Sixteen-year Domino's veteran Mark Porter drives like my old driver's ed instructor. In fact, Porter's maneuvering of his red Hyundai on a recent Wednesday afternoon reminds me, viscerally, of that long-ago driver's ed class. Maybe because Porter resembles my instructor more than a bit: tall, white, good-natured, relentlessly earnest.
And though Porter is barely going the residential speed limit, despite (or perhaps because of) the once-famous 30-minute Domino's delivery "estimate," it is not easy to take notes in the back of his car. Why? Because I'm jammed into the backseat with a giant pizza, the intense aroma filling the interior -- heavy, insulated "Heat Wave" pizza bag notwithstanding -- and I'm very, very hungry. Note to self: If you are doing a ride-along with a pizza guy, do not forget to eat first.
Porter is delivering the first of what will be many pizzas, depending on the vicissitudes of soccer games and office parties and inclement weather, to an apartment building in Granada Hills, a vast horizontal quadrant of suburbia in the northern part of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. He's dressed in uniform, which for Porter includes New Balance running shoes. He likes to jog his pizzas to the door, he says. Speed, I note, is often psychological.
After one customer takes her cardboard pizza box, these days cheerily annotated in red-white-and-blue exclamations, she hands Porter money past a security door ("Sorry, I have to close the door; the baby's gonna get out!"). In the car Porter unpeels the printout order information sticker from his shirt, where he likes to keep them for reference, and adds it to a thick stack. The layers of stickers form a pressed pad of paper, a sort of archaeological record of America's obsession with home-delivery pizza.
For while you may love the beautiful pies at Mother Dough or 800 Degrees, most people's experience of pizza is of chain pizza, often delivered to their front doors. These chains did $30 million in sales nationwide in 2011, and an estimated 30 percent of the pizza Americans consume comes via delivery, from calling up Pizza Hut or Domino's or Papa John's (the top three pizza chains nationwide, in order of sales in 2011, according to research firm Technomic). Or from having their kids punch it in, increasingly with their computers or iPhones. Domino's estimates that 30 to 40 percent of its sales now comes from online.
Porter drives through the streets of his hometown. It's also the hometown of Valerie Bertinelli, Ryan Braun and Ashley Judd, a maze of lateral streets and cul-de-sacs that probably looks very much like it did when Nikita Khrushchev visited in 1959. The Soviet premier, on his first visit to America, had wanted to visit Disneyland but was taken instead to Granada Hills for a glimpse of glorious America as reflected in a newly built subdivision of model homes. The San Fernando Valley, witnessed in blistering September from a motorcade, reportedly was not to the premier's liking, especially when he'd really wanted to meet John Wayne. Khrushchev never got out of the limo. Maybe they should have gotten him a pizza instead.
Porter has lived in Granada Hills his whole life, except for a few years away at school. After an abbreviated stint as a firefighter ("A tree fell on me; I had to find a new career"), Porter started working for Domino's. He's been delivering pizzas out of the same store for the last 16 years.
We pull into a strip mall not too far from the 118 freeway, a concrete universe that Domino's shares with a discount cigarette shop, a unisex beauty salon, a tiny spa with a neon sign advertising foot massages and Canine Coiffures (where on Wednesdays your dog can get her teeth cleaned for free). Inside, Porter keys in the details of his delivery on a computerized grid near the phone and deposits his tips into a metal box that looks a lot like the DIY boxes you find in some parking lots. He reminds me that drivers carry less than $20, to cut down on the likelihood that they'll be robbed.
During every delivery I'm on, Porter dutifully locks his car -- earlier this year, two joyriding teenagers stole a pizza delivery car in a Chicago suburb; in May, a Provo, Utah, pizza delivery driver had his car stolen, as did another driver in Eau Claire, Wis. Because if somebody left an unlocked car with both the keys in the ignition and a hot pepperoni pizza on the backseat, you'd probably take it, too.
If the delivery model seems a bit outdated, almost Rockwellian -- car thefts aside -- that's because it probably is. Although pizza delivery sales have stayed constant in recent years, the pizza renaissance (you too can have artisan pies!) is shifting the landscape.
Joe Remsa is a former vice president of Pizza Hut, where he helped roll out pizza delivery in 1982, and a former executive at Shakey's, the pizza chain headquartered in Alhambra, which does not deliver. Remsa thinks the new custom niche of the fast-casual pizza restaurant is a game changer. Think Adam Fleischman's much-discussed plans for an 800 Degrees empire. Or, as industry people refer to it: the Chipotle model. "This is going to impact the industry as much as the delivery impacted it in the '80s," Remsa tells me.
Lots of things have changed in the last five years: The recession hit and, arguably, lifted. In the wake of Fukushima abroad and a rash of food recalls in this country, people increasingly want to see their food being made. They want control -- or at least a greater illusion of it.
In the age of Instagram and Call of Duty, we want our food to be interactive, too. Thus we line up in Westwood for a chance to build our own pizza. And we download the Domino's app, in which we not only custom-build our pie but also monitor its status, give feedback and even key in notes of encouragement. (How cute!)
Rebecca Black, a former Papa John's franchise owner, 20-year Pizza Hut veteran and current senior vice president at Shakey's, tells me that delivery has always had a low profit margin. The shift to in-store dining and encouraging diners to pick up their own pizzas reflects this. Add to that rising food and gas prices (Mark Porter remembers that gas was $2 a gallon when he started driving) and a revolution in pizza-oven technology, and maybe an urge simply to get out of the house again.
"Pizza has always been communal food," Black tells me. "Everything is cyclical; we're cycling back to going out to eat."
Inside the Domino's store, Porter shifts to pizza-making mode as we approach the dinner hour and the orders increase. Every Domino's employee has to be able to do all the jobs in the operation, which not only makes sense but also gives the business a very group feel, as if you've stumbled into a functional home ec class from the '60s.
The pizzas are built and transferred to the lone enormous oven, fed atop a conveyor belt that moves them through 455-degree heat for exactly 6 ½ minutes. Porter and the other employees, mostly women and guys who look to be in their very early 20s, pop the bubbles on the baking pizzas with a long, medieval-seeming pole, which everybody finds hilarious. (It is.)
As the orders come in, they get posted on a digital leaderboard fixed to the wall above the pizza station, where Porter and company check the stats as if they're figuring how many shots back they are at Torrey Pines.
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So I order a pizza on my iPhone -- extra-large 16-inch; hand-tossed, with "robust inspired tomato sauce" (whatever that is), cheese and pepperoni -- because if you'd spent the better part of a day this way and hadn't eaten, you'd pretty desperately want a pizza, too. I watch it being made both on my phone and in real life, by a friendly woman, an "insider" training to be a manager.
Fourteen minutes later, the intense fragrance of the pizza sitting in the passenger seat of my car is overwhelming. In rush-hour traffic down the 405 and across the 101 and the wide pathways of the San Fernando Valley, I want to pull over on some detritus-covered off-ramp and eat the whole thing. How delivery people stand it is incomprehensible. I ignore a text from my 11-year-old daughter: "It's so cool yr delivering me pizza! Sooo. How close r u?!?!"
We each have our own occupational hazards, don't we?