Passing on gas

June 7, 2006

Jon Doemel used to spend $45 a month to have used fryer grease hauled away from his Glass Nickel Pizza shop in Oshkosh, Wis. Today that expense has been eliminated and he's saving at least that much a week in reduced driver reimbursements through the use of his "grease car."

Doemel had a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit diesel burner converted to run on fryer oil. The car gets about 33 miles to the gallon on fat fuel, and that saves each driver about $25 weekly in gas.

"With the number of drivers we have, each gets to drive it about twice a week," said Doemel. The car starts on diesel and switches to fryer oil when the engine's warm a few minutes later. "It smells like french fries when it's running, so anybody following it gets hungry."

Glass Nickel is one of a few of pizza operations employing alternative delivery vehicles to lower fuel costs to their drivers and reduce pollution. David Yudkin, co-owner of three-unit Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, Ore., owns two Gem electric cars, a Toyota Prius hybrid and a pair of gas-sipping Toyota Echoes. He's also working to grow his bicycle delivery fleet.

"The bikes have been a challenge; the drivers look at the car, they look at the bike, and they go to the car," said Yudkin. "The Gem cars were in line with the mission of the company to be environmentally friendly. We've been very happy with them."

When Yudkin

Galactic Pizza drivers are easily recognized by their Nevco "bikes" and superhero costumes. — Photo courtesy of Galactic Pizza.

learned that gasoline engines' hydrocarbon emissions are highest when the engine is started and warming up over the course of a couple of miles — a cycle reflective of most all pizza deliveries — he wanted to make a change.

"When you look at the average distance for a pizza delivery, we're right there," he said. "So these electric cars are perfect for those short runs."

Like Yudkin, Pete Bonahoom bought electric vehicles to align his business with his personal mission of using vehicles with minimal environmental impact. Now he owns a trio of three-wheeled Nevco vehicles, which technically are motorcycles with an upright seat, a windshield and clear plastic side curtains.

Spending to save

Depending on the vehicle chosen, the cost of a non-gasoline-burning car can be inexpensive or costly. The operators own their vehicles and they pay to maintain and insure them.

The diesel-to-grease conversion kit cost Doemel $900 for a car worth less than $2,000. Bonahoom, on the other hand, spent $14,000 for a new Nevco and $10,000 each for two used ones. Yudkin got his Gem cars used for about $3,000 each, less than half the cost of new.

Maintenance is an issue as well. Like all diesel engines, Doemel's grease car needs occasional fuel injector cleaning, and when Yudkin's drivers remember to plug in and recharge his electric cars, they pretty much take care of themselves.

Bonahoom's Nevco bikes haven't performed so flawlessly, and after the company went out of business after making only 38 units, he became his own mechanic.

"Our goal is to use them 100 percent of the time, but it works out to about 90 percent," Bonahoom said. That 10 percent downtime means his drivers are in their own cars, miles for which they're not reimbursed.

"I don't pay them to drive their cars because to me, that's an incentive to not take care of my cars," he said. "They get other incentives. I regularly put aside some money to fix my cars, and if I don't have pay that out for parts, I spend that on the drivers by giving them gift certificates for free food."

Yudkin's motivation to build a small fleet of fuel-efficient vehicles was born of a desire lower his insurance risk. Depending on his drivers to be adequately insured was pushing his luck, he said.

"If I have control over the cars, then the tires aren't bald, the windshield wipers work and the lights work," Yudkin said. "And if there's a serious accident involving one of my drivers, they're coming after me anyway. So why not be sure I'm covered?"

There are other drawbacks to the electric vehicles, namely speed and comfort. While the Gem tops out at a modest 25 mph, Yudkin called that sufficiently quick for negotiating downtown Portland. His Echoes get the call for longer runs on higher-speed roads.

Though Bonahoom's Nevco peaks at

Hot Lips Pizza delivers in downtown Portland, Ore., in electric Gem cars similar to the one above. — Photo courtesy of Gem.

40 mph, it accelerates very quickly. "You can limit its acceleration with a computer, which I've done, because the drivers were using that quickness for all it was worth. But they still have the same top speed."

Instead of having climate controlled cabs, the temperature inside most electric cars is controlled by the climate outside. To save weight, electric cars typically lack body panels, such as doors, that would insulate against the elements. Thin plastic flaps may keep the driver dry, but they do little to ward off the chill in rainy Portland or fend off the frosty winters of Minneapolis.

Positive publicity

Every operator said the most positive benefit of the cars is their PR boost. Customers not only appreciate "green cars," they love their funky look.

"They'll call and say, 'I only wanted it delivered in the electric car. I'll wait an extra 15 minutes if you'll deliver it in the electric car,'" said Yudkin.

Bonahoom's drivers already attract a fair amount of attention since they dress for work as superheroes. Toss them behind the wheel of a Nevco and heads turn. "People get into it because it's entertaining. Because of these cars and the costumes, people know who we are. I don't spend any money on marketing."

Doemel's own effort to fund a second grease car (another Glass Nickel unit in Madison, Wis., runs five of them) is so popular his customers are helping out.

"We actually have people buy two-liters for $2.25 just to support the grease car," he said. "They want to support what we're doing, and we want to keep putting more of them out on the road."

Topics: Delivery , Going Green , Independent Operation , Operations Management

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