Aug. 8, 2003
On the night of June 21, Saurabh Bhalerao attempted to deliver a pizza to a New Bedford, Mass., apartment. When the door opened, Bhalerao, 24, was pulled into a room where four men stole his pizza and cash.
Mistaking Bhalerao for a Muslim, the men began beating him and burning him with cigarettes, and told him to "go back to Iraq."
Unable to convince the men he is a Hindu, the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth graduate student was bound with rope, forced into the trunk of his car and driven by the men to nearby Fairhaven.
During the ride, Bhalerao freed himself, and when the men stopped and opened the trunk, he attacked one with a hammer. While attempting to flee, one man stabbed him three times with a steak knife, but Bhalerao continued on and called police.
Bhalerao's kidnapping and torture shocked Domino's Pizza franchisee Nelson Hockert-Lotz, who has three stores in New Bedford. Now he and fellow franchisee Anthony Squizzerio have posted a standing $1,000 reward for anyone supplying information leading to the arrest and conviction of persons committing a crime against any delivery driver, not just Domino's.
"We cannot stand idle while our competitors' delivery people are targeted for robbery, assault or the kind of unconscionable crime we saw here in the city," Hockert-Lotz wrote in a news release. (See related story Third suspect arrested in torture of pizza delivery driver.)
Hockert-Lotz has faced driver robberies before. As a new Domino's franchisee in New Bedford in 1984, he said crimes against delivery drivers "were an epidemic. Very quickly I became a reluctant expert in safety and security."
During that time one of every 3,000 deliveries made by his drivers ended in robbery. Nineteen years later, that number has shrunk to one in 3 million.
"We thought, 'If robbery is one of your problems, how do you handle it decisively so it's not a problem?' " "Hockert-Lotz said. "And what we did about it pretty much made it go away entirely."
"I had two kids try to rob me in San Marcos, Texas. I went to the door and turned around and saw them making a B line for my car. I dropped pizza on porch ... came in from the driver's side ... and hit the kid in the mouth.
"I could hear a lot of screaming going on behind me, and I turned around and saw about 10 kids running toward me.
"Then I heard a lady yelling, 'Get the gun! Get the gun!' And I'm thinking they're going to shoot at me!
"I finally pull the kid out of the car ... got my old Civic started and stepped on it. And as I'm driving away, I can hear a shotgun going boom, boom, boom. I ran every light in town to get back to the store and call 911. The cops came out and went to the neighborhood. ... They told me that the guy shooting the gun was trying to help me by scaring the kids away. ...Later the customer came by the store, got the pizza and left a $10 tip."
-- J.W. Callahan, driver, Warner Robbins, Ga.
As president of the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers (APDD), J.W. Callahan said such harrowing run-ins with criminals aren't the norm for drivers, but they do happen. Discussions on the APDD Web site attest to as much.
Driver Safety Tips
* The following suggestions were supplied by J.W. Callahan, president of APDD.
1. Always park your car as close as possible to the door of the delivery destination.
2. Do your best to shine your car's headlights on the door of the house or apartment.
3. If someone approaches your car, roll your window no more than halfway down.
4. Never walk behind a dark building, go to a side door or be called away from plain view by anyone at the delivery destination. Phone operators taking instructions such as "come to the back door," should inform customers the driver won't for safety reasons.
5. Where possible, don't turn your back to the street, and keep your back against a solid object, such as a wall.
6. Carry yourself with authority. Head up, back straight, jogging or walking briskly. "Thieves and robbers are cowards by nature. If they see a hard target, they will most likely pass for an easier one. If confronted, look them in the eye and make it plain you are memorizing details of their appearance. Speak in an authoritative voice."
7. If someone approaches you, keep them at least an arm's distance away and don't allow them to draw your attention away to them. Remain aware of your surroundings at all times and "Keep your head on a swivel." If someone approaches you, begin looking for an escape route immediately. "Don't let a pair of people coming from different angles box you in."
8. Hide something on your person as a last-ditch defensive weapon, such as pepper spray, that you can use to save your life if necessary. "Even a key to the eye is a disabling last-ditch weapon."
But more than a decade after his Wild-West-like getaway, Callahan admits only "somebody young and stupid" like he was would fight back in such a situation. Callahan the 15-year industry veteran, the former pizzeria manager and the father of two knows now that nothing is worth such a risky fight.
"I've instead developed methods for avoiding trouble and knowing how to identify situations before I walk into them," he said. "That's what we need to teach. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, is it not?"
