Our pizza was late–very, very late.
The store said delivery would take about an hour, but the deep-dish pie finally arrived almost two hours after we called. It was nearly stone cold and the driver was, if not stoned, at least relaxed–very, very relaxed.
When we complained, we discovered the driver wasn’t a store employee but drove for Zoomer, a food delivery service modeled on the ride-share service Uber, and though the store charged us $3 for the delivery, they had no control over him.
More than fifty years ago, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan got rid of the tables and chairs in his three pizzerias and by doing so helped launch the concept of home delivery. Though Domino’s VP of Communications Tim McIntyre doesn’t claim his company invented food delivery, he does say that “we are the first company to focus on it exclusively.” Now Uber-style services based on mobile apps want to transform the business again.
However the order is placed, though, someone still has to get in a car and deliver it. Finding people to do that quickly and safely was never easy, and with the competition from ride-share services, it’s gotten much harder.
“It’s like a leaky bucket,” says David Cesarini, owner of four local Domino’s stores. “You have people leaving because they don’t like the culture of the store, or maybe the manager isn’t a people person. Getting people to replace those drivers, that’s hard.”
The folks who know the pros and cons of delivery best are the drivers.
“There was a rapid turnover,” says Peter Matthews, who’s delivered for Little Caesar’s, Cottage Inn, and Jimmy John’s. “Some drivers would start the job, and in two weeks they’d have the routes down, and in half a year they’d know everybody they’re delivering to. But there’s a learning curve, and some people get too many tickets, or it costs too much to keep up the car, and after two weeks you never see them again.”
“It’s hard to find reliable employees,” says Daryl Hooley, who’s been a Domino’s driver for almost thirteen years. “It’s always been a transitional job. But not for me. I’ve found a niche. I make good money. I enjoy who I work with and work for. And I like my customers. I’ve been on [the northeast] side of town for ten years. A lot of people know me by name. I know the schools and the larger companies, and I take care of them.”
He lives on his customers’ generosity. “All drivers make below minimum wage,” he explains. “The tips are very important to us. We’re like servers or bartenders in that we rely on tips to make a decent living.”
It helps, he says, that “I find it easy to be nice to people and accommodate their needs. If you smile, they’ll be nice in return.” And he’s got some big clients. “It’s hard to think of a private school in town we don’t work with,” Hooley says. “We do Gabriel Richard every week, Ann Arbor Christian once a month, and the Michigan Islamic Academy once or twice a week. We do the Rudolf Steiner school three days a week and St. Paul Lutheran once a week. The tricky part is managing to get them at the schools within a ten-minute window–and they have to be hot and evenly cut. Because the last thing you want to do is piss off a lunch lady.”
That kind of precision isn’t easy. “There’s a lot of inexperienced drivers and people distracted by cell phones so you’ve got to keep your head on a swivel,” says Hooley. “I see accidents daily. But I’ve never had a traffic ticket and never been in an accident myself, and I’m on the road at least thirty hours a week.”
“There’s a degree of intensity to it,” says Matthews. “You are trying to drive fast and efficiently but still within the law. Speed four times a week, and they’ll take you off the road–which can happen when you’re working eight to twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week.”
But Matthews usually found delivery “easy and pleasant. The freedom and lack of supervision are very attractive. You are your own boss. You are on your own. You listen to what you want to listen to. You can make calls. Plus, I like meeting new people–and you meet them in all kinds of times, in happy times and sad times and in awkward times.
“Some people have done it for decades,” Matthews continues. “You get university types and folks in their fifties and sixties. It’s a job that suits some people very well. If the store is fairly busy and you’ve got initiative, you can make pretty good money. My daily gross tended to average around $20-$23 [an hour], with $25-$30 representing an exceptionally good day and a $35-an-hour average only on days when I took a huge catering order or two and was tipped like a waiter on the total bill. On lousy days I might leave the shift with an average of $10-$15 an hour.
“It’s a good fallback job as long as you have a car,” he continues. But “it’s your car, and you’re paying for the gas and the oil changes.” You also have to stay healthy: “You’re freelance, so if you’re sick, you’re done.”
