Politics and the art of selling pizza
“If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircles us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.”
--- Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
When I agreed not to write about politics, what was I thinking?
I didn’t realize how hard it would be to avoid it; I feel like a guy on a diet who works in a pizza joint and gets a free pizza at the end of every shift. Actually that was my first entrepreneurial experience. While in college at UMass, I found myself running low on funds first semester of freshman year, so to make ends meet decided to sell beer and cigarettes from under my bed and buy boxes of unsold, hot pizza from the nearby “Bell’s Pizza” to sell “door-to-door.”
The drinking age was 18 and I had just turned 18 as November came and my money for first semester was dwindling. Old Milwaukee beer was $5 a case, and cartons of cigarettes about $3.50, which allowed me to break them up and sell my beer for $2 a six-pack and cigarettes for 50 cents a pack, making for a nifty profit. I would buy product on Thursday night after my pizza-selling and it would be gone by the end of the weekend. It was an easy way to make some fun money.
The pizza-selling was another story; Papa Bell would front the pizzas and let us keep 20 percent of what we sold. I would load my VW Beetle with a huge cardboard box with 15 to 25 hot cheese pizzas and then hit the dorms. When I walked in one Friday night to cure the midnight munchies, I saw the help-wanted sign and the rest is history. I was assigned the area called Southwest; it consisted of at least a dozen dorms with five of them “hi-risers” with 22 stories of hungry students waiting for the pizza man to stroll down their hallway yelling “Bell’s Pizza ... Bell’s Pizza.” I was told Southwest is more densely populated than Manhattan.
The pizzas in the box insulated each other and kept each other hot while I made the rounds. I carefully planned my route, taking the elevator to the top of a dorm to work my way down.
I learned about human nature, selling techniques and how nasty people could be.
The first week I realized that out of the six pizza boys, I usually had the most or second-most sales each evening as we counted out and paid Papa Bell while making our free loaded pizza to bring home. Sometimes I shared my pizza with my roommate with a cup of coffee (in college I could eat a pizza at midnight and douse it with a coffee and still sleep like a baby). Other times, if pressed for cash, or full from my snacks of condiments munched on during my “buys” – I would usually come back to the shop at least twice during the night, selling anywhere from 45 to 60 pizzas on average, I would sell my free one to someone in my dorm.
I figured (correctly) that my large number of sales was because I was handed Southwest, which was the most densest dorm area on campus and included James House, which housed all the football players; they would buy pizza no matter what time I showed up. It could be a half-hour after dinner or close to midnight.
When I asked a fellow pizza seller why no one had taken this prime territory when it came up for grabs, he told me the guy before me got held up at knife-point, dropped all his pizzas and ran, never to return to Papa Bell’s Pizza joint again. I gulped, but it was too late. I needed the money.
I was never held up in my four years of selling pizza and the only time I brought pizza back to “Papa” was when in the James House I found myself with seven soaked pizzas after being caught in the crossfire of a water fight between the third and fourth floors. They decided that the pizza guy was a common target and forgot about their feud to give me a good old-fashioned dousing. “Papa” didn’t want me to quit, so he told me not to worry about the wet pizzas and didn’t charge me.
I did have students take a pizza and shut their door in my face without paying. Usually I stood there and their neighbors told them to open up and pay the poor pizza guy. I told them that they weren’t hurting Papa Bell, it was coming out of my hide and that I paid for the pizzas. I got a few propositions for “trade,” but, other than those seven soaked pizzas, never had one go unpaid-for.
People were rude quite often; they would mock me and slam doors, mad because I was interrupting their studies. I would bite my pizza box and spit out small wads of cardboard in the stairwells between floors. I could tell how frustrating my night was by my box at the end of the night; if I had a bad night, there would be a full semi-circle bite missing from the top of the box.
My best night was 120 pizzas; it was the night that Carlton Fisk hit the famous home run to win a World Series game deep into the night. I took a chance when they went into extra innings during game six and bought another 30 pizzas, the most that my box could fit. When the 12th inning ended with the walk-off blast by Fisk, I had luckily just sold my last one.
Often, when students saw me, they would look at each other and say; “Let’s get the pizza man,” and nothing would happen. But that night, mob mentality was in full force after the Fisk homer; there was pandemonium and people were throwing their furniture, and lit toilet paper, out their windows into the quad area below. When they looked at me and said, “Let’s get the pizza man,” I could see the look in their eyes was serious as they moved towards me. I high-tailed it back to my car, throwing my pizza box into the bonfire on my way out.
Of course Monday night football was new then and that was a great pizza-selling night.
I avoided the women’s dorms for the most part; where men would split a pizza and one roommate would pay me and the other would either say; “I’ll get the next one” or “I’ll pay you when we get back to the room,” the women would always have to get a third or fourth person and then they would all have to go back to their rooms to get 35 cents to pay me separately. They would tell me that they could never eat half a pizza (unless their boyfriend was paying). I avoided the women’s floors most nights, as my trickery wouldn’t work the way it did with the men.
My best sales trick was to tie my shoe; as I went down the hallways yelling “Bell’s Pizza” I noticed that when a door opened to buy a pizza (and I would stop yelling “Bells”), other doors would open. They wanted to see who was buying pizza and often two new doors opened and they would look at each other and say, “Want to split one,” and a sale was made. Stopping to tie my shoe may have been manipulating, but I learned that smart pizza boys went home with more cash.
But I digress. Wow, so this is how you avoid politics, the same way Mike Pence did during the vice presidential debate by answering every question thrown at him by Tim Kaine by going off on a tangent.
That was so easy, maybe I should be a politician.