It doesn't take long to forget that you're wearing spandex, or at least that's what Captain Awesome tells me. And he's right. After about half an hour, I don't even notice that I'm covered neck to ankles in a bright pink bodysuit with a silver lightning bolt on the chest. I borrowed the suit, which previously belonged to Pink Thunder, from Galactic Pizza's stash of retired superhero costumes. Whizzing along in one of the Lyn-Lake shop's new two-seater electric cars with Awesome, I also forget that I'm wearing a bulbous white crash helmet. That is, until I look out the window and notice that people are staring.
Galactic, the country's only pizza shop to deliver its pies via electric-car-driving superheroes, just celebrated its fifth anniversary by upgrading its fleet to four shiny new ZAP Xebras. Galactic's owner, 32-year-old Pete Bonahoom, suggested that a weekend ride-along might offer the best chance to fully experience the superhero lifestyle. "Those are the nights when customers are more likely to invite you in and try to get you drunk or something," he said.
Such are the hazards of any pizza delivery gig, even those at Galactic, which Bonahoom started with the idea that pizza could save the planet—if it was produced by a company that valued creativity, community, and sustainability. The kitchen uses local and organic ingredients—they have a CSA pizza, made with toppings from a Harmony Valley farm share—and composts its food waste. Takeout orders are placed in biodegradable packaging.
The place was an instant hit with a wide-ranging clientele: families with kids, hipsters, vegans, environmentalists, and potheads (there's hemp in the pesto sauce and the pizza box graphics, as well as a discount for those who order at 4:20 p.m.). Bonahoom, who used to deliver pizzas in college, says he initially hoped Galactic would attract people who were "a little out there," but that he may have opened the door a bit wider than intended. "This place was a magnet for crazies," he admits. It should be noted that Galactic's original job application was a blank piece of paper—and that Bonahoom is no longer in charge of hiring.
Despite heavy competition in the area, Galactic has thrived. Business is good and employee turnover is low; Bonahoom hires a new superhero about once every four or five months. The pizzeria even garnered national attention in 2006 when deliveryman Luke Pie-Rocker chased down a purse-snatcher and recovered the victim's belongings.
Galactic's first fleet of electric vehicles, called Gizmos, were tiny pods that looked more suited to a kiddy carnival ride than to busy city streets. The Gizmos didn't prove robust enough to serve as high-use delivery vehicles, and constant breakdowns made Bonahoom feel like he was in the business of repairing electric cars instead of delivering pizzas.
Bonahoom's new vehicles, which are plugged in behind the restaurant, look a bit like four-door Smart cars. Three are white and the fourth has just been covered with trippy, blue-green Galactic graphics. Bonahoom explains that, typically, pizza joints pay drivers about 4 percent of their night's sales to offset their automotive expenses—and since Galactic employees use company cars, except in bad weather, Bonahoom used those savings to fund the purchase of the electric vehicles. He hasn't calculated the cars' electricity expenses, but says that the new Zaps, which cost him about $16,000 after modifications, use roughly the same amount of energy to drive a mile as brewing two cups of coffee.
When I inquire about the relative safety of the larger, sturdier-looking Zaps, compared to the Gizmos, Bonahoom tells me that the original fleet was only involved in one road accident, when a driver hit a pedestrian who dashed out in front of him on a darkened street. Ironically, the victim was a Pizza Hut delivery guy, and fortunately he was fine.
Technically, you're supposed to have a motorcycle permit to drive the three-wheeled Zaps, but Bonahoom lets me take one for a spin around the block. The experience is a little like driving an enclosed golf cart with the structural integrity of a Bundt pan. From the outside, the machine may be silent, but inside, it jerks, rattles, wheezes, and hums. Hitting a pothole feels like fording a moon crater. The cars are produced in China, Bonahoom explains, and the factory hasn't made very many—as evidenced by the cars' manufacturing quality. A girl rollerblading down the middle of Garfield doesn't move over when I creep up behind her, either because she doesn't hear, or doesn't respect, my vehicle.
During delivery rounds, I leave the driving to Awesome, 24, who is Galactic's most senior superhero—he's worked there almost three years. (He won't tell me his real name, though I am able to discover it when he logs into Galactic's computer system to take a phone order, something the superheroes do between deliveries.) Awesome's previous job was in Linux administration, and he says he makes about as much money at Galactic, without sitting in a cubicle all day. He wants to open his own restaurant someday, but in the meantime he busies himself by "fighting crime and saving lives." Though he's not a hardcore comic junkie, he did collect superhero cards as a kid. "I probably wouldn't be delivering pizza if I weren't in spandex," he says.
Awesome's uniform consists of a blue bodysuit, tight red short-shorts, and a red cape with a yellow "A" on the neck. Awesome also wears a yellow, multi-compartment utility belt, which he started stocking with dog treats after a fellow superhero was bitten by a German shepherd. Awesome's physique is stocky but fit, with no deeply defined muscle contours or pudgy curves. As he raises his arms to hand over a pizza, I notice that his armpits are slightly darkened with sweat.