It’s not quite as tough on drivers at Domino’s. Cesarini says he provides a mileage reimbursement “that is enough for maintenance and repair, to trade out tires and brakes.” Hooley says he gets 28c a mile. While that’s only half what the IRS figures it costs to own a business vehicle, it’s enough for Hooley: “I work a little less than forty hours a week on average because I choose not to work more,” he says. “I make a decent wage, and I get by. I do have health care benefits that I pay for through the company’s plan.
“And I get to drive what I want: a Chevy Tahoe. It’s huge, and there are times I’m taking 100-plus pizzas. That saves us from using two or three cars–and I make the whole tip!”
Cesarini currently has twenty drivers per store, and if he could find more, he’d hire them. “The more drivers we hire, the higher our sales go,” he says.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge we face,” concurs McIntyre. “It limits our growth.” He says Domino’s wouldn’t use a service like Zoomer, because “we’ve got the system down, and we wouldn’t turn it over to a third party. We want our brand on the streets. We want our brand standing on the doorstep.”
But the Domino’s VP understands why “a small, independent, sit-down chain would like to expand and use a third party. Because honestly delivery is hard. If you are a one-off shop and somebody offered to deliver your product for you, why not?”
“I can imagine that for small places that don’t deliver too extensively it could work,” says Matthews. “I can’t imagine it working for larger operations. I’d think they’d want tighter control. And the delivery fee would hurt the driver. With three or four dollars on top of the bill, the customer’s not in the mood for tipping.”
“I looked at Zoomer out of curiosity,” says Cesarini. “It sounds tempting, but from a quality standpoint, I don’t know what happens when that driver leaves our door. When there’s a problem [with the delivery] I need them to tell us–[otherwise] how am I going to fix the problem?”
Across State St. from Cesarini’s newest Domino’s, Happy’s Pizza tried Zoomer and found them wanting. “We used them, and we had our own drivers,” says Sam Edward, Happy’s manager. “My own drivers were much better. It’s hard to find employees nowadays, so we thought it would be better to use a service. But when the pizza is late, customers think it’s our fault, and that was happening a lot.”
Zoomer folded in January, but online ordering company EatStreet hired some of its staff and took over delivery in some of its markets, including Ann Arbor. Happy’s now uses EatStreet (Restaurants, February). But many of the 110 “Ann Arbor” restaurants listed on their website are outside the city, and when we called two of the places on the list, Ahmo’s and Cottage Inn, both said they use their own drivers.
Nick Costos, who owns the Grillcheezerie Sandwich Shop across Packard from Domino’s, does use EatStreet. He says the cost “varies, but it’s expensive … We give a $3 delivery charge to our customers, but we pay $5.50 a run, so we eat a couple bucks. The drivers get whatever EatStreet pays them plus their tips.”
He says EatStreet has improved on Zoomer’s model. “They’ve got an iPad, and we see when it goes, how long it takes, when the driver shows up. And Zoomer was independent contractors, but EatStreet employs their people so there’s some control.”
Though he’d prefer to have his own drivers and may again someday, Costos thinks third-party delivery is the future. “Like Zoomer said when they first started: this is the new generation of delivery.”
Tim McIntyre says Domino’s is “counting on delivery to grow,” but will keep it in-house. “We’re looking at a lot of things. We’ve got a franchisee in New Zealand who’s testing drone delivery to rural markets. We’ve got a franchisee in Australia who’s working on a delivery robot [that] would drive down the sidewalk. And the world of autonomous vehicles could change everything.
“The challenge will be for other companies to see if they can deliver their food as good at home as it is at their restaurant,” McIntyre concludes. “Nobody has figured out how to deliver French fries or steaks.”
Driver Daryl Hooley can see “drones taking the place of drivers once the technology has become safe. The human element–hot food and a smiling face–will be missed, but it can be replaced.” He isn’t worried, though. “My future is safe ’cause I have transferable skills. I may eventually purchase a franchise.”
That’s the usual Domino’s career path, says Cesarini. “Ninety percent of franchisees started as drivers.”
Peter Matthews isn’t worried either, because he doesn’t do deliveries anymore. “I’ve been working as a photographer,” he says. “That’s where my heart is.”