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The Thin Red Line 

Domino's thinks twice about limiting delivery to a minority neighborhood.

Following an inquiry from Gambit Weekly, a Domino's Pizza franchise is reconsidering its refusal to deliver after 5 p.m. in a predominantly African-American neighborhood adjacent to one of its Kenner stores. Greg Magee, regional operations manager for RPM Pizza Inc., said last week that the two-year-old restriction would "probably be lifted, perhaps as early as this weekend."

Magee and representatives from the chain's national headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich., insist delivery limits or outright bans are imposed solely to ensure the safety of its drivers. Nevertheless, Domino's and its competitors have been dogged in recent years by charges that the practice of redlining sometimes discriminates against black and Hispanic customers.

Two years ago, parent firm Domino's Pizza LLC signed a consent agreement with the United States Department of Justice, which was investigating the 1998 case of a North Carolina pizza customer who claimed she was denied delivery because of her race. The investigation was dropped and Domino's agreed to abide by a uniform procedure when establishing any restricted-delivery zone.

At the Fair Housing Action Center Inc. in New Orleans, counsel Stacy Seicshnaydre says although she has heard anecdotes about restaurant-delivery redlining, she does not know of any local case that resulted in legal action. Local and national experts agree such allegations are difficult to pursue because of the dearth of case law on the subject and the legitimacy of employers' worker-safety concerns.

The Kenner case stands out because the store, on Veterans Memorial Boulevard near Williams Boulevard, abuts the area its managers had determined unsafe. (Domino's chief national rival, Pizza Hut Inc., and two other restaurants deliver in the area.) Recently, a resident who lives three blocks from the Domino's store was denied home delivery. Asked point-blank whether the restriction was due to the neighborhood's racial composition, an assistant manager angrily denied any discrimination and accused the caller of racism.

"We don't base this on race," says Magee, who oversees 51 restaurants for the franchise. "We want to sell pizzas to as many people as we can."

According to Magee, the ban on night deliveries was triggered by the theft of a pizza on 27th Street, which runs several blocks behind the Domino's. As required by the company's agreement with the Justice Department, the store manager then asked the company's regional security officer to step in. Magee said last week he has not found documentation of violence involving drivers in the area. Based on company records, employees had been worried about inadequate lighting, heavy foot traffic and dead-end streets in the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is a stretch of brick single-family homes and duplexes, dotted by multi-unit, residential and commercial properties. Not included in the restricted area are neighboring residential streets -- some with mixed-race populations, some predominantly occupied by African Americans -- including a group of dead-end roads with numerous overgrown, vacant lots. Domino's also does not restrict delivery to a Days Inn or to several other nearby motels.

"A certain amount of such restrictions are due to caving in to what the driver wants on the part of the manager," says Washington D.C. lawyer John P. Relman, who has represented plaintiffs in widely publicized racial discrimination cases against the Denny's restaurant chain and Avis Rent A Car. "Something in a low-income area triggers a stereotype -- it may be conscious, it may be unconscious. In any of these delivery cases, it's difficult to prove."

The local franchise's decision seems to have been influenced by the Kenner Police Department. In fact, according to Magee, based on advice from drug enforcement officers, Domino's expanded the restricted zone to cover two more streets, Augusta and Dawson. "If the cops told me there were known drug dealings, that's all it would take for me to restrict delivery," says the regional manager.

A Police Department spokesman referred a reporter's request for neighborhood crime statistics to Kenner's chief of police, who had not responded as of press time.

Magee now says the store will probably resume night deliveries. He says a police officer has informed him that drug activity is no longer concentrated on those streets -- although Magee says he was warned that it is still considered a "minor crime area." Such a re-evaluation is standard procedure whenever Domino's receives a customer query about delivery policy, adds Magee. Domino's declined to provide a list of other restricted delivery zones in the New Orleans area.

In Annapolis, Md., cab driver Robert Eades is familiar with cases like these. In 1995, Eades, then a public housing resident, had promised his sons pizza and Chinese food when he found out the restaurants didn't deliver to his home. Eades launched a boycott of Domino's and other restaurants, eventually convincing the City Council to prohibit new eateries from restricting delivery service.

"People everywhere need to start refusing to spend their capital in these places," Eades says today. "Let them know you expect equal treatment. Make them sit up and pay attention."

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