Pie in the Big Sky 

Life in the pizza delivery fast lane

“You learn the tricks,” says Bill Allen over a glass of beer at the Kettlehouse. “There was this big biker dude who would order four pizzas on a Friday afternoon, when I would be answering the phone or folding boxes getting ready to go on some orders. He’d order them take-out, and he’d pay with a credit card. The first time he came in while I was working, I didn’t ask him for ID—I was just too intimidated by the guy. But then [a co-worker] told me, “Next time that guy comes in, ask him for his ID—he’ll give you a $5 tip.’ I thought I was doing him a favor by not asking him, but as it turned out…”

Cash in hand at the end of the night was the best thing about delivering pizza, recalls Allen, one of several current and former Missoula pizza delivery drivers willing to talk at length about the ups and downs of the job. At any given time, there are probably at least a hundred of them in town. Stageline currently employs seven drivers, The Bridge eight, Pizza Pipeline 11, and Papa John’s nearly two dozen. Exact figures for pizza delivery drivers nationwide are hard to come by, although it’s a fun mental exercise to try and guess. Domino’s alone claims to have over 125,000 drivers in its employ, of whom between 15 and 20 deliver for the Missoula franchise on South Avenue. There are currently around 7,000 Domino’s locations in the United States, accounting for over one-eighth of total pizzeria numbers in the country. With a little dodgy math, it’s reasonable to extrapolate 300,000 or more pizza drivers criss-crossing the country. Somebody, somewhere, is always delivering a pizza.

And always eating one. In the time it takes you to finish reading this sentence, your fellow Americans will have inhaled over 2,000 slices of pizza-pie—a hundred acres of it per day. This year, the average American will eat 46 slices, or roughly 23 pounds.

In fact, corporations like Domino’s and Pizza Hut probably know more about your pizza preferences than you do. Could you have guessed, for example, that male customers who answer the door wearing muscle shirts request pepperoni three times more than any other topping? That people with pierced noses, lips or eyebrows ask for vegetarian toppings 23 percent more often than meat toppings? Or that people with wind chimes on their porches are four times as likely to want olives? These and other findings are the result of intensive research by Big Pizza—if you’ll indulge a little Upton Sinclair-style rhetoric, here—into your pizza habits.

Few will be surprised to learn that there are interesting correlations between television and delivery pizza, too. When the above statistics were compiled in late 1994, corporate anchovy-counters discovered that the Number One vegetable-topped-pizza-ordering-show was Melrose Place—and that orders went up 14 percent once Heather Locklear joined the cast. On the other hand, orders for meat-topped pizzas reached a weekly peak during the half-hour time slot occupied by Roseanne. As of 1994—maybe still—the single biggest single hour of pizza delivery in pizza delivery history coincided with O.J. Simpson’s 1994 flight up the L.A. freeway in a white Ford Bronco.

These findings, while amusing, are of little consequence to Bill Allen and a bulging carload of other delivery drivers, past and present and future, interviewed for this feature. Bill Allen is not his real name. We promised the drivers as much—or as little—anonymity as they required to feel comfortable revealing what it’s really like to be where the rubber hits the road in Missoula’s pizza delivery economy, one small slice of a nationwide industry that generates in excess of five billion dollars every year.

The dangerous lives of pizza drivers
Paula Womack is Paula Womack’s real name. Since moving to Missoula last September, the Nebraska native has been a delivery driver for the downtown MacKenzie River Pizza Co. franchise. A willowy six feet tall with close-cropped blond hair, Womack is all business as she loads a hot-bag into the back of her black Subaru Impreza and speeds off into the gathering dusk of a sunny spring evening.

Before coming to Missoula, Womack’s only experience with pizza delivery was on the receiving end. But she echoes the sentiments of many drivers when she says there’s no better way to get to know the city. She likes delivering pizzas for the freedom, for the money, and because it gets her out of the restaurant at the most hectic times.

