “This is the method I patented. It’s the method they’re using and they’re playing with language to make it sound different.” That’s exactly what they did. They went to court and tried to figure out how could they possibly get the judge to side with them. So in the summary judgment case, and I want to know why. Why didn’t I have the right to be in front of a jury of my peers? Why? Why didn’t I have the right to tell my side of the story? Now, look, Pizza Hut never knew about stuffed crust pizza until it came from me. I gave them my patent. They use separate individual food portions. That dough is going to close no matter what and if you look at any training video that came out after the trial and through the deposition, you’ll see that it’s closed in between every cheese stick. And if you watch the film, you’re going to see where I said, “I can cut that into five slices for you,” and the guy stops me. “What are you stopping me for? Because you don’t like what I’m telling you, which is the truth. I’m saying to you, if you use separate individual food portions, if you cover those food portions, if you add sauce and cheese and then you cook it to make a pizza, you’ve infringed on my patent.” Is that what Pizza Hut did? Yes, it is. Bottom line.
You could say sometimes there’s something in the ether and a couple people come up with the same idea or the same product. They write a similar script or a similar song. I think when television was invented, there were people racing to have the patents made, so who’s to say this wasn’t in the ether in the ’80s?
Here’s the problem I have with it. The person they said that created stuffed crust pizza was a woman by the name of Patty Scheibmeir. Where did Patty Scheibmeir work? In the R&D department of Pizza Hut. Where did I send my patent? To the R&D department of Pizza Hut. What did Pizza Hut do? Come out with stuffed crust pizza. What did I send them? Stuffed crust pizza. They’re not making jelly beans, man. Come on. This is not fair. You want to know why, Brian? This is America and America is built on the American dream, the land of opportunity, and all I wanted to do was do good business. To spend $45 million, you could have offered me a million bucks, 5 million bucks bought it all, bought me. We would’ve been partners. I would’ve advertised for them. I would’ve done everything I can do. Why choose to fight me? Why?
Because they got money.
Yes, and because it’s a real David and Goliath situation. They never paid me any mind. Like I said, the judge, the lawyers, they took advantage of all the authority they had, and they squashed me like a bug on the floor, man.
What would make you happy today?
It’s happening. I’m getting my recognition. That’s all I want. Nothing more.
This got some news coverage at the time. It’s out there, this information. It’s not hidden. You can find your patent. The patent would have expired by now anyway.
There’s a latest commercial by Pizza Hut says, when they “invented stuffed crust pizza,” and I feel that they did that because my film just came out and they’re trying to take credit for something. They’re all wrong and they’re lying continuously. How do you mislead the public that way? What is the big deal to say, “You know what? That guy, Anthony Mongiello, gave us this concept that was a billion dollar concept. We want to thank him for it. We changed it. We’re different.” Say whatever you want, but give me my due, man, because that’s all I want. I don’t want to hurt them.
When I was searching around in the patent website, I found a patent for a shark protection device that’s in your name. Was that you?
That’s my brother. My oldest brother, may his soul rest in peace, passed away at 46. He was a diver. That’s what he did. He created something to protect divers that were in the ocean if they saw a predator, like a shark, to defend themselves. It was the kind of a thing where you would inject the shark with something that would blow up internally, leaving the blood inside the shark and not allowing it to wind up in the water, and it was a good means to protect yourself as a diver.
That’s what we do. We create items. I’ve created so many items in my 32 years of running for Formaggio, items people have never seen before, and that’s what I do. I create food items. That’s my biggest claim to fame and that’s what I want.
You mentioned your father as well. Wasn’t the process for making mozzarella something that he helped modernize, I guess, so people wouldn’t burn their hands?
He actually did. He created the very first automated mozzarella molding machine in the history of the United States. People say, “Oh, you must’ve been rich.” Rich? If my father sold a machine, he brought home a new car. When he didn’t sell a machine for a year, we ate pasta every night. Feast or famine growing up in Brooklyn, but the key was to follow his dream. My dad is actually the creator of the one-ounce cheese stick that we all know today as string cheese. I was present, and so was Paul Sutton, who’s in the film, my attorney, who was my dad’s attorney, who in a recent email to me, it really made me cry, but it was so emotional hearing him talk about my dad, and he also was present at the meeting when he presented that string cheese item to Joe Pollio Senior, who was the owner at the time of Polly-O Dairy.
You want to hear a real piece of history, something nobody will ever know?
Well, they will now.
Do you know Polly-O Cheese? Have you ever seen the name?
Okay, so it’s P-O-L-L-Y with a dash and an O, but the gentleman who owned the company, his name was [Giuseppe] Joe Pollio, P-O-L-L-I-O, and back when this company was first starting out and starting to grow, he didn’t want his name out there on a package, because it was representative of a disease.
Yeah, it’s a bad brand name, polio.
So they created the parrot and the “Polly-O,” and that’s where Polly-O’s traditional logo came from.
That’s amazing. Tell me about Bensonhurst in the ’80s, late ’70s. Where was your favorite slice?
I love Lenny’s and Lenny’s was featured in the film with John Travolta.
They just closed.
They did, and it’s sad, man, but I grew up on 84th Street and that was filmed basically on 86th Street, and that was my stopping grounds and any of the local pizzerias you would get a great slice from. But L&b Spumoni Garden in Brooklyn, Da Vinci’s on a 18th Avenue in Brooklyn, Lenny’s Pizzeria on 86th Street in Brooklyn, Grand Pizza was there also on 86th Street. Any one of them served a great pie, but to me Lenny’s was one of the best. It really was.
I don’t know if you remember them shooting the movie?
I lived right there. I do remember it, and it’s a part of my history. It’s a part of my life, it really is. And nothing gives me more inspiration than when I hear that music, to be honest with you.