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Cathy Free: Gas crunch puts squeeze on pizza guys

They're the unsung heroes of the dinner rush, delivering pepperoni-and-pineapple pies so the rest of us don't have to stand in front of an open fridge and wonder, "What's for dinner?"

Now, with gas prices at record highs, Richard Moore and Kerry Pence wonder if pizza delivery men might one day become an endangered species.

During the past several months, the two drivers for Salt Lake City's Wasatch Pizza have been to the gas pump so many times, store clerks know their first, last and middle names.

Five or six days a week, Richard and Kerry each buy $10 of gas to get through another shift delivering Maui Wowie and Grizzly Gulch pizzas to hungry customers in eastern Salt Lake County. That's about $250 to $300 in gas a month, or $3,000 to $3,600 a year.

Although they're reimbursed 50 cents for each trip, during an average delivery the past few weeks, they've burned up $1 of fuel, says Richard. "Do the math — it's ugly," he says. "And it's even worse if somebody gives you a lousy tip. Life's pretty hard right now on the pizza guy."

Hoping to pass along the importance of keeping pizzas on tables and tips in their pockets, Richard and Kerry let me tag along with them on a few deliveries last week. With phones ringing for Widowmakers (ham, salami, pepperoni, sausage and beef) and Cajun Queens (shrimp, sausage and roasted peppers), the pair were too busy to stop for a Free Lunch.

"To make enough money, you have to keep going," says Kerry, who moonlights as an extra for the television series "Everwood" when he isn't delivering pizzas.

"From the White House to the crack house, we'll deliver anywhere," he says, grinning. "But it's the poor people who tip. They've been there."

For some reason, says Richard, the higher he drives up the hill, the smaller the tips become. "Rich people who live above Wasatch Boulevard are always giving cheap tips," he says.

"Two bucks isn't a good tip anymore — not in this economy. People leave better tips in a restaurant, and here we are, bringing the restaurant to their door. For a pizza guy like me to make it, a tip really should be $3 or more."

If the price of gas soars to $4 a gallon, he and Kerry doubt they'll continue making pizza runs.

"Where would America be without us?" asks Kerry, who resembles a young Jack Nicholson with his wrap-around shades, receding hairline and crooked smile.

"The pizza guy performs a crucial job. But every day, we're at the gas pump. I don't know how much longer it can go on."

Richard, a soft-spoken man with dark blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, delivers his pizzas in a car with 152,000 miles on the odometer and a large paint sprayer stuffed in the back seat. "It's from my second job, painting cars," he says. "And my third job is at a catalog company."

He points to his car's ashtray, overflowing with cigarette butts. "A sign of my stress," he says. "I've been trying to quit, but it's been a tough year for me. I could really use some good tips."

He pulls up to a trailer park in Murray to deliver a ham-and-mushroom pizza for $15.97. The grateful man at the door writes out a check for $18, leaving Richard a $2.03 tip.

"OK," Richard says later with a sigh, "so at least I made $1. That's something, at least." He looks at his gas gauge, dipping toward empty.

"I hope I make it through the shift," he says, heading back for another delivery. "I wonder when the executives in the oil companies are going to start taking it out of their wages. You can bet they don't tip."


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.