“It’s nice,” she says, threading us through a parking garage—one of many Missoula shortcuts known only to delivery drivers, “and it fits my schedule. I like to bike, hike, run, read and cross-country ski. I can do those things in the morning, chill out in the afternoon, and go to work in the evening.”

“One golden nugget of wisdom that I’ve learned,” she adds, “is that it’s not a big deal. I’ve learned not to get stressed out about delivering.”

Actually, one could advance the cautious argument that pizza delivery is considerably less stressful than it was 15 years ago, during the peak of “30 minutes or less”-type guarantees. Although a few unofficial mandates and quota systems appear to remain in effect—in an online forum addressing issues of employee abuse, an aggrieved driver for one national chain mentions an “under 39 minutes 85% of the time…or else” policy—free or money-back guarantees have largely evaporated in the wake of costly miscalculations. In 1989, a Domino’s driver in St. Louis ran a red light and broadsided a car driven by Jean Kinder, who was taking her daughter to a bowling alley. Kinder received head and spinal injuries and filed suit against the Michigan-based corporation, and a St. Louis Circuit Court jury returned a $78 million award in her favor. Domino’s did away with the policy, and many restaurants followed suit. So to speak.

Pizza delivery can still be hazardous to one’s health. According to a survey published last October by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pizza delivery is the fifth most dangerous American occupation in terms of fatalities per 100,000, trailing behind fishermen and timber-cutters but finishing well ahead of truck drivers and construction workers. Traffic accidents account for most of the roughly 38 fatalities per 100,000 delivery drivers, though about 25 percent of the drivers died in robberies and assaults.

Another organization, the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers, keeps tabs on the specifics of delivery-related crime. As of the first week of March, 2004—barely 60 days into the year—there had already been 100 crimes reported against pizza drivers nationwide. In 66 of these incidents, a firearm was involved; 72 cases involved stolen cash, while in two instances only the pizza was taken; 15 drivers sustained non-fatal injuries from weapons ranging from baseball bats to bare fists; in four cases, the driver was killed. Since the first of the year, pizza drivers have been slapped in the face by customers, held up highwayman-style on deserted roads, and grazed in the head by bullets. In January, a driver in Macon, Georgia was shot and killed after inadvertently delivering to a house where an armed robbery was in progress. Earlier this year, a female Domino’s driver who was kidnapped and raped while making a delivery in 2002 filed a $2.5 million suit against her former employer on the grounds that the corporation failed to provide adequate safety training.

“There have been times when it felt kind of weird,” says Womack, who admits that her employer did not provide safety training specifically, but had her ride along with more experienced drivers before making deliveries on her own. Most of what she knows about delivery safety, she says, is common sense, and wisdom passed on to her by other drivers. “When I was training, one of the drivers said he always kept his car running, just in case he had to leave quickly. I’ve felt a little weird about places sometimes, like alleyway houses and places where the lights weren’t on. But I haven’t had any really scary experiences.”

Nor, she claims, has she experienced much in the way of sexual harassment while making deliveries.

“Sometimes people are surprised to find a girl delivering,” she shrugs, hoisting the hot-bag up the driveway of a lower Rattlesnake address. “I get a few off-handed remarks now and then, but nothing too terrible. You have to trust your intuition, I guess.”

Sex and the single pizza boy
Violence isn’t the only exciting thing that can happen to pizza drivers, either. Websites devoted to first-person accounts of signally strange and funny deliveries abound on the Internet: drivers getting caught in flash floods and having to swim to turnpike tollbooths, drivers intervening in suicide attempts, getting propositioned for sex, taking money from women literally in the head-poking-out stages of labor, getting cornered by packs of voracious raccoons and handcuffed to doors by playful drunks. One driver allegedly delivered a pizza to the wrong address on an Air Force base and found himself an unwitting participant in a hostage-rescue training exercise already in progress, snipers in the treetops and all.

