The following article is a written adaptation of an episode of Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitalism, Slate’s new podcast about companies in the news and how they got there.
When you think about Domino’s and quick delivery, you might think about their old 30-minute delivery guarantee. The original slogan was half an hour or half a buck off. (Domino’s had to end that policy in 1993 after facing lawsuits accusing its delivery people of driving recklessly.) But founder Tom Monaghan always said the real secret to an efficient delivery business happens long before the pizza gets put in a car.
Domino’s centralizes its food prep in regional distribution centers that serve multiple stores. It keeps its menu simple to make the ordering process fast. It’s opened up new ways to order pizza: online, over social media, or even via text message. Its chief digital officer now calls Domino’s “an e-commerce company that sells pizza.” All of which has prepared it to ably face the current moment, as the coronavirus pandemic shutters traditional restaurants and food delivery demand explodes.
Domino’s says its sales went up more than 10 percent as coronavirus lockdowns took effect, and that boost is coming from a new kind of clientele. While weekend and late-night orders are down, partly because there are no televised sports to gather house parties around, the weekday lunch and dinner business is booming. And what’s really driving the revenue uptick is that the orders have gotten bigger because families who are sick of cooking or have drained their pantries want to be sure they have enough Domino’s to have leftovers for multiple meals. Domino’s has introduced a new contactless delivery policy during the pandemic. For a company built on being fast and efficient, that procedure is a bit of a speed bump.
“It cuts into your delivery time,” says Theo Parmenter, a delivery driver for a Domino’s franchise in Richmond, Virginia. “Typically a delivery would take me maybe 15 minutes, depending on where it’s at. Now it’s upwards of 20 to 25, so I’m just kind of sitting there tapping my foot.”
The Domino’s store where Theo works adopted the new contactless delivery policy during the pandemic, which means that Theo now has to enact an elaborate ritual every time he gets to someone’s door. He puts the pizza down onto a specially designed cardboard pedestal that keeps it off the ground. He rings the doorbell. He steps away.
“Depending on the person, they might get it, and it might go flawlessly, and everything’s fine,” Theo says. “But nine times out of 10, people are really confused when you knock on the door and you’re standing 6 feet away from their porch. … When they answer the door, I usually try to be the first one to get a word out. But a lot of times they just look really bewildered. We’ve had a couple of customers complain, ‘Oh, why is my food here? Why is it on the floor?’ We have these little cardboard box things for the contactless delivery, so that way it’s not directly touching the ground, but for a lot of people that’s not good enough. I don’t know what else to do.”
And then there’s a whole dance around taking payment and making change as Theo tries to maintain 6 feet of distance from the customer. It’s not just a hassle; it’s bad for Theo’s personal bottom line because he makes more money when he can get in and out fast and make more deliveries in less time. But speed and money aren’t the only issues here. There’s also safety.
Pizza delivery is likely safer than working at a fast-food drive-thru, where there are constant hand-to-hand exchanges. But delivery workers are still interacting with dozens of different people every shift, and that brings heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19. Some Domino’s workers have contracted the virus. Some have gone on strike, demanding better sick pay policies for those who get ill and better access to personal protection equipment to help prevent that from happening. Theo says he now has a Domino’s mask, but it took a couple of weeks before he was provided with one. And he doesn’t receive anything to clean his hands with when he’s out on the job.
“No, we don’t get any personal hand sanitizer from the store,” Theo says. “We’re responsible for that. I might wear gloves, but nine times out of 10, it’s just the mask. I do the contactless delivery procedure as we’re supposed to, and because I do have to touch some portion of the bag after the customer’s touched it, I’ll go back to my car and I’ll sanitize my hands.”
You might think Theo would get treated like a hero, given the risk he’s taking to do his job, but he says it’s been just the opposite: “People are just a lot more mean. It seems a lot more hostile. So I’m a lot more on edge when I take deliveries.”
What’s driving that behavior? “It could be the stress,” Theo says. “It could be envy that I’m working and they’re not. I know there’s a lot of people that are really upset that they can’t go to work as a result of this, and I don’t know if that’s them taking that out on those of us that are working. And it’s really, really unfortunate because what they don’t realize is that we’re feeding them. … I don’t think it’s really sunk in that we’re the reason why you currently have food in your mouth.” At least the tips, Theo says, are “roughly about the same,” although he still gets stiffed every now and then.
Despite the drawbacks, many Domino’s drivers continue to work, maybe in part because Domino’s is among the rare employers still operating at full throttle. “The business has definitely been booming,” Theo says. “It’s gotten a lot busier.” In fact, Domino’s isn’t just surviving—it’s hiring. It says it’s looking to fill 10,000 new jobs.
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