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Road Rules

Driving delivery can be a wild ride

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People who bring food to strangers see the world from a special angle. I discovered that when my boyfriend delivered pizza for a living. Some experiences still haunt James, he says — like one frequent customer who was so obese he had to bring her the pie in bed. He nearly called child services more than once on families who engaged in questionable behavior right in front of him. There were also funny incidents with customers, such as the woman celebrating her divorce who told James that she was checking him out “because I can.”

For many drivers, the job is a way to earn their keep — and collect crazy anecdotes — while pursuing a degree or an artistic profession. But for Patrick Kompf of 863-TOGO, a restaurant delivery service based in Burlington, it’s a full-time venture. His seven drivers deliver to all of Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski, and to much of Colchester. This March, Kompf plans to open MealZip.com, which will bring food to Essex, the Malletts Bay area and Williston.

Kompf’s business model is unique in the Burlington area. As orders come in, he contacts the restaurant with the customer’s wishes and alerts the independently contracted drivers via phone or text. The drivers pick up the food, deliver it, and call Kompf to let him know they’re ready for the next assignment. Since most orders are made by credit card, generally the only cash that changes hands is the driver’s tip. Restaurants are paid monthly for the meals they have sold, and 863-TOGO keeps a portion.

To the restaurant, the service may sound like wholesaling, but Kompf says he has an array of eatery clients for a reason. “If they weren’t making money, restaurants wouldn’t use our service. It’s all incremental sales to these businesses. It’s a sale they would not otherwise have received.”

Owen Hoppe, owner of Burlington’s New Ethic Café, says his restaurant subscribes to the service because “it’s like free advertising.” New Ethic, which has no website of its own, posts its menu on 863-TOGO.com. Other restaurants, such as M-Saigon and Silver Palace, also take advantage of the free web space element of the deal.

Kompf runs 863-TOGO from his home — along with grocery delivery and premium-food-shipping services, and a gag website called Woody Bob’s that purports to sell gray squirrel meat and provides recipes for preparing the “varmints.” On the day I visit, his only office mates are Mama and Sam, two bearded dragons. “They’re lovers,” says Kompf. “He thinks she’s a booty call.”

It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday, and Kompf has already received a couple of calls from people who think 863-TOGO is a place where they can pick up food. When he explains that he runs a delivery service, they hang up. Actual customers are more likely to arrive electronically, he says: “Even if it’s the weekend and we’re really busy, the phone hardly ever rings because most of our orders are online.” Kompf only has four drivers on the road right now — the dinner rush doesn’t start till 5, when workers return home and students to their dorms. To drive up business during the slower hours, Kompf often offers early-bird specials.

A former driver for now-defunct Four Star Delivery Express, Kompf started his own company in 2005. For three years, he’s run the business alone. He refuses to employ anyone else as the dispatcher unless an emergency arises, saying, “If I’m working, I know shit’s gonna get done.”

By now it is 5, and time for shit to start getting done in earnest. Jacob Smith, who’s driven for 863-TOGO for four years, has invited me to go on the road with him this evening. We get into his Chevy Blazer, and Smith slowly maneuvers the beast out of the narrow Old North End alley.

We head just up the road to New Ethic Café, a vegan establishment known for its faux BLTs and “Soul Food Plate.” As we enter, Smith remarks, “The funny thing about them is wondering what exactly you are delivering. If [customers] order ‘BBQ chicken,’ what are they getting?”

While we wait at a counter, Smith — who says patience is a virtue in his position — shows me a text he’s received from Kompf, specifying the customer’s name, address, phone number and order. (When a restaurant is fax equipped, he gets the info that way, instead.) Smith has hit his profession’s pay dirt: He is picking up two deliveries from New Ethic at once, saving him a trip.

Back in the car, I ask Smith if he has any amusing stories of his travels or travails. At first, he claims the only things worth reporting are the strange driving behaviors he observes in his hours on the road.

Suddenly, he brightens. “It’s cool when people are having sex and you can totally tell. It’s always the woman hurrying down with the robe, a little red in the face, saying, ‘Oh, we forgot you were coming!’”

A recent Champlain College graduate, clean-cut Smith may not seem like the average delivery guy. When he began at 863-TOGO, he was working in his chosen field as a social worker. Of his strange trajectory he says, “I’m kind of a night owl. From a philosophical standpoint, I figure I have the rest of my life to work a day job. I have a lot of friends who work in restaurants, so socially it makes sense for me.” The skis in his car point to another motive for his hesitation to do the 9-to-5 thing.

Our next stop is Kountry Kart, where once again Smith picks up meals for two different customers. Right now, his in-car entertainment is a discussion of evolution on Vermont Public Radio. “I usually open with some NPR until 7; then after that I go with music,” he says. “If it’s slow and I need a pick-me-up, I’ll listen to Toots and the Maytals or Sam Cooke, something soulful like that.” For much of the ride we listen to Muddy Waters.

Smith says his social-services background can sometimes complicate his job — when he finds himself wishing he could give customers a bit of counseling. “I’m pretty good at recognizing Section 8 housing,” he says. “Picking up seven hot dogs and five burgers and a ton of fries, and I go in and there are all these little kids running around — it’s distressing. I want to tell them, ‘Spend that money on a week’s food instead of gorging for one night.’”

But those takeout binges help keep Kompf’s venture afloat. He says business is up from last year. Smith agrees, adding, “You wouldn’t necessarily think delivery driver would be a recession-proof job, but so far it has been. People need to eat.” Kompf estimates that 60 percent of his customers are in college, which he suspects accounts for the ongoing boom: “A lot of the UVM kids use their parents’ money. The economy doesn’t affect them.”

When gas prices went wild last summer, “people said I should get a moped,” Smith says. “I said, ‘What do you do with soups and sauces? And pizza, if it tips, you’ve got pizza soup.’” While Smith doesn’t like to keep tabs on his mileage, he offsets the strain on his SUV by alternating it with a 1994 Crown Victoria. Both have traveled well over 100,000 miles.

We head from Shalimar of India to the Ho-Hum Motel in South Burlington, where Smith delivers to a man confined to his room while recovering from a serious injury. The room smells medicinal, auguring our next route — from downtown’s Bueno y Sano to the hospital. The phlebotomist who picks up his order tells me 863-TOGO is a godsend during the late shift.

It’s not always that easy, admits Smith. When he enters a stranger’s home, he never knows just what he’ll find. “I walked into someone’s living room that was clearly a drug-selling operation. That’s the kind of situation where you just waltz on,” he says. He has to be prepared to meet sketchy characters, too, like the time he “knocked on the door and this six-four skinhead came to the door with a 7-inch swastika on his chest. I’m German-Irish, so I think I looked OK to him.”

Smith writes fiction, and he says stories from his nights on the road have seeped into his work. As our ride-along ends, I ask him to sum up what delivering food has taught him. He thinks for a long beat before venturing, “You can’t really quantify, ‘This is the biggest lesson I learned,’ but experientially, every day you gain something new. I’m a keen people watcher, anyway. It’s interesting to see the difference between people in their homes and people in hotels. You get to literally peer into the world people make for themselves.”

What I noticed that night was the glowing faces. The college students (who reeked of pot, according to Smith), the invalid, the phlebotomist. They all smiled as Smith handed them their Rise and Shiner, curry or burrito. This man was bringing them sustenance and a reminder that even strangers can share a brief spark of human connection, and they were grateful.

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