Missoula drivers paint a much sleepier picture of this community. Once in a while, Paula Womack says, she’ll deduce some harmless mischief afoot from certain burning smells in the air, but that’s about the extent of it. There aren’t even any really bad parts of town to deliver to, drivers contend, although one Zimorino’s driver reports that a lamp that went missing while he was moving out of his old house later turned up on a delivery to a house a few doors down.

“I said, ‘Hey, that’s my lamp!’” he chortles. “The guy tried to tell me he got it at a garage sale, but I unplugged it and took it with me.”

Wayward deer can pose a driving hazard, but the biggest annoyance on deliveries, most drivers agree, comes from uncooperative or downright hostile drunks. Another interesting contention of drivers from the full price-spectrum of Missoula pizzerias is that the pricier outfits seem to attract fewer of them. Perhaps not coincidentally, the cheaper places tend to deliver later in the evening—or, rather, earlier in the morning.

“People get mouthy,” says a Pizza Pipeline driver. “You’d be surprised how nasty people can be to pizza boys.”

If, that is, they even notice them in the first place. Kevin, a driver for Papa John’s, describes the time he knocked fruitlessly for 10 minutes on the door of one house before peering through the window and seeing its three occupants passed out cold.

“I would have opened the door,” he recalls, “but I looked inside and saw a 150-pound Rottweiler, and the dog was eyeing me like it was showtime. So I stood outside yelling ‘Papa John’s! Papa John’s!’ until one guy came out in his underwear. It was the middle of the day.”

Even so, where there is revelry, there are sometimes revelers who want to rope the pizza boy into it. Bill Allen and a number of other drivers confirm that drugs are sometimes offered—and not always declined—in lieu of a cash gratuity.

“That was a really common tip, actually,” Allen recalls. “’You want two bucks or a bong-hit?’ Especially if your buddies knew you were working that night. You know, they’d be like “We want so-and-so to deliver our pizza.”

“I’m pretty sure that drinking was the one thing that people didn’t do,” surmises another former driver. “Pot-smoking was rampant, though. Everybody who worked there smoked except for the owner/managers. Don’t ask, don’t tell—as long as you’re not screwing up, as long as you don’t get a complaint, as long as your bank is okay at the end of the night, you’re fine. Just don’t be blatant.”

Allen insists that he was the model employee in this respect—although there was that time he ate psychedelic mushrooms in anticipation of getting off work early, only to find that the coveted “first-off” spot was already spoken for and that he was stuck working a late shift. Performance-enhancing substances like these are, of course, frowned upon by managements everywhere—but sometimes a guy’s just gotta roll the dice.

“Well, think about it,” Allen adds. “Most of the people ordering pizzas after ten o’clock are probably doing bong-hits of their own.”

Sad to say, no one interviewed for this feature could boast any Penthouse Letters-variety, I-never-thought-these-stories-were-true sexual encounters with delivery customers. Some, however, have apparently thought about it—Allen, for instance.

“There was a place out on Charlo Court,” he remembers, “with a big group of what I’d guess were 18-to-20-year-old girls from Cutbank and places like that, drinking tequila poppers and playing strip poker and just getting crazy. It was like the total clichéd pizza boy dream scenario.

“Only I didn’t get to fulfill the dream,” he says ruefully. “I just envisioned it in my head. I always looked for their address again.”

Tips on tips
Mostly, what concerns delivery drivers is getting a decent tip. And you might also be surprised, many of them say, by how the tipping breaks down by neighborhood. Bill Allen doesn’t mince words:

“South Hills sucks. Upper Rattlesnake sucks. Lower Rattlesnake, not bad. North Side, not bad. All the numbered streets around Higgins, Orange, Russell—not bad. The nicer the house, the worse the tip, is almost the rule. College kids were generally good, as long as they lived on their own. In the dorms, they haven’t yet opened their eyes to the fact that people have to work for a living sometimes, and that tips are a huge part of the pay. “

Individual experiences vary, naturally, but on the whole these observations seem to bear out one driver’s contention that “the worst tippers are unfortunately found in the most far-flung neighborhoods.”