Each new driver comes up with his or her own superhero name, persona, power, and outfit, which must include a bodysuit, cape, boots, and a helmet. (One hire complained that the restrictions were "too rigid on my superhero, man," but Bonahoom says he wants his employees to have a somewhat uniform look.) Bonahoom has the costumes made professionally, at a cost of several hundred dollars apiece. The winter ones are the most expensive because they're lined with a thermal layer like those worn by downhill skiers. (If the temperature is under 10 below, the superheroes don civilian clothes.) Bonahoom replaces the uniforms every 10 to 12 months because they tend to get dirty, ripped, and worn out. Each time Awesome gets a new uniform, he says, he asks for it tighter.
Awesome doesn't have a strict workout regimen, but he says he is mindful of his uniform's limitations. "You can't eat pizza every day and wear spandex," he admits. As an under layer, the superheroes tend to favor boxer briefs, or at least the one whom I accidentally walked in on as he was changing in the employee break room did.
As we cut through the break room on our way to collect more pies, Awesome explains that the superheroes tend to be outgoing types who enjoy being the center of attention—actors, performers, and the like. "You can't take yourself too seriously," Awesome says. We say hello to Blue Baboon, an amateur standup comic, who wears a suit bedecked with a fur tail and pink butt pads. Awesome greets his roommate, Dr. Tomorrow, and ribs him for wearing loose-fitting athletic shorts on top of his glittery bodysuit. Tomorrow claims he has forgotten his tighter shorts at home, which they share with three other Galactic employees. "The tips tonight aren't going to be so good," Awesome jokes.
Like any good performer, Awesome knows how to read his audience. Each time we ring a doorbell, he leans in and listens: "If you can hear hurried footsteps, you know if you should be in character," he says. A lone male who shuffles to the door of a Whittier apartment building gets a nonchalant "Hey, what's up?" while children who race to the entryway of a Kenwood home receive a booming stage voice: "Hi, I'm Captain Awesome, and this is my sidekick, Pink Thunder."
Kids, Awesome says, usually also get a high-five and a positive message ("like, uh, 'stay in school' or something"). Sometimes a kid will ask if he can fly, and then Awesome, who has a bad knee, will usually just bound down a bunch of stairs. He's learned that it's better to have an easily demonstrable superpower—his is air guitar. Once Awesome lied to a kid and told him he knew super karate, and the kid, who happened to study karate, asked to see some moves. Awesome had to bluff his way out of the situation by reminding the kid that karate is only used for self-defense, not showing off.
All the kids that Awesome and I encounter seem a little awestruck and too bashful to say hello, even with a parent's urging. Awesome has only once disappointed a kid, he says, who opened the door, took one look at him, and complained, "Aw, he's just a mortal."
Driving through south Minneapolis, several bystanders shout greetings as we pass. "Waving's a big part of the job," Awesome notes. And it's also good marketing. "A lot of times, 30 minutes later, I'll be back at their house delivering a pizza." Galactic's most dedicated customer was a guy who used to order the same pizza at the same time every day: Black olives, jalapeños, and vegan cheese, you know who you are.
Like any good deliveryman, Awesome has received his share of phone numbers, he says, and was once invited inside for a few drinks by a woman wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Apparently Galactic has an unwritten policy condoning a 30-minute "break" in such circumstances, though Awesome says, to his knowledge, no one has ever taken advantage of it.
The superhero shtick does draw a fair amount of extra attention. Gay men occasionally ask Awesome to twirl around like a fashion model, he says. One time a customer brought him to a table strewn with a six-pack of Pabst, a wad of dollar bills, a pile of fireworks, and a one-hitter pot pipe, and asked him to pick his tip. (Awesome took the beer.)
Customers also like to have their pictures taken with the superheroes. Awesome has been asked to pose on a bearskin rug and in the act of being caught embracing a woman by her angry fiancé. Once, Awesome was asked to take photos with a large party of college girls, who answered the door in their underwear. "We're pretty receptive to that sort of thing," he says.
I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to deliver to the regular Galactic customer who orders after dark, then runs out into the yard dressed as a supervillain and snatches the pizza out of the superhero's hands. New employees aren't warned, and Awesome says the first time it happened to him, he stood there, dumbfounded, until the supervillain's friend came out and paid him. But I was glad not to have been with Awesome when he recently delivered to the home of two semi-intoxicated middle-aged women. One wrote out a check while her friend, holding a glass of wine in one hand, used the other to grab Awesome's crotch. The easygoing superhero took it in stride. He busted out laughing and said, "Thanks."
Near the end of the evening, Awesome mentions that he was mugged once while making a delivery, though he doesn't seem too bothered by the incident. He helped police catch two of the criminals, but the third got away with a peanut-sauce-topped Thailander with carrots and bean sprouts and a Paul Bunyan with vegan cheese. "I wish I could have seen that guy's face when he opened those boxes," Awesome says. Or at least I think that's what he said. I'm going to blame any misquotes in this article on my helmet.
Awesome lets me take the lead on the night's final delivery, so I ring the doorbell with anticipation, hoping that I won't be attacked by a dog or a supervillain, or solicited for marijuana. Fortunately, the woman who answers the door is perfectly polite. After I hand over the pizza and collect the cash, she thanks me and tells us that we look great. I don't know if I'd say it was "awesome," but it was a lot more fun than a cubicle job.