Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Confessions of a Pizza Driver (Part II)

The one good thing
Seeing as how the financial rewards of my four-and-a-half week revival stint as a grocery clerk were practically nil, and the experience did little more than make me feel like I was carrying a five year-old on my shoulders for 8 hours every day, it probably should be noted that there was at least one event that made me smile. It would just be my luck that it occurred before I even started working — when I was filling out my employment paperwork on the very first day at Kroger.

I was making friendly smalltalk with the office clerk while she filled out my insurance and the other office-related paperwork. She spoke with a British accent, which wasn't exactly the type of accent one normally hears in Middle Tennessee. I mentioned that we had relocated here from SoCal and she asked me what brought us to Nashville. I mentioned my former career in the music biz, and she revealed that her husband was a musician — which IS something one hears a lot here.

“What's his name?” I asked.

Phil Kenzie...he plays saxophone,” she said. The name sounded familiar to me, but I couldn't place it. My facial expression obviously revealed that I needed another hint.

“Well, do you know Al Stewart’s music,” she queried.

“Al Stewart?! Know him, I LOVE Al Stewart!” I exclaimed, nearly jumping out of my shirt. “You've got to me kidding me!”

Now I'm not assuming that many reading this are even familiar with the work of the ‘Prose-Rock’ master, Al Stewart, but he is truly one of my all-time favorites. And Phil Kenzie's soaring tenor sax work played a significant role in creating the sound for his two biggest albums of the 70s, Year of the Cat and Time Passages.

Needless to say, I was excited at that little bit of info, but I'm weird that way. It's just so very interesting whose path you might cross in this town. Little did I know, however, that would be the high point of my employment with Kroger. Incidentally, I actually got a chance to meet Phil and Al both a year ago when Stewart played at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. A buddy of mine made a bootleg recording of the show and I got a copy. They did all of Stewart’s hits; it was so great to hear those songs again.

Come to Papa
It just so happened that when I gave my 2 weeks notice at Kroger, it would wind up taking only a week for a driver position to open up at Papa John's. So there was a period of a few days in which I was forced to work both jobs — and that wasn't much fun at all. But soon thereafter I would be spending my evenings behind the wheel of a car-full of steamin’ pizza goodness; my ride acquiring that permanent bouquet of cheese and pepperoni.

The day I first reported for work, within five minutes of my inaugural Papa John's experience I received my ‘bank’ for the night ($25.00 in fives and ones that each driver is issued at the beginning of his shift in order to make change until his collected cash builds up), I was buddied up with another driver to go out on a couple of delivery runs, to see how it's done.

When I think about the time I spent as a pizza driver, there are three things that I really enjoyed. I really liked the feeling of having $50–$100 in my wallet at all times. I enjoyed coming to know the streets and neighborhoods of my town (I actually live in a small suburb of Nashville) like the back of my hand. But best of all, I have enjoyed the long-term friendship of the guy who made it all come alive for me that first day; a fellow driver we'll call, McGriff.

McGriff was the driver I was paired with on that first few training runs. I knew right away that he was going to be easy to get along with. He was gregarious and friendly from our first handshake, and was only too happy to show me the ropes. But the best thing about him was that he was immediate proof that I was in the right place, doing the right thing. He was indisputable evidence to me that a normal guy can pull this job off looking like a professional rather than a goofball. McGriff completely shattered the dreaded ‘Pizza Guy’ stereotype that I held coming into this job.

He was a professional pizza driver. And when I say professional, I mean it on more than one level. For one thing it was his only job, and believe me, with his personal presence, intelligence and charisma, he could have pursued any number of other vocations and been successful. He owned his own home, had three cars, and money in the bank. He worked 48 hours a week, but because he was so valuable, he was allowed to set his own schedule. He made over $45,000 a year...delivering pizzas! He knew that he was good, and everyone around him knew it too. But there was no attitude or bravado with McGriff. He knew he was going to make his money no matter what anyone else did.

