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Pesos for Pizzas?

A Texas-based pizza chain begins accepting Mexican pesos as well as dollars—and hits a nerve in the ongoing debate over immigration

By Gretel C. Kovach in Dallas

One recent evening on their way home from a construction job, Jose Ramirez and two friends stopped at a Pizza Patrón in Dallas for dinner. Ramirez ordered a Hawaiian pizza and a La Patrona—a large pizza with the works. The two pies cost him almost 220 big ones. Pesos, that is.

Ramirez, 20, received his change in American coins and said he liked the chain's new "Pizza Por Pesos" promotion. He had been in the United States for 15 days—his home is some 800 miles south in Guanajuato, Mexico—and he wanted to spend the last of his Mexican currency.

"I just arrived," he said in Spanish, smiling nervously. "It's my first time here."

The employees at this Pizza Patrón, one of 59 in five Southwestern and Western states, were still puzzling over the conversion rates a week after the chain started accepting peso bills in January. (There are about 11 pesos to a dollar.)

But the promotion has already hit a nerve in the nationwide immigration debate. The company's Dallas headquarters received about 1,000 e-mail messages in just one day. Some were supportive, but many called the idea unpatriotic, with messages like, "If you want to accept the peso, go to Mexico!" There have even been a few death threats. It wasn't long before the controversy—like the recent debate over singing the national anthem in Spanish—had Internet blogs, TV commentators, and talk-radio shows buzzing.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a group that seeks to limit immigration, says he's concerned that Hispanics could create a parallel mainstream in the United States.

"It's a trivial example, but Hispanics now have their own pizza chain," Krikorian says. "It's a consequence of having too many people arrive from a single foreign culture, and may well reflect a kind of cultural secession."

A Business Opportunity

Antonio Swad, the president of Pizza Patrón, says he's surprised by the outcry. "I certainly wasn't expecting 'pizza for pesos' to become a touchstone for the immigration issue," he says. It was just an effort to "reinforce our brand promise to be the premier Latino pizza chain," he says. "We're businessmen.

"The Latino population is significant and it's important," Swad continues. "It's here to stay. The United States is not going to be like it used to be; it's going to be different, and it has an opportunity to be better."

Swad, who is Italian-Lebanese and was born and raised in Ohio, did not speak Spanish when he opened his first pizzeria in Dallas in 1986. But he saw an opportunity in the growing Hispanic minority, and how his customers struggled to order in English.

A year later, he changed the name from Pizza Pizza to Pizza Patrón (which means "Pizza Boss" in Spanish), hired bilingual staff, and added items like La Mexicana, a pizza with spicy chorizo sausage and jalapeños. Pizza Patrón became a franchise in 2003, and business has been good, Swad says.

At his five Dallas pizzerias, about 10 to 15 percent of business has been in pesos, he says. Despite the criticism, he plans to continue the promotion through February.

John Echeveste, a co-founder of the Hispanic Public Relations Association, says the promotion is a symbolic acknowledgment of the importance of the large and growing Hispanic market.

"Mexicans are spending U.S. dollars on their side of the border and vice versa," Echeveste says. "It works both ways. From a marketing perspective you don't really look at whether those people are illegal or not, you look at whether they have money."

'Better For Me'

Juan Rodriguez, a maintenance worker, recently stopped by Pizza Patrón to pick up a pepperoni and mushroom pizza for lunch. "I can pay with pesos?" he asked in Spanish.

Rodriguez, 43, had been to Mexico two weeks earlier. "I'm going to Mexico a lot of times; it's better for me," he said of the peso promotion. He said he did not understand the controversy: "I don't know what is the problem."