After bounding up a flight of stairs, delivering two boxes of Chinese food and a bottle of Pepsi to an apartment off Winkler Avenue in Fort Myers, Alex Ararat returns to his Hyundai Elantra empty-handed.
Mozart’s Turkish March can be heard on the speakers in his car. Ararat lingers for a second in the breeze of his air conditioning, then puts the car in reverse.
“No tip,” the 51-year-old says in his thick, Armenian-Russian accent. “I know those guys. They never tip.”
He shrugs his shoulders. It is what it is.
Tips, or lack of tips, are the least of Ararat’s worries these days. Ararat, a delivery driver for China Wok in Fort Myers, knew Zhi Wei Huang, the 23-year-old Tung Hing deliveryman who was shot and killed in the nearby Westchase apartments last week.
He knew Huang in the same way he knows most of the delivery people in central Fort Myers: through polite, passing meetings in the delivery bays of office buildings and the lobbies of hotels.
Ararat called Huang quiet and nice, a hard worker. Ararat has delivered to Westchase. When pictures of alleged murderers Eddie Leonard, 16, and Dejerion Jamar Stewart, 17, appeared online Sunday, Ararat recognized them.
“I’ve delivered to them, I know it,” he said, pounding his palms against his steering wheel. “I know all of my customers. I remember them.”
Huang’s death has forced many Fort Myers’ restaurants to rethink their delivery policies. Tim Mankin, who owns BurgerQue at 3852 Cleveland Ave., sat down with his drivers last week. He reinforced the restaurant’s rule of carrying no more than $20. If confronted, he tells them, give everything over, don’t risk your life.
Papa John’s pizza has suspended delivery to Westchase. Colleen Wood, director of safety and security for 56 Papa John’s restaurants, including a handful in this area, said drivers have the option to not deliver if a situation doesn’t feel right.
Wood’s franchising company, RoHoHo Inc., usually takes a number of factors into account before halting delivery to a neighborhood. It talks to police and other delivery agencies to determine the safety threat various areas pose.
But considering Huang’s death, “we’re not going there. We’re just not,” Wood said. “It’s someplace we just have an obvious reason to stay away from for now.”
The 12-year-old China Taste at 2960 Cleveland Ave. has never delivered east of U.S. 41. Owner Lisa Wang has just one deliveryman. She limits his range to homes along the McGregor corridor and offices downtown.
China Wok owner Qiubo Li is considering doing the same, or stopping deliveries altogether. He’s had two drivers assaulted in the last two years.
“What happened at Tung Hing is so sad,” Li said. “Our hearts go out to them. I don’t know what we’d do in that situation. Maybe just close everything.”
Not worth it
In between deliveries, Ararat pulls into the U-shaped driveway on Katherine Street where he was robbed and beaten with bats two years ago. Someone had placed an order to the address, which Ararat did not know was abandoned at the time.
It was almost 9 p.m. and the house was dark when he approached the front door. He believed maybe the customer had fallen asleep. He reached for his phone, then heard a rush of footsteps closing in on him from both sides.
“I turned and they hit me here,” Ararat says, placing his hand on his upper chest near his throat.
The men, teenagers, hit him again in the stomach. They stepped back, waiting for him to fall. Ararat, who earned master’s degrees in philosophy and economics from universities in Russia and the Ukraine before moving to the United States five years ago, did not. He charged forward and grabbed a rock, swinging it at his attackers as they backed away and looted his car. He called 911 with his free hand and the thieves dispersed.
One of Ararat’s assailants was arrested two days later when police traced the phone he used to place the order. The robbers got a GPS system and food, but no money.
“I told you,” said Ararat, who has kept a yet-unused can of pepper spray in his right pocket since the incident, “they are stupid.”
After three deliveries over the course of an hour Ararat makes $5 and change in tips. He drives his own car and pays for his own gas. On a good dinner shift he’ll make 20 to 25 deliveries, with most tips ranging from zero to $2.
“I want someone to have a microphone and go up and down these streets and say, ‘Hey people! We do not have more than $20. Never, never, never more than $20,’” Ararat said. “If a place is too dark or it looks like nobody is there, forget it. I take the food back now. I have one life. For couple of dollars tips, it’s not worth it.”