Editor's note: Some of you may know Scott Wiener from his NYC-based pizza tour company, Scott's Pizza Tours. Or, if you're a regular Slice reader, you're probably familiar with his monthly column, Scott's Pizza Chronicles. In this new mini-series, Undercover Pizza Lover, we'll follow Scott as he he goes behind-the-scenes of the pizza industry and crosses over to the other side of the counter to earn his pizza-making chops in a mom-and-pop pie shop, a major US pizza chain, and a New York corner slice shop.
NOTE: This is not an exposé about fast food; Domino's (or as I've been calling it, Big D) is a delivery business that just so happens to deal with food. This company is known for bringing warm food to hungry people extremely quickly and they're really good at it. That's why I wanted to be a delivery driver and not a pizza maker for this mission. If you want information about their food, check out Slice's Chain Reaction series.
Delivering pizza has never been a career goal of mine. I suppose it's a good gig for a college student, but those days have passed. It has always seemed like a unique job, and certainly a position of some significance since over 1 billion pizzas are delivered in the United States every year. To learn more about this corner of the pizza industry I had to go undercover with the industry leader, a company with a great history of success and failure that just so happens to be riding a tall wave at the moment. After filling out an online application, interviewing with the manager, and producing all necessary ID and insurance information, I was hired as a part-time delivery driver at a Domino's in Brooklyn.
If nothing else, I expected a massive company like Domino's to be extremely organized. Incorrect. After a detailed online interview process, the seemingly tight structure of the organization seemed to slip into utter chaos, with a mandatory orientation that felt like its purpose was to satisfy a district manager rather than introduce trainees to the company and its methods. But I made it through and signed up for a shift the next night, figuring I'd be doing some training. Wrong again. With little more instruction than "bring people their food and then come back," I went out on my first delivery. Maybe this isn't the most complicated job ever, but I would have liked some guidance about how to conduct the transaction. Oh well, I guess I'll just learn on the job.
My first delivery didn't go too smoothly. I forgot the credit card receipt and a 2 liter bottle of soda. I had no option other than to run back to the Big D for the missing goods and get back on the road. If the "30 minutes or it's free" guarantee hadn't been nixed due to several major auto accidents in the 1990s, I would have been in deep doo-doo. Every order comes with a tag that lets the driver know what to deliver, the street address, and an estimated time of delivery. That time is calculated based on when the order was placed, and how many orders are in the system. Guarantee or not, there's a lot of pressure with that estimated delivery time staring back at you. I found myself driving like a madman, but it seemed necessary if I wanted to get back to home base to grab the next order.
Shift length: 6 hours
Total deliveries: 15
Average tip: $2.53
I made a few changes to my work strategy after Day 1, but nothing had to do with delivering pizza. These shifts are pretty long and you can't stop moving if you want to rack up deliveries. I stocked my car with an assortment of nuts, trail mix, fruit, and water to keep myself nourished while driving around Brooklyn all night. My first shift took me on some long deliveries that took over 30 minutes round trip, so I utilized my time a bit better on Day 2 with some language lessons. I'm learning Dutch and found it easy to get through two half hour lessons in a single night.
The best tip I picked up was a practical one. The store I worked for makes a lot of deliveries to the housing projects after 9 PM. I was waiting for a customer near the entrance of one building when a couple of police officers emerged from the elevator and insisted I wait for the customer from the safety of my car. They told me I would almost certainly be robbed if I stayed that close to the building. Pretty rough.
Shift length: 5.5 hours
Total deliveries: 11
Average tip: $2.36
This is getting scary, I'm actually starting to enjoy this job. Maybe it's because I'm screwing up less, but it's definitely becoming more comfortable. However, I think I'm allergic to Domino's pizza because every time I get into my car lately I start sneezing. It definitely smells terrible in there, but I imagine most food delivery vehicles don't smell too great. The car is also taking quite a beating. I can't imagine the $0.80 per delivery they pay me (plus minimum wage) is going to replace my devastated shocks or brakes.* My car is definitely suffering from this abuse.
I started at 4 PM so I figured I'd be able to leave relatively early in the night, yet I somehow got suckered into closing the store. That made my shift over nine hours long, but on the bright side it meant I did 19 deliveries. Major bonus considering I promised myself I would quit after 100 and that number was quickly approaching.
Shift length: 9+ hours
Total deliveries: 19
Average tip: $2.47
*Despite my interest in keeping this experience free from my own political issues with mass production pizza, I did end up donating all $316.53 of my pay checks to Slow Food USA.
Day 7: FINAL SHIFT
What an exciting night with my secret life as a Domino's delivery boy coming to an end. I thought momentarily about staying with the job to see how far I could take it, but very quickly gave up on the idea when I remembered I have another full time job. I hit a few snags on this shift and thought there was a chance I could fall short of my 100 delivery goal. One customer refused his pizza because he claimed it was an hour late. A quick look at the order slip proves the pie was ordered 45 minutes prior to my arrival, but there's no way to convince him to take the pizza at that point. I did another run, but the customer wasn't home. When I called, he claimed the order was for pick-up and that he was heading to the store to pick it up. Pretty frustrating to run all the way to someone's house only to leave with the same thing I brought in.
As excited as I may be to relinquish my schedule of this albatross, there are a few hidden perks of the job. I've really been enjoying the forced time I have in my otherwise neglected automobile. I'm getting to know my neighborhood in a whole new way as I drive past restaurants and cafes that are just slightly out of my usual radius. I also love the radio more now than ever before, especially when the classic rock station settles into their nightly routine of Led Zeppelin and The Who. It's the perfect high school job I never had.
Shift length: 8 hours
Total deliveries: 15
Average tip: $3.47
Even though I'm not even close to being a fan of delivery chain pizza, my experience as a delivery driver made me realize how much this position fits into the grand scope of the pizzaverse. This food waves the flag of independence for the delivery driver as much as it does for the child who uses his own money to buy a slice after school, as much as it does for the cab driver who shook just the right amount of oregano on every slice, as much as it does for the teacher who starts eating her slice with a bite of the crust. Pizza delivery drivers control their own destiny by literally being behind the wheel. My experience was fascinating and ended in exactly the way I had hoped: 106 deliveries under my belt, extra cash in my pocket, and "Bohemian Rhapsody" blasting out the speakers.
About the Author: Scott Wiener runs tours of significant NYC pizzerias with an emphasis on the history, science, technology, economics and deliciousness. You can sign up for a tour at scottspizzatours.com or follow his pizza explorations on Twitter via @scottspizzatour