Seeing Red

March 24, 2002 | by James Bickers

In 1997, Carl and Shelia Truss, a black couple in Pittsburgh, Pa., complained to the Human Rights Commission that a Pizza Hut refused them delivery on May 2, 1992 -- the night following the verdict in the Rodney King trial.

The complaint later became an HRC hearing at which the plaintiffs accused the Pizza Hut crew of redlining the Truss's neighborhood, claiming any perceived danger risk was unfounded.

Store employees knew that, in protest to the King verdict, mass riots were underway in multiple Los Angeles neighborhoods, and that copycat riots had erupted in many U.S. cities. Aware that the Truss's Pittsburgh neighborhood was predominantly black, Mike Logan, the manager of the Pizza Hut, claimed in the hearing that the employees "wanted to err on the side of caution," and denied delivery.

Redlining Defined

Redlining -- restricting delivery areas by marking off a map with red lines -- is always a contentious and controversial topic in the pizza industry. Where operators often base refusals to deliver on safety concerns or non-payment problems, redlined customers and civil liberties groups commonly claim such operators are racist, and the ensuing debate winds up in court.

Detroit-based Domino's Pizza came under fire in 1998 for alleged redlining practices. Customers in several predominantly black neighborhoods accused the company of racism because some of its operators denied them delivery. In June 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded an 18-month investigation that sided with Domino's.

"(They) found what we knew to be true all along," said Holly Ryan, public relations manager for Domino's, "that our delivery practices were based on ensuring the safety of our delivery team members, and nothing else."

Ryan says Domino's has a written policy on the subject, and referred to it as "limited delivery" rather than redlining. The policy, she said, is based on crime statistics compiled on certain areas.

"It's not necessarily a whole neighborhood, it might be just a cul-de-sac where there have been crimes, or just a portion of a street," she said. Ryan added that, because communities do change, the data is reevaluated annually.

In response to the Truss hearing, a grass-roots organization of pizzeria operators, called the Pittsburgh Pizza Coalition, was formed and led by local libertarian Dan Sullivan, who at the time was an employee at the Pizza Hut location under fire.

"We had drivers robbed every day," Sullivan told The American Enterprise (a national magazine published in Washington D.C., that covers American culture and politics). "We had the same driver robbed three times in one week. They usually robbed us with a gun. ... Drivers would quit after a couple of days."

Outside the hearings, supporters for the coalition gathered, waving signs reading, "I won't die for a $9 pie!" Inside, Ms. Truss testified that she felt "hyper and obsessed" after being refused service, and was so upset that she walked to her attorney's house in her pajamas.

When all was said and done, the HRC dismissed all charges against Pizza Hut.

One Man's Story

Rick Roll encountered the issue of redlining head-on. Several years ago he lived in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he worked for a social-religious agency.

"My wife and I moved into a house that was in 'that part of town' -- which was just behind a rehab center that our agency ran, and a block from the YMCA. In just a few short weeks it became apparent that while the house was very nice -- old Victorian in what used to be the 'nice' part of town. The surrounding neighborhood was OK -- not wonderful, but not crime-ridden either -- we had difficulty receiving services and getting friends and associates to visit us at home."

Roll said pizza delivery wasn't the only service denied his family. Only one carpet cleaning company would come to his house, and he never was able to get daily newspaper delivery. When a neighbor's daughter gave birth to her child, florists refused to deliver congratulatory gifts, and the post office insisted all packages destined for the neighborhood be retrieved from the main office.

Roll began looking into why this was happening, checking police reports every week and tallying crimes by zip code.

"Overall, the neighborhood I lived in rated seventh out of 10 in the number of crimes reported," he said. "That means that six other areas had greater crime statistics than where we lived. Of those six, two were in the 'ritzy' part of town -- with a percentage of the crimes reported being non-payment and/or harassment of delivery employees!"

Roll added that, whether companies want to admit it, race does indeed play a part in redlining decisions. In the case of his Fort Wayne neighborhood, the population was 80 percent black.

"I and my wife are both Caucasian: my wife is German-Dutch and I am Irish-Italian. We are about as white as you can get, and we never had trouble dealing with merchants and business people until they heard where we lived, to get a parcel delivered or furniture delivered. Then, we would invariably get that 'look' and the question, 'How can you live there?' Or, 'How can you stand to live there?' Or my favorite, 'How can you stand to live around those people?' "

Handling the Issue

Proving that driver safety and redlining are familiar to everyone, the nationally syndicated comic strip Funky Winkerbean employed a plotline in August 2000 that met both issues head on. In the series, the title character manages a pizzeria, and two of his female delivery drivers narrowly escape assault when attempting to deliver a pizza in a dangerous neighborhood. It turns out that the store's computer system would have advised they refuse delivery to the address had the women checked it first.

For the most part, companies like Abby's Legendary Pizza, a 35-store chain headquartered Eugene, Ore., rely on the judgment of their drivers and store managers to decide what to do in questionable situations.

"We empower managers greatly to make that decision, based on discretion," said Doug Phillips, the company's director of marketing. "If there's a history of any incidents at an address, there is some extra caution taken."

Varal Ablak, president and CEO of Pizza Outlet, which operates 106 restaurants in five states, agreed. "This is one decision that's left up to the drivers and the general manager of the store. If there are security issues, we allow the drivers and the general manager to say, 'We don't deliver there at a certain period of time,' or 'We don't deliver there at all.' But there have to be facts behind it."

Common advice of safety experts and lawyers echo Ablak's claim that facts are necessary. Compiling them begins with a detailed history of any problem encountered by drivers when delivering to troublesome neighborhoods. If an incident occurs, drivers should be required to document it and submit that to a manager or owner. If the event necessitates a police report, it's wise to retrieve a copy of the report and keep it on file.

Operators can be proactive as well by collecting crime reports for dangerous areas either at a police station or from newspapers. If, over time, a pattern of violence and crime is clear, then an operator has firmer ground to stand on if a delivery refusal is contested by a customer.

Even with such information, Roll believes operators misinterpret much of the data given them about driver safety. He said it has more to do with the perception of danger than an actual threat.

"Pizza delivery is, on the front end, a trust situation and a statistical one," Roll said. "If you have 100 deliveries to one area and 10 to another, and you have 15 non-pay/harassments in the first area and one in the other, which, statistically, is the greater risk?

"Now filter in the race issue. The one non-pay/harassment case in the minority neighborhood always becomes the example of the rule, while the other 15 non-pay/harassments are (considered) part of doing business."

Ablak said he's sympathetic to residents in redlined neighborhoods, because crimes typically are perpetrated by a very small percentage of the area's residents, and not its general populace.

"Most people are law-abiding citizens," he said, "and I can't blame them for being upset."

Redlining Hurts Who?

Ultimately, denying pizza delivery to any customer impacts the bottom line negatively. But is ensuring drivers are safe worth lost sales?

Operators agree that safety always comes first, and that even a small risk is too large when it comes to an employee's well-being. Driver safety measures such as using cell phones, curbside service mandates, deployment of driver teams, etc., are simple and low-cost methods of protection.

In the end, though, delivering to high-crime neighborhoods often is viewed as a necessary challenge that, if handled wisely, can benefit both operators and customers.

"We want to deliver a pizza to everybody -- we're in the business to sell pizza," said Ryan. "It does not help us to not go to an area."

Topics: Crime, Independent Operation

James Bickers
James Bickers is the former senior editor of Retail Customer Experience, and also manages webinars for Networld Media Group. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist and innovative content strategist, with publication credits in national, international and regional publications. wwwView James Bickers's profile on LinkedIn

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