Fifty years ago, Michael and Marian Ilitch opened the first Little Caesars in Garden City, Michigan. The restaurant might have changed the décor from its original turquoise and orange color scheme to orange and yellow, and it might have narrowed its focus from several menu items to the pizza it’s known for today, but one thing is the same: The Ilitches are still very much a part of the company.

“They started out with the intent of having a carryout pizza place and having a great product for a great price,” says David Scrivano, president of Little Caesars Enterprises Inc. “Of the top 150 family-owned businesses in America today, Mike and Marian Ilitch are the only founding couple that are still active in the business years later.”

While the couple plays a less formal role than they did in their founding days, they still serve as consultants for Scrivano and the rest of the Little Caesars team. Sometimes Michael Ilitch will pick up the phone to share a new idea for the chain.

Scrivano remembers distinctly the day when Michael Ilitch called him up, inspired by a USA Today article he read about Army Staff Sgt. Robbie Doughty, who was left legless after he was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

“Mr. Ilitch read that article and said, ‘I need to get a hold of Robbie, I need to meet him,” Scrivano says. Michael Ilitch did meet Doughty–and he bought him a Little Caesars franchise. After that, Michael Ilitch decided the chain needed to do more for the nation’s veterans. In 2006, the Little Caesars Veteran Program was born, awarding retired military deep discounts on franchise fees. The program now has more than 50 members.

The innovation is just one of many that Michael Ilitch has come up with during his time with Little Caesars. He invented the conveyor belt oven in 1977, created the famous Pizza!Pizza! promotion that put Little Caesars on the map in 1979, and introduced Crazy Bread–originally called Crazy Crust–in 1982.

“We were the first pizza chain to sell a side bread item with our pizza item,” Scrivano says. Michael Ilitch’s conveyor belt oven also spread industry-wide.

“He’s just an idea guy,” Scrivano says. “He’s got constant ideas.”

Even without Michael Ilitch at the helm, Little Caesar’s continues to innovate. Most recently, it launched its Hot-N-Ready campaign, which promises customers a large cheese or pepperoni pizza for only $5, no waiting or ordering ahead necessary.

“We continue to innovate every single day,” Scrivano says.

In honor of the anniversary, Little Caesar’s is hosting a giant pizza party in Detroit’s Fox Theatre on May 8, the anniversary of the day the first Little Caesar’s opened its doors 50 years ago. The site now serves as corporate headquarters to Little Caesar Enterprises.

Colleagues, franchisees, vendors, and other members of the Little Caesars community have all been invited to the event. Scrivano expects more than 3,000 to attend.

Meanwhile, Little Caesars stores will be provided with special commemorative boxes, banners, menuboards, and more. Franchisees will decide how they want to advertise the milestone to local customers and if they want to create promotions to celebrate the event.

All stores will of course continue to offer customers Little Caesars’ trademark carryout service.

“We’ve tried and experimented with many different concepts,” Scrivano says. “We’ve had restaurants that had some limited seating, we’ve had some concepts that had full wait staff, we’ve had concepts that had full delivery. What we found is what works best for us and for Little Caesars is carryout.”

Carryout allows Little Caesar’s to give its customers the lowest price possible on the freshest product possible–the same pizza it started serving 50 years ago.

“We use the same spice recipe that we used in 1959,” Scrivano says. “As far as the product goes, it’s the same great product it’s always been.”

-Robin Hilmantel

News, Little Caesars