Appeasing thieves with money and pizza is a standard practice preached industry wide, but what drivers should do when a situation worsens, isn't, Callahan said.
"Sometimes you have to fight back just to protect yourself," he said. "What some drivers use to protect themselves ... well, let's just say you won't find them in (an operator's) safety manual."
According to a handful of drivers who asked not to be identified, the weapons of self-defense include car keys, pepper spray, box cutters, knives and even guns (use of the latter, all stressed, was rare). More commonly, two drivers said, the weapon of choice is an ordinary flashlight, albeit a large one.
"In every driver's tool kit ought to be a five- or six-cell MAGLITE," said Callahan, referring to the metal-encased flashlight known for its heft and durability. Other than using the tool to illuminate a path to a customer's door, Callahan said it's a handy theft deterrent. "When you're swinging one of those, the collarbone's very vulnerable. So are the jaw and the knee." Spoken like one who's used it, Callahan added, "The four-cell, in my opinion, doesn't have enough reach."
As Callahan and others said, wise drivers can avoid dangerous situations by applying common sense and good systems. According to Hockert-Lotz, POS systems are vital safety aids.
"All our lines have caller ID, and that shows up on the POS system as a new customer or a repeat customer," said Hockert-Lotz. "We treat every first-time caller as a potential security threat since they're unknown to us. Once they've ordered, we call them back immediately to verify the order, and then call them again before the driver leaves."
Like many stores, Hockert-Lotz's don't accept calls from pay phones. And if a call originates from a number not linked by caller I.D. to the delivery destination, the order taker asks why.
"We tell them that this is not the address that's showing up on our computer and ask them to explain why," said Tim McIntyre, senior vice president of communications for Domino's (Requests to speak with representatives of Papa John's and Pizza Hut weren't acknowledged). "Usually they tell us that they're calling from next door because they don't have a phone."
On the street, drivers say taking any situation for granted, no matter how safe it may appear, is unwise. (See sidebar Driver Safety Tips.)
Callahan said he knows many drivers who use spotlights to confirm a customer's address -- and sweep the bushes to ensure no one's hiding there. If a homeowner didn't leave the porch light on, or in the case of an apartment complex, where it isn't clear which unit is the customer's, drivers should call the customer and ask her to turn on a light or switch it on and off to indicate which is hers.
According to all interviewed, if a delivery situation is questionable -- i.e. a home appears abandoned or multiple people are approaching the driver's car -- the driver should motor a short distance away and call the customer to request he come outside to accept delivery.
"We provide our drivers some leeway to use their good judgment," McIntyre said. "If they come to an address that makes them uneasy, they don't go. We'd much rather deal with angry customer than injured team member."
Callahan agreed "call-backs are key" not only to making a situation safer, but beneficial to customer service. "Just tell them you're on your way and that you wanted to verify the total so that they have a check written for that amount or the correct amount of cash. Customers appreciate not having any surprises when you get there."
"I got to the residence and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. ... At that point I still felt safe, as this was a 'safe delivery area.'...
"The next thing I knew, the guy ... pointed that gun at my head and told me to put my hands up in the air and then said, 'Where's the money, bitch?' ... He then told me to go into the next room and he shut the door behind me. ... The neighbors heard me screaming my head off ... and I told them I had been robbed at gunpoint.
"When I got back to the store, I called the other delivery store in town to let them know about the robbery and they told me that one of their drivers had been hit about an hour before me at that same location. I was really mad then, because I was thinking they should have called us to let us know, and then maybe I would not have been put in that situation. ...
"(N)ever ever take it for granted you are in a safe neighborhood. Never let your guard down, and if it just doesn't feel right, don't get out of the car."
-- Mary Ann, (last name withheld), Suffolk, Va., via e-mail.
Show me the money
Saurabh Bhalerao's robbery, Hockert-Lotz said, was born of four thieves' miscalculation: "These men thought they were going to get a lot of money. We need to let that element know that's just plain wrong. We're religious in never having drivers carry more than $20."
To facilitate this, Hockert-Lotz said his drivers feed their money into a combination bill reader-safe at his stores. Drivers key in their unique codes and feed in the bills, including tips.
"At the end of night, driver check out is a snap," Hockert-Lotz said.
To travel even lighter, Joseph Riedel, a driver in Dallas, Texas, doesn't carry any personal cash or credit cards, and makes
sure to lock his car when he leaves to go to the door.
* Ranked by crimes committed against such employees.
