WEST TOWN — It wasn't the first time she'd been robbed, Connie said, but it was definitely the worst.
The Village Pizza delivery driver, who didn't want her last name published, had been called to a residential West Town street just after 9 p.m. on a recent Sunday, police confirmed.
As Connie drove up, two extra-large pizzas in tow, seven young men rushed the car, she said. They beat the 38-year-old mom repeatedly, yanked off her shoes, pulled down her pants and stole the pizzas — red delivery bag and all.
"They dragged me out of the car," Connie recalled last week, her eye still bruised and hands scraped. "I was fighting. They had my shoes off. One guy tried to take my car."
The men swore at her and told her, "We know you have the money. Give it to us now.'"
As several of the attackers rifled through her car, swiping two phones and a windshield scraper, others threatened to shoot her, Connie said. She never saw a gun, but handed over the roughly $50 she was carrying.
"They ran off laughing at me," she said.
Police arrested five of the seven later that night at a nearby building, court records show.
Edward Tart, 19, and Rashawn Mitchell, 18, were charged with aggravated robbery and held on $200,000 bail. Their attorney said they were students at West Town Academy.
Two other teens, ages 16 and 17, were also charged with aggravated robbery, police said. And a 16-year-old was hit with obstruction charges.
This is Connie's fourth winter delivering pizzas in Chicago — and the fourth time she's been robbed, she said. Two she considered minor, but in January 2013 four men attacked her at gunpoint. No one was charged.
"They came up on me, put a gun to my head, pushed me to the ground and had me begging for my life over pizza and money," said Connie, who has an 11-year-old son.
'It's not a very safe job'
The latest attack on Connie was just one in a recent string of assaults against Chicago delivery drivers.
Earlier this year, a Logan Square teen accidentally shot himself while eating pizza he had stolen from a driver. In South Chicago, a veteran driver helped make an arrest when he recognized a repeat attacker's phone number. And a West Town block was targeted repeatedly in January.
Martin Maloney, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said robberies targeting delivery drivers aren't widespread, and robberies citywide are down 6 percent from this time last year.
"CPD only issued two business alerts regarding robbery of pizza delivery drivers this year," Maloney said, adding that "this type of robbery is not common."
But Miguel De Arcos, 36, who owns De Arcos Pizza at 2832 E. 87th St. in South Chicago, said his drivers are targeted on average once a week.
"Sometimes it's every day," he said. "Sometimes you can go a few weeks [with no incidents]. These guys have been shot at."
De Arcos said he keeps a list of "bad" names and numbers behind his register — people who've attacked drivers or swiped food without paying. But since would-be thieves can use fake addresses or a friend's phone, De Arcos' efforts aren't always successful.
"It's not a very safe job," added Craig Gernhardt, 53, who uses a bike to make deliveries in Rogers Park and Edgewater. "You're driving around all alone without any protection, with cash, and you're being called to an address where you have no idea who's there waiting for you."
Gernhardt said "A lot of the drivers are undocumented workers, so they don't want to report the crimes when they happen."
In Rogers Park alone, Gernhardt said, he sees drivers robbed at least once a week.
'This is the ugly part of the business'
De Arcos, who's been in business for a decade, said 60 percent to 70 percent of his revenue comes from delivery orders. Connie estimates similar numbers at Village Pizza, 2356 W. Chicago Ave.
"I can't not deliver," De Arcos said.
Instead, he advises his drivers to never carry too much cash and never deliver inside a building — make the customer come to the car. Drivers learn robbery "tells" pretty quickly, he said, and are told to just bring back the order if they think something's wrong.
"If they bring back the food, they bring back the food," De Arcos said. "If I lose the money, I lose the money. I know what they go through."
Many drivers said their employers don't have any safety plans in place.
Gernhardt said he regularly turns down jobs that will take him to known robbery "hot spots." He won't go north of Howard Street after dark, for instance, and he doesn't take cash orders. But he also knows a lot of drivers can't afford to turn down work.
"This is the ugly part of the business," he said. "We're all easily replaceable in the restaurant owner's eyes. There's no union. The owners themselves, they don't care if they're sending you to a bad block at 11 o'clock at night with a $13 cash order."
Every driver interviewed said he preferred GrubHub and credit card orders to cash. Since online ordering sites require a name, address and credit info, those orders are less likely to be fake, drivers said.
Fee of $2 to $7 plus tips
So why do it?
For some, there aren't other options. One driver, a 42-year-old South Side man who asked not to be named, said he moved to Chicago a decade ago, didn't know anyone and hadn't finished school.
"I didn't find a job, so this was it," he said. "Every time I go, it's scary. You don't know what's going to happen. I make money, but it's not worth it."
Drivers typically keep the delivery fee, which can range from $2 to $7 across the city, plus anything they make in tips. Most said this ranges from zero to $10 an order.
"If you work really hard," Gernhardt said, "there's a potential to make a good amount of money. ... You can make up to $300 a day — but that's if you're really working your rump off."
Several drivers said they liked taking home cash each night, and one said that the job allowed the driver to avoid creditors by getting paid in cash.
Connie said she used to work as a paralegal in the suburbs, but the commute cut into time she could be spending with her son. The North Lawndale mom said she needs more money than she makes now, but driving was a quick option when she moved to Chicago.
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