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The Nation

Pizza joint takes pesos -- and abuse

The promotion has brought the Southwest chain with a largely Latino base a torrent of hate mail and threats.

March 06, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

When Dallas-based Pizza Patron began accepting Mexican pesos in January, the company's goal was to sell more pizza to its largely Latino customer base -- not join the national debate on illegal immigration.

But when the company's action attracted national attention, it was deluged with hate mail, including death threats, which continues to this day.

Wal-Mart and other retailers in towns along the U.S.-Mexico border accept pesos, but Pizza Patron has been criticized by anti-illegal immigration groups because many of its restaurants are far from the border. "Go back to Mexico, if you love pesos so much," read one of the milder e-mails sent to the company.

At the pizza chain's 59 outlets across the Southwest, the promotion was initially considered a success: Pesos were used in 10% to 15% of sales.

That number has dropped to 5% to 10% in recent weeks and "we think it's going to trickle off quite a bit over time," company spokesman Andy Gamm said. He thinks customers are paying for pizza with pesos left over from holiday visits to Mexico. When their Mexican money is gone, they switch to dollars.

The experiment in pesos was to end in February, but the company announced Monday that it has been extended through April. "We want a better sense of what percentage of sales is going to be represented [by pesos]," Gamm said. "This could become a seasonal program, timed to coincide with family trips to Mexico" during the holidays or summer vacation.

Jean Towell, president of Citizens for Immigration Reform, based in Dallas, said the initial outcry was an "emotional reaction" to the idea of using foreign currency in the United States.

"What they're doing isn't illegal ... but I do believe that American coinage should be used no matter what," she said. "I just think it's a bad P.R. move as far as Americans go. He [Pizza Patron president Antonio Swad] is not reaching out to people that are a little bit disgusted with illegal immigration.... I haven't been [to Pizza Patron], but if I was faced with it, I wouldn't go."

Gamm said that despite the controversy, the promotion has been a boon to the company. In January and February, sales were up more than 35% compared with the same period last year. "We think that's due in large part because of the program," he said.

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lianne.hart@latimes.com

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