“As a rule,” seconds Matt, a former Zimorino’s driver who has also delivered pizzas in some of the posher areas of Seattle, “the less affluent the neighborhood, the better and more consistent the tips. Counterintuitive but true.”

“There is no positive correlation between the recipients’ income and the amount they tip,” concurs Yale, another former Zimorino’s driver who, as a UM geography graduate and avowed cartography enthusiast, has spent a fair amount of time modeling his empirical findings. “It would likewise be inaccurate to say that the best tips are in the rich neighborhoods. In Missoula, the best tips are found in the University area, with its urbane, socially conscious, community-minded demographic. The Northside is a pretty reliable area for tips, too.”

In addition to gratuities, delivery drivers generally receive a modest commission or mileage compensation from the restaurant. Pizza Pipeline currently offers its drivers six percent of the dollar value of each delivery. Paula Womack and her fellow MacKenzie drivers receive a flat dollar commission per delivery. Pizza Hut recently took the controversial (among drivers, anyway) step of standardizing commission rates for all franchise locations at 50 cents per delivery—effectively, some employees grumble, scaling commissions back to 1987 levels while ignoring the rising cost of fuel.

In addition to covering frequent fill-ups, these allowances are also intended to assist with regular maintenance on the delivery vehicle. The wear and tear on a delivery vehicle can be considerable, to say nothing of the lingering smell of old pizza embedded in the upholstery. With ignitions turning over 30 or more times a night, little surprise that starters are often the first to go.

Former Domino’s driver Charles drove pies for 50 cents per delivery in a 1984 Honda Civic wagon—starting in 1996, after the car already had 230,000 miles on it. Luckily, he says, the car still ran smoothly. His biggest-ever tip—every driver remembers one fondly—was change from a $50 bill on a five-dollar pizza delivered to a man who had just won $800 in a radio contest. Like most Missoula drivers, Chet disliked making deliveries to homes in the South Hills—“the dreaded no-tip zone,” and a lot of uphill driving to boot.

“If people realized what delivery drivers are actually making,” he says emphatically, “it’s my belief that they would always give at least a dollar tip every time. Especially if you have to drive all the way up into the South Hills. You don’t think about how much gas you’re using to get up there unless you’re delivering a pizza for someone else’s profit. If you deliver three larges and don’t get a tip at all—or, like the 28 cents in change—that’s pretty frustrating. You’ve just spent 30 minutes on a delivery, made half of an hour’s minimum wage plus 50 cents. You’re definitely taking a personal financial hit.”

Paula Womack, on the other hand, says that hour for hour she makes more money delivering pizzas that she did doing social work. She works four shifts a week at MacKenzie River in addition to holding down a job at another restaurant and volunteering at the Missoula YWCA, and still finds the time and the financial means to pursue her many hobbies. She has no immediate plans to get out of the delivery game.

“A lot of people do a lot of hard work and are underpaid,” she shrugs. “I do relatively easy work and make pretty good money at it.”

Far from being a transitory job, as many might assume, for some people pizza delivery is a calling. Guy Boso has been delivering for the same South Avenue Domino’s for over 17 years. “For me it’s semi-retirement,” he says. “Not a real job, but not really sitting around doing nothing, either.”

Darren, a former driver who now owns the Pizza Pipeline franchise on the corner of Fifth and South Higgins, would disagree: Pizza delivery is a real job.

“A lot of people think it’s a loser job,” he protests. “They’re really disrespectful to drivers. It really has nothing to do with tips, either. A lot of times you get to their door, and it’s like they’re not happy to see you.

“They consider it a high school kid job,” Darren says. “But I don’t think they realize how much money you can make doing it. I’ve got guys here who support their families on it. Delivering pizza is a respectable job.”

smetanka@missoulanews.com

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