January 1, 2011 |

2011 January: Let it Snow

By Alyson McNutt English

When the weather outside is frightful, the pizza delivery business can be anything but delightful. Forecasts of rain, sleet, snow, hail and sub-zero temperatures can mean trouble for delivery drivers, but these weather events (when handled appropriately) can also beef up your restaurant’s bottom line.

The first step in properly managing bad-weather delivery is having a plan, says Joe Crowley, owner of Pisa Pizza in Malden, Massachusetts. “You’ve got to go back to your Boy Scout motto –– be prepared,” he explains.

For Pisa Pizza, bad-weather training isn’t just for delivery drivers. The inside staff knows weather incidents mean extra drivers coming in, more pizza to produce and less margin for error. “I tell my inside people we can’t drop the ball, because it’s slow enough on the street (with bad weather) and those drivers need us inside working hard to make sure that food is made quickly and correctly,” Crowley says.

Crowley’s drivers do have training, too: three three-hour shifts, in fact. “In the first three hours, we address inclement weather,” he explains. “We talk about driving and weather gear. You can’t just assume people understand something, and sometimes if you don’t tell somebody they’ve got to have gear, they’ll show up in sneakers in a slush or snowstorm.”

Training is critical, but so is equipment. Crowley’s Boston-area store is equipped with the usual winter-weather gear –– snow blowers, shovels, salt barrels. But that’s not all. Worried about customer and driver safety on his property, he decided to invest in a snow plow for his truck. “Sometimes I’m out at 3 or 4 a.m. making sure my parking lot is clear,” he says. “I can get the whole lot cleaned up before we open.”

Even if your restaurant prides itself on quick delivery, it’s important drivers understand bad weather means they can quit watching the clock and keep all eyes trained squarely on the road.

Customers usually understand … as long as you tell them about the delay when they order, says Mark Gold, co-owner of Pizza Shuttle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “A lot of times the people taking the orders are so used to repeating the same phrase over and over –– saying ‘it will be 35 to 40 minutes’ –– that we have to make sure they tell people when we know that it’s going to be more like an hour,” he says. “If people know ahead of time, they understand. It’s when they think it’s going to be half an hour and it turns out to be an hour that you run into problems and angry customers.”

Keeping up-to-date on technology trends will help you better communicate with customers as well. Gold says Pizza Shuttle is getting an updated Web site soon; part of the reason is they wanted more flexibility on the landing page. “When there’s a big storm, we’ll be able to put a notice on the site saying ‘Hey, we’re open today!’ or ‘Because of weather conditions, delivery is taking an hour,’” Gold says. The restaurant has also hired a company to manage its social media presence, and they plan on using Facebook, FourSquare and Twitter not only for marketing, but also to alert customers to weather-related closings, changes in hours or delivery delays.

No matter how much of a Weather Channel junky you are, it’s inevitable that unexpected weather will cause some problems for your delivery business. The floods that drenched Milwaukee this past year are a bizarre example of this. “It was crazy, it just happened so quickly,” Gold says.

Even Gold couldn’t get to Pizza Shuttle that day because of high water, and he had no idea what roads were passable for his drivers. But instead of closing, he leaned on one of his most trusted employees. Gold called his top driver and asked him to manage inside the store. “I told him if he needs to stop delivering, then to do it,” he says.

Instead, his driver came up with his own plan: He would take 45 orders at a time. After that, he quit taking orders until all 45 of those pizzas were delivered. Then he would take 45 more.

“I probably would have just closed,” Gold says. “But he came up with this, and it worked.”

Crowley says one advantage he has over the competition is his willingness to play the weather by ear. “Lots of places will see a bad forecast and just go ahead and tell everyone to stay home; they’re not going to open that day,” he says. “I tell everyone to prepare like we’re going to be open. That way if a blizzard misses us or isn’t as bad as expected, we’re ready. Sometimes we’re the only game in town that’s open, and we have a very busy day.”

No matter how prepared you are, how well you communicate delays or how much business you could be getting, sometimes you really do just have to stop delivery because of the weather. “I tell the drivers, hey, you go until you don’t feel safe, then you let me know,” Crowley says. “I get a lot of feedback that tips are very good when the weather is bad, so they want to deliver. If they say they can’t do it anymore because they don’t feel safe, I listen.”

TIP: Consider using Facebook, Foursquare or Twitter to tell your customers about any changes or interruptions in delivery.


Are you sure you’re insured?

It’s important to be properly insured no matter what the weather, but slick roads and poor visibility increase the likelihood of car accidents for everyone. Are you protected?

Non-owner auto liability policies are an absolute must for restaurants that send employees to deliver. If you’re trying to skirt this by paying drivers as 1099 independent contractors, you’re skating on thin ice — if someone sues because of an auto accident, you can still be held liable in court.

At Pisa Pizza, owner Joe Crowley has an accountability system in place to ensure his drivers are always on the right side of insurance law. Thanks to a POS system that tracks his drivers’ insurance, if they lose their coverage or have some other paperwork problem, the computer won’t even allow them to punch into work until it’s addressed.

Alyson McNutt English is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in home, health, family and green topics. She is based in Huntsville, Alabama.