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Dumpster Diving Pays Off in Pizzas

September 18, 1993|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The homeless of Santa Monica have been holding one fine string of pizza parties this summer, some right there on the City Hall lawn.

The host, the city's Pied Piper of Pizza, is Ron Taylor, a self-styled "dumpster diver" who ekes out a living scavenging through other people's discards. Thus did he discover how the rich folks often threw out Domino's delivery boxes that still contained coupons good for free pizzas, part of a summer promotion by the chain.

Then he decided to spread the wealth.

Collecting the discarded boxes from around Santa Monica and beyond, he began holding impromptu parties for his fellow homeless travelers: on street corners, in parks and on the City Hall lawn, where many camped out to protest a park closure law.

He ordered pizzas, as well, for some reclusive homeless women who shun food lines and normally dine on garbage from the dumpsters.

"I want to show there doesn't have to be a city or county government to help," said Taylor, a former Bakersfield truck driver whose luck turned sour after a 1985 accident. "We can all do it."

For a while it looked as if the party was over, however, when a local Domino's began balking at giving away a lot of free pizza to people who weren't, well, paying customers.

But this being Santa Monica, the city attorney's office was soon on the case, insisting that the homeless not be denied their free lunch, threatening lawsuits and even confronting Domino's with a precedent from pop culture--how its pizza was delivered to a sewer grate in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

It all began early in the summer, when Domino's started putting "Value Dots" on its pizza boxes, redeemable for a freebie the next time: Five dots got you a free medium pizza, seven dots a large pizza.

While tearing off and stockpiling the dots may have seemed too much trouble for the yuppie crowd, Taylor saw the potential right away. The trash from a single pizza party in Brentwood yielded 28 Value Dots.

"If they didn't choose to use them," he said, "I don't see why I can't."

Soon he had 100, he said, then--as the summer stretched on--as many as 500.

In the beginning, he had no trouble cashing in the dots he salvaged from other people's greasy pizza boxes. He usually went right into the Domino's at Lincoln and Pico boulevards and ordered his freebie.

Then Domino's balked. Taylor was told the Value Dots were only good for pizzas that were delivered.

No problem, Taylor figured. He and his friends started calling and asking that the goodies be delivered to the City Hall lawn, to phone booths and to street corners.

Domino's balked again. A store manager said company policy forbids delivery to such places because they pose a security risk for the drivers, many of whom have been set up for robberies. (The homeless were understandably not the best tippers, either.)

As Taylor saw it, the message was clear--that the slogan "Domino's delivers" applied only to those who have roofs over their heads.

In many towns, the story might have ended there. How could a few homeless men and women take on a major corporation, much less during the short life of a fast-food promotion?

But in Santa Monica, the city attorney's consumer protection section takes a complaint from a homeless person as seriously as a complaint from anyone else.

So when another homeless man, Earl Newman, couldn't get a delivery to the City Hall lawn with the free coupons, Taylor sent him up to the third floor offices.

Consumer protection attorney Kimery A. Shelton and her boss, Martin Tachiki, took up the cause. They told Domino's it was illegal to discriminate against a class of people, or to change the rules of a promotion in midstream merely because some unlikely consumers have the ingenuity--and need--to take advantage of it.

Tachiki, who saw the Ninja Turtle movie with his children, also reminded Domino's officials how they had come through in the popular film. Nevertheless, the local manager was initially resistant. "He felt it was unfair for him to have to give away free pizzas," Tachiki said.

But with a little more thought, Domino's capitulated, agreeing to deliver the pizzas to City Hall and to again allow homeless coupon-holders to pick up their freebies at the store. Deliveries to phone booths were still out, though.

"They're getting their pizza now," Domino's manager Kozo Nakagawa said one afternoon this week, before disappearing into the back of the store.

Later, officials at Domino's regional headquarters said they were sorry the Santa Monica coupon-holders had been denied their payoff for a while.

"Somewhere along the line, we dropped the ball," company official Jay Trimble said. "We had a chance to have excellent good will in Santa Monica. . . . I hope we can salvage it."

And what does he think of all those pizzas providing sustenance to the needy? "That's great," Trimble said.

As for Taylor, he's feverishly mining the dumpsters before the promotion expires at the end of the month. Last weekend alone, he got 60 Value Dots.

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