Few things are as synonymous with life at the University of Kansas as Pizza Shuttle.
It’s a go-to for college students (many intoxicated) at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night — and the hours reflect this, as it’s open until 3 a.m. on weekends. Its logo, four red arrows around the words “Pizza Shuttle delivers,” is circled by blue text: “A Lawrence Tradition since 1984.”
Pizza Shuttle spawned the shuttle drop, which is a sort of ritual among students who order the cheap pie at 2 a.m. Here’s what Urban Dictionary says about shuttle drops:
“Essentially, after purchasing said pizza, one leaves it in the box, flips it over, and drops the pizza on the floor. The pizza is then picked up, and the inside of the box is examined. The grease that was once on the pizza has now been soaked up by the cardboard.”
There’s three in Norman, Oklahoma, which is home to the University of Oklahoma. There’s another at Kansas State, and then one more in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. None of them are associated by anything more than name, though five of the six Shuttles share a similar logo.
But what is maybe most curious about Pizza Shuttle, is their commitment to only cash and checks. For years the owner Bill Longmire has considered adding a pay with card option to the restaurant, but has instead opted for a more low-cost operation, with a focus on his staff.
The Kansan sat down with Longmire to talk about why cards haven’t been added as a payment method and how his historic restaurant is perceived by the Lawrence community.
How did Pizza Shuttle start in Lawrence?
Someone else started it in August of 1984. They had it for 18 years and we bought it in 2002. We were looking for a business to buy. I was 48 at the time and worked for larger corporations and just wanted a change of pace. I had been traveling coast to coast for 15 to 20 years and was running out of gas … I was constantly in an airport constantly traveling and I didn’t want to do that. My kids were small and I didn’t want to participate in it anymore. It took a few years to find a business that was fundamentally sound … (Pizza Shuttle’s) books were clean so we bought it.
Has it been that escape for you, in a sense?
It’s been exactly what we wanted it to be, and in many respects more. The trajectory has been positive since day one. There have been challenges, but there are always challenges.
The challenges are the same in whatever business you’re in. You’ve got your cost of doing business, hard goods, but the other issue is always going to be personnel. In that respect, we’ve been pretty fortunate as far as people. We decided a long time ago that we wanted to try to do some things a little differently than small businesses have in the past. Long before Obamacare, we tried to put in a group health insurance years ago … Now our policy is grandfathered, it predates Obamacare, and it’s written exactly the way it was originally with a few exceptions.
We don’t make money off of it. We did it because it was the right thing to do. One of the side effects of it is, it’s an incentive for the employees you want to keep to stay.
And in turn has that made employees want to stay?
We don’t worry about anything other than can the employee do the job or not. We couldn’t care less about any of the other smoke or fire that circles around society anymore. We don’t really give a shit. All we can really do is get up every day and do the best we can.
In many respects — and if you asked most of the people who have been there for a while, they’ll tell you — it’s very much like a family atmosphere. That phrase gets tossed around, but we have one guy who has been working there, literally since day one in 1984. We’ve got people who have been here for 10, 15, 20 years. That kind of surprises a lot of people. How often do you go to fast food restaurants and see the same face over and over again?
I know that in the past you were somewhat adverse to technology, but the store takes orders from a handful of places online. How have you incorporated technology into your store?
We have a website, we do get orders from the website. We also have mobile apps for iOS and Android. Technology has changed everything, in a big way, and it’s going to keep changing, It always has.
But we’re not technology driven. If you walk in the store today, it will look very much like it looked years ago. The sales trajectory has continued to be positive. The Pizza Shuttle brand, whether you like it or don’t like it, everybody knows it. And people tend to like it more than they don’t like it. Is it perfect? No. Do we make mistakes? Yes. In the end, when all is said and done, look at the results all the way back from day one, everything has been pretty positive.
It’s hard for a business to survive 33 years if they provide a bad service and product consistently. We survived because, as a general rule, we have done that in its entirety. Businesses don’t survive by producing, for as long as Pizza Shuttle has, by producing garbage.
So you guys have kept up with technology to an extent, but why don’t you guys take cards outside of Beak ‘Em Bucks?
We’ve always had a strong affiliation with KU. We were asked to participate in the program and we did. Credit cards are a little different because you get back to value. We’ve tried, and this is a sticking point for us: to keep prices as low as we can because so many college students depend on companies like ours. If you go into McDonald’s and get a value meal, how much will that cost?
Probably six or seven bucks, now.
Yeah, you’re going to spend that for a value meal at McDonald’s. For us, you’re spending five bucks including tax, you got a 10-inch one-topping pizza and a drink, and you’re done. That’s it.
If we start taking credit cards, all of a sudden you’re looking at some exorbitant fees. It changes the equation a great deal. It’s a lot more than what the credit card company is charging you for the transaction itself … All of a sudden you’re looking at fairly hefty costs just to accept credits cards.
If somebody walked in and said we’re going to let you do credit cards and you’re not going to change your costs or anything, we’d probably do it. But unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way. It’s always a cost analysis … In the current scheme of things it doesn’t add enough value.
You run the risk of losing an order, but that doesn’t mean you lose a customer. They’ll still place the order next time, they’ll just have cash or a check ready.
It’s a constant dilemma, because cards are becoming more prevalent and everything does have an impact. We have kicked this around every year for 15 years, and the previous owners did exactly the same.
Do you think it ultimately affects the amount of people coming in when they’re looking for somewhere to eat?
So far, we have never seen that. Could it happen? We never take anything for granted. We certainly don’t take our customers for granted, the market for granted, or our competitors for granted. Every restaurant is technically a competitor … you have a choice every time you go out, where you’re going to spend your money? Do I think it precludes us from being chosen as a place to go? It’s really hard for me to gauge that because I have not seen a tremendous drop off in sales.
For a lot of people, if you saw this a couple of times, you might get a feel for it, because I did not when I first got there: There are people coming back to Lawrence — they might sometimes live in Kansas City — and they come back to Pizza Shuttle and they say, “My god, it’s still the same.” And it is the same, and it always will be the same. Muncher’s is the same and always will be the same. It’s kind of like old Lawrence. It’s a little bit iconic. It’s a different kind of place, it’s just a different place.