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Pizza's on the Way--But It Might Be in a Blue 'Squad' Car Soon

August 23, 1986|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

Hold the pepperoni. The great pizza-car caper appears to be over.

After months of squabbling, a compromise of sorts has been reached in the tussle between state lawmakers and a San Diego pizza entrepreneur over his restaurant's delivery vehicles, which look like police squad cars.

Under the agreement, Daniel Crotta, owner of New York Pizza Department in San Diego, will be able to use his cars if they're repainted and modified so that they can't be confused with patrol cars used by the San Diego Police Department.

On Friday, the state Senate voted, 36-0, to approve legislation that prohibits look-alike squad cars that are the same color as a local jurisdiction's patrol cars. The bill allows the use of light bars atop cars, but prohibits the use of blue, red or amber lights such as those on actual police cruisers.

"Everyone is happy," said Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista), who has shepherded the bill through the Legislature. "The San Diego police, the CHP, Crotta, everybody."

Although the legislation still has several steps to go before it reaches Gov. George Deukmejian's desk, Crotta said he is pleased with the progress that is being made and confident that his dilemma will soon be over.

"It's very encouraging," Crotta said Friday after hearing of the Senate vote. "I can't see any problems now. But, to be honest, I couldn't see any problems from the beginning."

Indeed, when Crotta first came up with the idea of the delivery vehicles dressed up as squad cars to go along with the law enforcement motif of his restaurant, he thought it would be little more than a great advertising and promotional gimmick.

Not so. Soon after the restaurant's white car with distinctive "NYPD" insignia hit the streets late last year, San Diego police officials became concerned that it might be confused with their own squad cars. Police officials said they received complaints from confused citizens who saw the pizza car.

Eager for a solution, police asked state lawmakers to adopt legislation making it illegal to equip a car to look like a patrol vehicle.

Peace took up the cause, pushing the original bill through the Assembly in May. As written then, the legislation proposed making it illegal to equip non-police cars with light bars designed to resemble those on police vehicles, even if the lights do not work.

At that point, Crotta says he felt like a pizza-making David pitted against a very formidable Goliath.

"Here we were, one small business that's come up with a creative idea, and the entire California Legislature came down on us in an effort to shut down our most-effective way of advertising," he said. "In reality, how much could this one little outfit have been hurting?"

Nonetheless, the scuffle became something of a mixed blessing for Crotta. Newspapers began covering the fight blow-by-blow. Time magazine ran a short article on the episode. Even People magazine got into the act, giving Crotta a two-page spread in its Aug. 4 issue.

All the media attention, Crotta acknowledges, amounted to a whole lot of free advertising for his firm, something that has proved important as he attempts to expand into a national chain. Currently, the pizza firm has new restaurants under construction in Pacific Beach, Hillcrest and the Los Angeles area, with plans in the works for franchises in Phoenix and San Francisco, Crotta said.

"We weren't expecting it," Crotta said Friday. "It was very good publicity. Still, we were most concerned about losing our squad cars."

On four separate occasions, Crotta traveled to Sacramento to talk with Peace and other lawmakers in an effort to achieve some sort of compromise that would prove palatable to all concerned.

He even tried enlisting the aide of the state's private security firms, many of which have cars outfitted to look like police vehicles. The move, however, backfired somewhat. The security firms rose up against the legislation, Crotta said, but refused to include his restaurant, arguing instead for a specific amendment that exempted their vehicles from the effects of the proposed law.

Finally, last week all parties involved agreed to the changes, which allowed Crotta to keep the distinctive light bars atop his cars but required that he change the colors of the vehicles dramatically enough so that they cannot be mistaken for squad cars.

Crotta said he plans to paint the firm's fleet of three vehicles--the original one plus two more now on order--the same color as patrol cruisers used by New York police: bright blue with white doors and roof.

While the bill provided some of the most lighthearted moments during this year's legislative session, Peace said it turned out to be one of the most difficult he has ever handled.

Even before the compromise was reached last week, the bill had been amended five times. Each time it was changed, Peace said some other special interest--from funeral home operators to private security firms--would raise new, legitimate concerns.

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