Delivering pizza in Pennsylvania's wide-open places

Ryan Clark, 18, of Emporium, Cameron County, delivers pizzas in his truck on April 21, 2018

A squirrel tail dark as coal whipped about on the antenna as the purple pickup truck hauled pizza up a mountain around dinner time.

Paved road gave way to gravel. To the left, a creek rushed downhill and homes appeared, sparingly, between bare trees. Someone up here was hungry, waiting for a hot pie, and every piston in Ryan Clark’s $500 Ford Ranger was chugging up a steep grade to get it there.

The pies were outside, in the bed of Clark’s truck, but only because a reporter was riding shotgun.

“My old car was a Honda Accord, and that had a gray squirrel tail on the antenna,” Clark, 18, said on the road. “They’re a lot more common.”

While major chains like Domino’s Pizza look to incorporate driverless delivery cars, and retail giants Walmart and Amazon plot creative ways to get groceries onto doorsteps, delivering pizza in rural Pennsylvania can still mean unmarked roads, cellphone dead zones, and — wham!— a deer or, God forbid, an elk obliterating the hood.

Marlene Smith, co-owner of Pizza Palace Plus in Emporium, Cameron County, said she normally delivers in a 15-mile radius. In Pennsylvania’s most rural county, 15 miles from town can get pretty wild. Cameron County’s population is just 4,735, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We’ll deliver pizzas out to the [shale] gas wells,” Smith said on a busy Saturday last month. “We get a lot of snow, and we’ve got a Jeep with four-wheel drive.”

Camera icon Jason Nark
Pizza Palace Plus has a Jeep to deliver pies to hard-to-reach destinations.

Domino’s Pizza has a hard rule about delivery: The destination needs to be a nine-minute drive or less from the store. There’s no Domino’s in Emporium.

“It works the same for all of our stores, regardless of where they are (city, suburban or rural),” spokeswoman Jenny Fouracre-Petko said in an email.

Mama Zanella’s Italian Style Pizza is served in a gas station mini-mart in Butler County that also sells live bait. Thick French bread slices are $3 apiece under a heat lamp, but Mama doesn’t deliver. In the scenic town of Brockway, on the Toby Creek in Jefferson County, the owner of Paesano Pizza said he was “too old” to deliver pizza and also “too old” to be in business anymore.

Most pizza parlors have a surcharge for delivery, and some of that gets passed to the driver. At Don’s Pizza, “famous since 1994” in St. Marys, Elk County, delivery surcharges range from  $1.65 to $3. The drivers get to keep a dollar, plus any tips they receive.

It pays to have a fuel-efficient car, but four-wheel drive can help in the winter.

“We’ll go out to Bucktail and farther out that way into Kersey or down south into 255,” employee Greg Carroll, 20, said.

Camera icon Jason Nark
Greg Carroll, an employee of Don’s Pizza in St. Marys, Elk County, points to the delivery map.

West of Harrisburg, Fox’s Pizza Den has dozens of locations that deliver in rural stretches of Pennsylvania, along with West Virginia and Ohio. Founder Jim Fox said he started pizza delivery in Pittsburgh in 1974 with a makeshift hot box he bolted into a Volkswagen van. Fox said his locations try to stick to a four-mile radius but everyone deserves pizza,  he said, even in the “godforsaken places.”

“Farmhouses, cabins, we like to hit these rural towns and help the average person,” Fox said.

“I leave it up to the discretion of the drivers. We’ll never put them in harm’s way. If they feel they can get there, they’ll deliver pizza. ”

Clark’s first two deliveries were to a factory and a newer split-level home in a small housing development. If the delivery is in town, the restaurant charges $1. Out of town, it’s $2.

Both customers told him to keep the change, and Clark called them both “ma’am.”

Clark’s a senior at Cameron County High School and has already enlisted in the Army, so he’ll have to quit come summer. He likes to hunt — for everything — and was fishing before he showed up for his Saturday shift. He once hit a coyote while delivering pizza.

“I love it out here,” he said.

Clark lives a “stone’s throw” from Pizza Palace Plus, so the job made sense. Saturday nights are busy, and while the restaurant doesn’t promise delivery times, Clark said he gets there “pretty fast.”

The third delivery is up the hill and proving tricky. Clark passes his football coach on the hill, but he wasn’t the one who ordered this last pie. Up above, it’s more woods.

“I think we went too far,” Clark said. “That’s how it goes sometimes. A little human error in the delivery.”

The home, it turns out, was at the bottom of the hill.