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'Pizza-for-pesos' policy sparks immigration uproar

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(CNN) -- When Antonio Swad made what he said was a simple business decision -- accepting pesos as well as dollars -- in his Texas-based pizza chain, he was unprepared for the public's reaction. He received thousands of hateful e-mails and phone calls.

And death threats.

"We didn't think ... that we'd be linked with the controversy that surrounds illegal immigration," Swad, the founder and chain owner of Pizza Patron, told CNN on Monday. "And that's [where] we found ourselves; swimming in that water almost immediately." (Watch owner defend controversial dough Video)

Some believed the policy of accepting pesos discouraged Mexican immigrants from assimilating to American culture. Others, firmly against illegal immigration, said he was rewarding people who sneaked into the United States.

In January, Swad shared one of the angry e-mails with CNN's Paula Zahn.

It read: "As if we don't have enough problems in this country right now with the illegal freeloaders, you corrupt crooks are only inviting more of this by your stupidity. You absolutely sicken us taxpaying citizens that want these cockroaches out of this country."

Tim O'Hare, a councilman for Farmers Branch, Texas, told CNN that Pizza Patron is targeting people who are constantly crossing the border.

"They're making money off of it because they are catering to people here illegally," he said.

But Swad, who founded the first Pizza Patron in 1986, said the decision was not based on politics or policy. It was just another way to reach out to Pizza Patron's customers, whom Swad says are predominantly Latino.

"Because our focus is to serve the Hispanic community better than any of our competitors, we thought, what can we do that could reach out and make this a better place to spend your money than some of the other large pizza chains?" Swad said Monday.

Sales have increased 35 percent since his stores began to accept pesos in January, Swad said. That comes on top of a 34.6 percent increase in same-store sales during the fourth quarter, according to the company Web site.

The policy of accepting pesos is an opportunity "for folks that travel back to Mexico ... to dispose of their pesos that they didn't change at the border. We're talking about $5 or $10. We're not talking about enough money to buy a new car," he added.

"And I don't think assimilation is necessarily tied to that 100 peso bill you have tucked away in your sock drawer. I think assimilation is -- is a much bigger and broader subject than just that."

There are 65 Pizza Patron stores in six states. More than 40 stores are "under development," according to the Pizza Patron Web site.

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Antonio Swad is the founder of Pizza Patron, a restaurant chain that accepts pesos as well as dollars.


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