1. Taxicab drivers/chauffeurs
2. Law enforcement officers (police officers/sheriffs)
3. Hotel clerks
4. Gas station workers
5. Security guards
6. Stock handlers/baggers
7. Store owners/managers
-- Source: NIOSH
Lance Benton, president of Buck's Pizza in DuBois, Pa., said his drivers don't make cash drops each time they return to the store, but only when their banks get up to or above $50. "It's not necessarily after every run, but we do want them to make drops regularly."
In the event Hockert-Lotz's drivers are robbed, he's found that making cash drops -- in the form of rewards for information -- in the area where the crime took place, ultimately becomes a theft deterrent.
When three drivers were robbed in the same New Bedford housing project in 1988, Hockert-Lotz and his managers went to the project to throw a free pizza party. They passed out 600 fliers to announce the event, which drew hundreds of people.
His management team then "worked the crowd" telling people police weren't getting cooperation in the investigation of the robberies, and that if nothing changed, Domino's would have to stop delivering there. Almost immediately, the situation changed.
"A story on the event came up on the front page of the paper the next day, and police picked up the robber within hours of the paper hitting the streets," Hockert-Lotz said. "The outpouring of community support was tremendous," and two people split a $500 reward.
Realizing that money got people talking, Hockert-Lotz now offers rewards as standard policy, though he hasn't had to pay one in 15 years.
"When you start offering big money immediately when crimes happen, you never get hit twice in the same area," Hockert-Lotz said. "If you're willing to spend $500 or $1,000 and do it in a very public way, it makes a statement that's not forgotten."
Is delivery crime increasing?
Were press reports an accurate measurement of crimes against delivery drivers, it would appear the number of such offenses are increasing, particularly with the onset of the summer of 2003. "When I was growing up, it seemed that the warmer the weather got, the more the boys were out in the alleys slugging each other," said Buck's Benton. The chain has 82 stores in 22 states. "Maybe it's spring fever."
No formal study of delivery driver crimes exists, however, to say whether they're increasing. The most recent study of workplace crimes, done in 1998 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), doesn't even list pizza delivery driver on its list of the top eight most-dangerous occupations (see sidebar Dangerous Work.) The study did, however, list what makes those top-eight jobs susceptible to crime, and, not ironically, those characteristics mirror those in pizza delivery:
* Exchange of money with the public.
* Working alone or in small numbers.
* Working late night or early morning hours.
* Working in high-crime areas.
* Guarding valuable property or possessions.
* Working in community settings (e.g., taxicab drivers and police).
Rutgers' Safety Tips
1. Don't flash too much money during transactions.
2. Print the rules of delivery on the menus that are distributed around (maximum $10 in change, etc.)
3. Advertise that you accept credit card payments and checks.
4. Don't put any identifying signs on delivery vehicles. A regular-looking car is much less noticeable than one with a sign flashing on the roof.
5. If the delivery vehicles do have signs, put large signs on the windows reading "driver carries no cash" and "orders have been paid by credit card."
6. Allow your drivers to wear normal clothes, not a uniform. This makes them look like ordinary people, not a delivery person who may be carrying cash. (If your drivers don't wear uniforms and the cars aren't obviously delivery vehicles, it's a good idea to issue company identification.
-- Source, University of Rutgers
Both Benton and Domino's McIntyre said their companies' operators haven't reported any unusual crime increases, and Callahan said the increased press attention may only mean the issue is now appearing on the media radar.
"I don't know that it's gotten worse because no one's tracked the statistics," Callahan said. "But I think it also could be an effort (by operators) to keep these things out of press. It's bad PR."
The University of Rutgers in Newark, N.J., has published a list of recommendations for avoiding driver robberies (see sidebar Rutgers' Driver Tips). Among them is one operators don't like, but drivers like Riedel prefer: avoid using lighted car-toppers.
"Although it's against many companies' policies to deliver without a car topper, I have, on many occasions, removed it before taking a delivery to an area with a high potential for crime," Riedel wrote in a e-mail. "I have learned that would-be thieves actually look for the car topper. Your company could inadvertently be advertising a robbery."
Domino's McIntyre disagrees. "We believe it helps people in the neighborhood readily identify us. So if there is a situation that happens, people can generally help."
If a driver gets in trouble, Callahan said he's not looking for a car-topper to save him. Street smarts, courage and a cell-phone, might, though.
"If anything looks out of place, use that phone and get that customer to help," Callahan said. "But sometimes that's not going to help you either. Going as far as you have to and with whatever means you have to defend yourself might mean you lose your job. But while you can always get another pizza delivery job, it's hard to come back from the dead."