Pizza: a slice of lifestyle

Busy - or lazy - Nineties consumers like their favourite fast food brought to the doorstep. But there are some things the staff find hard to stomach. Esther Oxford meets the workers who deliver the goods
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The Independent Culture
There is a lump of cheesy bread lying on the tiled floor of Pizza Hut, Borehamwood. A delivery boy sees it, hops over and rushes outside to mount his moped. Behind the counter the telephone rings. It never stops. Someone dashes forward, kicks the cheesy lump under the counter and grabs the phone. "Hello, Pizza Hut. Can I help you?" It's 7pm, rush- hour in pizza units all over the country and time to forget melted things found underfoot. The priority is getting pizzas prepared, cooked, and out in nine minutes.

A couple of paces back, Kip, a Kenyan university student, is standing by the stainless steel oven shoving frozen pizza bases into the fierce heat. The telephone orders come through on a tear-off paper slip: one Farmhouse (ham and mushroom) and one Hawaiian (ham and pineapple). Kip knows he has 40 seconds to prepare the pizza, then six minutes to cook it.The sweat shines on his nose.

Pulled from the oven, the pizzas are sliced, shoved into a box and handed to the riders.They check the address on the map, pull their helmets down and run. Karen, manager of the unit, fronts the shop and juggles the never-ending phone orders. "Can I help?" she asks. Yes, she can. A large Farmhouse pizza, four garlic breads, one 1.5 litre bottle of 7-Up and a tub of ice cream, please. "We'll have it on your doorstep within 30 minutes. Or we'll give you £1 off."

Delivering food to tired, lazy, demanding urbanites is a fast-growing business. The first Pizza Hut delivery unit opened in 1988. Now a third of the chain's 330 branches are delivery units: 40 have opened in the past three years. Then there's the competition: Domino's Pizza and Perfect Pizza also specialise in delivery to a population that devours more than 4 million pizzas a year. Fast changing "specials" keep regular customers coming back for more: £9.99 for a family size plus fizzy drink plus Hagen- Dazs plus 10 per cent off your next purchase plus the inevitable £1 off if delivery isn't within half an hour. Door-to-door leaflets listing "This Month's Bargain" as well as the regular menu are left in batches on urban estates. In the suburbs, letterboxes are deluged.

Most of the customers are couples with children or professionals who can't be bothered to cook. "It's all about time - or rather the lack of it," Julie Grant, Pizza Hut's marketing manager, explains. "Very often with both partners working, leisure time is at a premium. People want to spend as little time as possible shopping and cooking."

According to Ms Grant, the Pizza Hut delivery service pivots on "speed and reliability". Words like "nutrition" are studiously avoided. Although Ms Grant talks about the "excellent restaurant quality pizza", few of the staff ever think of eating it. The loyal say: "I see it everyday." The blunt say: "The sight of the grey, frozen beef balls turn my stomach." But there are plenty of people out there who will eat it: Karen's branch takes 120 orders on a busy evening.

The phone rings. A voice orders his favourite: a tomato and cheese pizza. "I don't eat meat," the voice says. Why are you ordering pizza? Paul Hayes says he and his wife are too "nacked" to cook. "We're decorating. We can't be bothered to fuss around in the kitchen."

Karen has a team of seven kitchen crew on tonight plus seven drivers. She is expecting to deliver, on average, 80-odd orders to 80 households within a four-hour period. On a normal day she has four drivers and one kitchen person on duty; sometimes they are lucky if they sell two pizzas an hour. But tonight is special for two reasons: there is yet another special offer on and the company has just launched a prime time TV advertising campaign.

"Eighteen million people will be watching Coronation Street tonight," she says. "We will have six telephone lines on to cope with the number of calls we're expecting during the television break. I've prepared lots of garlic breads and got the pizza bases spread over with tomato paste in preparation."

Karen says her customers are grateful. " 'I'm so glad you are there,' they say to us. 'All I want to do is sit here. I don't want to lift a finger.' " The fact that they are feeding their children "disgusting and unacceptable" meals, in the words of Egon Ronay, the food guru, is irrelevant for most. Besides, one in six British children declare pizza to be their favourite food. Convenience is the buzzword of the Nineties urbanite. They like the pizza lifestyle.

Strict guidelines, says Karen, govern all aspects of the sale, cooking and delivery of pizzas. Most of the rules are intended to increase sales and maximise efficiency. And to limit the "hoax pizza" telephone calls.

Orders over £20 are counted as suspicious. The trick is to check that the "customer's" phone number and address are correct. One trick is to ask for the caller's phone number, then call them back immediately on another line to check for an engaged tone. Another is to pretend to have a query, then call back to say: "Was it 7-Up or Cola that you wanted?"

Other "house" rules have been quietly abandoned, like riders removing their helmets upon delivery to show a friendly face. "There is no way I'm going to take off my helmet if I'm delivering on a dodgy estate," says John Wall, 18. He's worked for the company for two years. "One of our bikers got mugged. This guy threw a coat over his head, pushed him to the floor, then ran off with the pizzas. They didn't even bother taking his money."

Helmets are also needed for the more aggressive customers: "I've had customers saying, 'I've been waiting for so long, effing this and effing that.' You have to keep them calm or they lose their lid."

Karen says safety is a worry for everyone. Sometimes she can be on her own in the shop with just one driver and as much as £1,400 in the till. Late night drunks are also a problem. Panic buttons are dotted all over the shop, but they operate as little more than alarms. But it is the riders on the front line who face the most hassle. Muggings are relatively infrequent, but bike crashes are not uncommon.

Pizza Hut and its competitors claim they tell their riders that "no pizza is worth risking life and limb for", but only two years ago there was an outcry when two London youngstersdied rushing meals to their destinations. Riders' pay would be docked if they took longer than 30 minutes to deliver.Safety officials said such pressure leads to accidents.

The BBC's Watchdog weighed in with more evidence. Producer Helen O'Rahilly said learner riders over 16 were taken on even if they didn't have any experience. "You see these delivery riders buzzing about in all weathers and there have been an abnormally high level of accidents. They only have to complete a one-day basic training course before taking to the road. Riders told us they were threatened with the sack if they did not meet the deadline."

The bikers say they are not pressurised by Pizza Hut to compromise on safety. Still, sometimes the workload and long hours (some do 10- hour shifts) result in sloppy driving. Bikers are often asked to deliver pizzas to three addresses within 15 minutes. The Borehamwood branch bikers brag that they have experienced several "near fatalities". Most fall off their bikes at least twice a year. But John, driving his own car for the evening, laughs off any fears of seriously injuring himself.

Besides, he has work to do. He parks his car, reaches into the back for his pizza load, and makes for the home of Jean Ainsworth, a company director. The door is open when he gets there. Mrs Ainsworth ambles down the stairs, suspicious of this man in a black space-suit uniform. The pizza, garlic bread, ice cream and pop are for her teenage son, she says, who "would eat the whole lot, given half the chance". She is planning to slip the ice cream into the freezer before he finds it.

Why has she ordered pizza? "Because I want a snack but I don't want to prepare it." Why Pizza Hut? Why not a Chinese take-away? Or maybe even Italian? Or Indian? Or a burger? Everyone is getting into the act these days. "Because the pizzas taste good and there is a fast, reliable service." Ms Grant must be rubbing her hands with glee.