March 11, 2010

Designated driver for the run home

And Large

— Q: So the business does ...?

click image to enlarge

Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer... Friday, March 31, 2009...Dan Furst owns and operates a business called Home Runners, which picks up people who've had a few drinks and drives them home in their own cars. Furst then uses his portable motor scooter to get back to his own car.

A: We're a designated driver service, with a twist. We pretty much bring people home in their own cars, so they don't have to take a taxi and get their cars home, and avoid an OUI at the same time. So for a little bit more than the cost of a taxi, people can go out and have as much fun as they want, without any consequences.

We either have a car following the customer's car, or a one-person ''team'' using a scooter that folds up in the trunk, so the person can scoot back.

Q: Where did you get the idea?

A: I just came across it reading about how it was being done in London, and thought it could be done here.

Q: How much do you cost?

A: It's $20 plus $2 per mile. Around 15-16 miles is the break-even point with cabs. We're more expensive for short trips, but you get better value the farther you go The average trip is about $40-$45. But we've done many that were just a couple of blocks, like from Brian Boru to State Street or something.

Q: What are your hours?

A: The hours are 7 until 2 or later. There are definitely nights when I'm still going at 3:30, but on slow nights I shut the phone off at 2.

Q: What's a busy night -- how many calls?

A: A typical night would be close to 20 calls. But you can have a night that's very busy with 10 or 11 calls, because the trips are longer, like an hour and a half.

Q: How far do you go?

A: Boston, once. Brunswick. We've done a loop in New Hampshire. On a regular basis, Freeport, Windham, Saco, Biddeford, is what I would consider normal longer trips.

Q: What did you used to do?

A: After college I was a stock options trader in San Francisco for five or six years. When kind of like a regulation of the industry there made it more difficult to make money, I came out here on vacation and then moved back here. I call California home but I grew up in (Amherst) New Hampshire and went to California when I was 13, with the family.

When I moved back here, I went back to entry level and tried to rebuild, and ended up working for Fairchild and National Semiconductor, and then that sort of led into working on my teaching certification at night, which led me into teaching everything from kindergarten to fifth grade. I taught and did this for about two years. But sometimes I would be up until 3 in the morning, and then have 12 kids jumping on my lap; the two jobs could not co-exist.

Q: So you've kind of specialized in people's behaviors.

A: That's pretty much been the common thread, a lot of sort of chaotic situations. Things can go from quiet to very intense in a very quick time. But I guess when you've been through the fire before, it gets a little easier next time.

Q: How was last weekend?

A: Steady. Since Saint Patrick's Day things have been really strong. People are anticipating the warmer weather. Basically they have spring fever, and they're going out even if the weather isn't cooperating 100 percent.

We're seeing some faces we haven't seen for a while, through the winter. And a lot of new customers are coming in, as well.

Q: I mean, did anything exciting happen?

A: Nothing too dramatic, that I can think of offhand.

Q: So you have your regular customers?

A: We have, I'd say, 30 to 40 to 50 percent are people who use us once or twice a week. It's similar to a restaurant or bar; the regulars account for half of the business. ''Great, we know we'll see Joe on Thursday night, and Art on Friday night '' It's a foundation to build on. At the moment we have people who are tied for the record of five nights in a row.

Q: Have things slowed as the economy has?

A: It's pretty flat, this year over last. The first three years we grew 30 percent a year. If the economy were stronger, we'd be up. But we're still more profitable. We're more efficient and can get more done with less people.

Q: How many people work for and with you?

A: We have about 10 people right now, and a couple of others still in the ''family'' we can call up in an emergency.

Q: All guys?

A: No, a pretty even mix of guys and girls.

Q: It seems as if that would increase the risk of shenanigans.

A: By and large the people who use us are very respectful. They're people in their 30s, 40s, 50s. They're businessmen, lawyers, doctors, very aware of what we do. Of course there are always exceptions. But, we're in their car, driving them to their home, and one of us is following behind in the ''chase'' car, and everyone has cell phones. Our drivers know that if anybody goes too far they can pull over and end the trip.

Q: Does that happen?

A: I believe it only happened once. In that case a male driver, I don't know if his client got too obnoxious, I don't remember the exact circumstances We just pull over, give them the keys and call a taxi or the police, depending on what the situation warrants. Another time a female driver went to pick someone up and before the trip even started the client became so obnoxious that it was just like better not to do it.

There are one or two people I don't send some drivers to. Typically, to a female they would not be physically abusive in any way, but verbally abusive. It's just how they are when they're drunk. So basically I send a guy that can take insults for 20 minutes and knows that the guy appreciates us getting them home safe and staying off the road. But it's a rare exception, having to make a decision like that.

Q: Customers must throw up sometimes. But then, they're in their own cars

A: Mmmm, we give people a snack pack in a bag, which has water and some kind of snack and information and our business card, and some people have to use the bag. For certain people, on a winter night, in a warm car, after five minutes they're passed out, or after five minutes they're getting sick. It doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen.

Q: There must be other drawbacks

A: I would say, never knowing what you're going to get on an given night. For the most part it's difficult to have the right number of people available. You might have a Tuesday night that's crazy and a Wednesday night that's dead. I'm trying to balance out 10 or 11 people, who need to have a steady income, as best I can.

But, you also build up relationships with people. You know what's going on with their lives, from trip to trip. It's very much a social thing, as much as business.

Q: You must need special insurance.

A: We do have ''non-owned auto policy,'' is the term. That's our biggest overhead.

Q: Do people ever cry?

A: Yeah, I've had that happen. You feel kind of like a psychiatrist or a counselor sometimes.

Q: Or a bartender?

A: Except the bar would be empty, except for that person.

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