“Inside, outside, leave me alone...”
I quickly decided that I was going to make McGriff my mentor. I watched him work and asked him often about the best way to get to certain neighborhoods or what his methodology for getting from one part of town to another was. He was a great help in figuring out the lay ‘o the land, in more ways than one.

McGriff also taught me the art of never getting suckered into ‘working inside’ if management were ever to offered it. The crew of people who ‘throw the dough’ and work the ‘make line’ (the assembly line in which two or three workers place the toppings on the pizza, and then stick it into the oven) consist of usually three ‘inside’ workers, who are paid substantially more per-hour than the drivers, but they never leave the store. McGriff warned that I'd never make any money that way, besides, it's just boring. After coming in off the road and waiting for their next delivery run, the drivers are required to come back and help out the insiders making pizzas. This is only right, since the faster the pizzas get made, the faster the drivers can get back out on the road.

The secret, says McGriff, to not getting stuck inside, is volunteering to work "the ovens." This is the station in which the pizzas are removed from the oven, placed it into a pre-labeled delivery box and sliced. Then the condiments are added, and the box is placed on the hot rack for retrieval by either by the drivers for delivery, or the front counter personnel for walk-in/pick-up customers. Since that station is the closest one to the door, it makes getaway a lot easier than working the counter or the ‘make" line.’

Obviously, the driver wants to try to avoid spending any significant time inside. The goal is to be in-and-back out on the road as quickly as possible, because deliveries are the lifeblood of the gratuity-lovin’ pizza driver. Deliveries equal tips, and tips equal cash in your pocket; cash in your pocket equals motivation to go to work each day. The weekly minimum wage-based paycheck is really nothing more than gas-money. The only real reason to be a driver is to earn tips. So it's of utmost importance that you know where you're going before you leave the store. It's just as important to know which orders to take and which to leave behind for somebody else. It's actually quite a delicate balance.

Take too many orders, even if they're in the same area, and chances are the delivery will take longer than it should. That can lead to an unhappy customer, especially if they can feel that the pizza is luke-warm when you hand it to them (this was especially true before the advent of ‘heated’ delivery bags, which PJ's introduced only in the last 6 months that I worked there). An unhappy customer almost always equals a less-than-hearty tip. The other downside to being out on a delivery too long is that it cuts down on the total number you can make over the course of a full shift. And again, when each delivery equals a potential tip, you want as many total deliveries as you can possibly make. So keeping delivery trips as short as possible, with as many orders as practical, makes for a happy customer and ensures the greatest likelihood for a successful, high-tip shift.

What's a good night for tips? I typically worked 6-hour shifts on weeknights, and one 8-hour shift on the weekend. On weeknights, if I earned $60.00 in tips, I considered it a good night. I would say my average was between $40–$50.00. On weekends I would usually do between $80–$100.00. McGriff, by contrast, averaged between $90–$120.00 on weeknights and $100–$150.00 on the weekends, when he worked them. There were always nights that were better or worse, but somehow he and one or two of the other ‘pro’ drivers would always seem to walk out with over $100.00 in their pockets at the end of the day.

Having cash like that was addicting. That's the part I miss the most. When combined with my paycheck, I took home between $400–$500 a week.

Following McGriff's example, I soon became one of the top 3 or 4 drivers in the store and suddenly felt pretty darned good about that little loser job I had previously dismissed so easily. There was no way anybody could have convinced me going into this thing that I could have made that much money and felt so good about doing it. Working mostly by myself, at night I also had a lot of time to listen to the radio and think, which has always been one of my favorite things to do. It was fun. And though I know there were a lot of nights I would have rather been at home with Michelle and the kids, I don't have too many bad memories of that time.

With the pizza job basically providing our living expenses (groceries, kid's school lunches and activities, incidental purchases, etc.) money, we pooled everything else we made into paying off our debts.

We began seeing some progress.

Next: “I love the smell of pepperoni in the evening...
It smells like freedom.”
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