Taking the danger out of pizza delivery

Sept. 5, 2005

Are more crimes against pizza delivery drivers committed now than in the past?

The question furrows the brow of Ron Aguiar, a man uniquely qualified to talk about pizza delivery safety.

In a two-decade span, Aguiar worked as a police officer, a pizza shop manager, an area manager for Domino's Pizza and the director of safety and security for Papa John's International.

He said he isn't sure there are more delivery-related crimes now than in the past, but that the sheer number of pizza deliveries, combined with the speed of news reporting, may make it appear so.

What worries him more, however, is the violence of some crimes against delivery drivers.

"It's gotten to the point where people in this country will hurt somebody or even commit murder for a lot less than $20," said Aguiar, now the director of security at Southeast Christian Church, a 22,000-member congregation in Louisville, Ky. "Pizza guys are just caught up in that because they're an easy target."

Are drivers an easy target because of the nature of the job, or because of the way they conduct themselves at the point of delivery?

It's a bit of both, Aguiar said. Pizza delivery, even in very safe neighborhoods, comes with some risk. But that risk is reduced, he said, when drivers know what to do when the situation appears dicey.

"The most important thing is this: If it doesn't look right, if it doesn't feel right, don't deliver the pizza," said Aguiar. "It's not worth it to take the chance."

Jeff Callahan, president of the Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers, agreed. As a veteran driver

What's Important

The first line of defense against delivery crimes is in the store when customer phone numbers are verified.

Drivers who are focused and fully aware of their surroundings at a delivery site are much less likely to be robbed or hurt. Safe drivers also know to leave the site if their gut tells them danger is lurking.

Technology helps with safety as well. Cell phones are essential for customer callbacks, and developing satellite-supported devices will help authorities quickly locate drivers who are in trouble.

with "more close calls than I care to remember," he said acknowledging one's instinct to "pack up and leave" can equate to a life saved.

"There is nothing stronger than an individual's sixth sense," said Callahan. "If the hair on back of your neck stands up, then you probably ought to listen to that inner voice."

Safety begins at the store

Both men said customer service representatives are the first line of defense against a delivery crime. Ensuring phone numbers and addresses are correct allow prescreening of potentially dangerous situations. Having a POS system with caller ID. is crucial to safety, Aguiar said, because it gives the CSR the chance to record and verify the customer's number for callbacks.

"If you make your callback and it's a restricted number, or it won't come up on the caller. I.D., or it goes straight into voice mail, that's not good," Callahan said.

If a manager decides to make the delivery anyway, Callahan said a callback en route is essential to giving the driver a final chance to confirm whether the delivery is valid.

"The cell phone is the most powerful weapon a driver has on the road," he said. "You can pick up so much from a conversation over the phone. If that sixth sense is telling you something isn't right because you sense tension in that person's voice, listen to it."

Aguiar said a high-powered light was standard equipment in his car when he delivered. It helped him confirm house numbers, "sweep the bushes and trees" near the destination and revealed telltale signs of trouble: a ramshackle structure, uncut grass or stacks of old newspapers.

"The driver has to have an organized mind and be thinking about what he's doing," Callahan said. "Whatever you do, do it well and do it quickly."

And if that quick survey of the surroundings makes you feel uneasy, leave, said Aguiar.

"I can't tell you the number of times I've talked to drivers after they've gotten robbed, and they say they knew they shouldn't have gone up there because it didn't feel right."

Observation should occur inside the store, too, Callahan said, when a manager is watching how long his drivers are gone.

"If you've got a driver who's consistently late coming back, then he's screwing around on the clock," he said. "But if a really good, reliable driver is late, that should tell you something."

The moment of truth

Callahan's tales of resisting robbers yields a mix of pride and "I probably shouldn't have done that" relief. Despite his large build, he's been accosted many times by thieves he's been fortunate to overpower or outwit.

"But more than once I stood my ground when I should have packed up," he said. And while he anticipates acting differently if robbed again, he can't promise he will because every robbery is different. A person's reaction boils down to a split-second decision to fight or flee, but "the best-case scenario is being able to use all your wits and tools available to not get into trouble, to limit your exposure and be back in the car in 60 seconds."

Aguiar said good training reinforces the point that a pizza and a few bucks is not worth fighting for, nor is a car if a thief wants it. "If he asks

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for the keys, give them to him and ask him to change the oil every 3,000 miles."

Statistically speaking, Aguiar said 99 percent of all deliveries go well, but it's the threat of what may happen that 1 percent of the time that fills the minds of drivers. Some choose to carry weapons or protect themselves with pepper spray, something that concerns Aguiar.

"Like I've told my daughter, if you're ever in a position in which your life is threatened, you've got to do what you can to get away or defend yourself," said Aguiar. "But using something like pepper spray could make the situation worse. As an officer, I once effected an arrest in which I used a propellant like pepper spray, and all I did was get the guy angry."

Aguiar said many criminals told him they never intended to hurt the person they were robbing, but when their victims didn't comply with their basic demands, it escalated the situation. "I heard more than once, 'I'd have never shot the guy if he'd have just given me the money.'"

Callahan suggested drivers program their cell phones to dial 911 with a single touch, or as he has done, purchase a phone with voice recognition that calls 911 if he speaks, "Call the po-po," his personal code for, "Call the police."

In the near future, drivers could have the opportunity to push a panic button feature installed on handheld units under development by PiStar Communications. The Louisville-based firm recently added the safety feature to its PiMobile

start quoteThe best-case scenario is being able to use all your wits and tools available to not get into trouble, to limit your exposure and be back in the car in 60 seconds.end quote

— Jeff Callahan,
President, Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers

navigation unit, designed to give drivers audible, satellite-guided point-to-point directions to customer destinations. (Each driver's progress also is simultaneously tracked on a POS screen at the store.) Should trouble arise, the driver can hit the panic button to alert authorities and the store.

"We have a preprogrammed emergency message that will go right to the stores, letting them know the driver is in trouble and needs help," said Patrick Moldt, chief software architect for PiStar. "It'll tell the store and the authorities exactly where that driver is."

Callahan said such a unit "is an excellent idea," and that he'd love to see it in the field.

Until such a technologically advanced time arrives, Aguiar suggests managers and delivery drivers apply a human touch to stop crime before it happens. When he used to door-hang in troubled neighborhoods, Aguiar said he'd knock on customers' doors and talk to them about dangers his drivers had reported. He said letting residents know help was needed to ensure pizza delivery in their area motivated them to keep watch.

"When you show them you're concerned about serving them and their community, they understand and want to help," he said.

Aguiar also said store managers should make friends with police officers in their areas. Knowing the authorities subtly encourages them to keep a close eye on the pizza shop and all working there. If drivers see police officers, wave and smile at them, he said, to encourage interaction.

"They're there to help us, not hurt us," he said. "When you get that type of rapport, they'll pay much more attention to those car toppers when they go by."

Topics: Crime , Operations Management

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