It's Xmas: Must Be Pizza

The Domino's driver may be America's new holiday symbol

Americans have always had problems with the old question of image vs. reality. For example, hard-partying George W. Bush represents good old-fashioned morality while former seminary student Al Gore suffers on issues of trust. People buy Saturns because of the savings gained from one-price buying, but end up paying 26 percent above invoice price--compared with the 8 percent paid by those poor slobs who negotiate. And when we think of the holidays, we imagine leisurely family dinners.

Ah, but America's holiday dining revolves around pizza, at least according to statistics. This past Halloween, for example, Domino's delivered more than one million pizzas to American homes. Their sales increased 59 percent last year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. On December 23, 1999, pizza deliveries jumped 32 percent--nearly a million pizzas--as Americans rushed to finish their shopping lists. And on New Year's Eve this year, Domino's expects to sell about 1.1 million pies. Super Bowl Sunday--perhaps America's most important holiday--finds pizza restaurants churning out more than 12 million pies. Want to set out milk and cookies for Santa? Too bad. Pizza Hut alone uses 2.5 percent of all milk produced for cheese.

So despite warm holiday images of sleighs and reindeer and Budweiser Clydesdales, 'tis the season of the pizza delivery driver.

It seems right, then, to celebrate the holiday season by honoring drivers past. Kim Zeigler, for example, recalls his first multi-stop delivery as a driver for Domino's Pizza in Stephenville. "I had one stop at the guys' dorm, and one stop at the girls' dorm," he says. Unfortunately, he forgot the second stop. "I gave the guy at the men's dorm all three pizzas," Zeigler remembers, "and got a huge tip. He must have been happy." Zeigler loved his driving days. Coy Bell, on the other hand, worked a mere three days before turning in his name tag, polyester uniform, and other badges of rank. "I just decided it was more fun to go out and drink," Bell says.

Founded in 1960 as a single establishment in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Domino's now operates some 6,800 stores worldwide. Their biggest growth spurt came between 1978 and 1988, when the chain opened close to 4,500 new stores. During the 1980s, Domino's drivers delivered in 30 minutes or less or the pizza was free--a nefarious company guarantee apparently designed to destroy wheel bearings, antagonize families living in quiet neighborhoods, and force towns to put up barricades to block shortcuts. Domino's discontinued the 30-minute guarantee in 1993.

Old-timers--that is, drivers from this era--tell of making harrowing, high-speed drives in order to beat deadline. Zeigler, however, drove for Domino's after 1993. In his day, the chain offered a satisfaction guarantee. "I'd drive back to a house, and the customer had eaten half of the pizza," he remembers, "yet they'd say they were unsatisfied and ask for another pizza." Former drivers tell of drunken customers, narrow escapes, and big tips--and other moments too odd to believe. "One guy came to the door so drunk, he couldn't even sign the check," says one veteran driver, "but he was apparently busy cleaning an old pistol. I just figured I'd let the manager sort out the signature." Steve McIntire, assistant manager at the Domino's on Park Avenue in Plano, says that all pizza drivers encounter drunks sooner or later. "We just try to be polite and as passive as possible," he says. "You just gotta let them yell at you"--the same advice applies to encounters with drill sergeants and Bobby Knight. Zeigler's knock once served as a form of coitus interruptus, judging by the disheveled clothing (or lack thereof) of the woman who answered the door. "We tell our drivers that if they aren't comfortable, if people are loitering around the delivery area, to just leave," says McIntire. "It's better always to be safe than sorry." Occasionally, delivery services come under fire for establishing no-delivery policies. Domino's, for example, recently resolved a complaint charging that the chain's delivery practices were racially biased. The Justice Department found in the restaurant's favor, however, announcing that only safety determined delivery practices. Drivers battling drunks, courting danger, and waiting out tense legal battles over racial profiling--again, not the usual stuff we associate with pizza delivery.

In reality, it's just a job--a job that gets busier during the holidays. Or when it rains. Or whenever O.J. Simpson or President Clinton does something outrageous.

But those moments belong to the delivery driver, hauling pizzas, spreading holiday cheer. Their reward? Zeigler once received a $25 tip. Someone slipped McIntire a cool $50 after a particularly fine delivery. But one local delivery driver (name withheld) received a whopping $100 tip after delivering 350 pizzas to EDS.

He took the rest of the day off.

 
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