Whether it’s stumbling during the 2 a.m. bar rush, being stranded on a backcountry road or deadlocked in a local neighborhood, lakes area residents often depend on hired drivers to get them from point A to point B, if that means hailing old-fashioned cabs, or calling new kids on the block such as Lyft.

Their business and daily routines vary widely. It’s a reflection, in many regards, of their passengers’ lives -- the awkward times on the schedule, the medical emergencies, the family outings and spontaneous trips downtown -- times and places where anyone might find they need a helpful hand at the wheel to swing by and get them where they need to go.

The Dispatch spoke with John Hoskins, owner of Brainerd Area Taxi (soon to be Brainerd Taxi LLC); Lisa Nebel and Leonard Smith of Grab A Cab; as well as Kirk Kuhl, an IT professional who moonlights as a Lyft driver in his spare time.

Brainerd Area Taxi owner John Hoskins has been active on and off as a cabbie since the late '80s. When he suffered a back injury that ended his career as a nurse, Hoskins decided to buy Brainerd Area Taxi in 2000 and has run the operation for 19 years. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Brainerd Area Taxi owner John Hoskins has been active on and off as a cabbie since the late '80s. When he suffered a back injury that ended his career as a nurse, Hoskins decided to buy Brainerd Area Taxi in 2000 and has run the operation for 19 years. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Heading down memory lane

While these drivers come from different backgrounds and fill different niches in the community today, it may not be surprising to note they all feature backgrounds in mass transportation -- whether that’s bus driving, truck driving, serving with other taxi companies, or even pitching in through helming medical and public school transport.

Brainerd Area Taxi has been a mainstay in the region for decades -- going back to the ‘80s at least, Hoskins said, though it’s changed ownership from Reichert Bus Co., to former owner Jim Sykes and now Hoskins, who’s run it from roughly 2000 to the present. Hoskins first drove taxi as a college student in the late ‘80s.

“The best feeling is knowing I’m helping people out, getting them to and from their medical appointments -- elderly, dialysis patients, trips to the emergency room,” Hoskins said. “That’s my reward. You get good tips, on the weekends for example, but the real bonus is helping your community. That’s why I do it, I guess.”

Inevitably, the operation -- which has a fleet that’s expanded and shrunk over the years, up to eight vehicles at its height, now down to three vans in 2019 -- will be passed on, Hoskins said, more than likely to his own son, who pitches in as a driver himself.

“It’s been a family affair for all these years,” said Hoskins of the Brainerd-based company with four full-time drivers and two part-timers. “My son is a driver. Someday, it’ll probably go to him. It’ll stay in the family.”

After working for years as a licensed practical nurse, a work-place accident that resulted in a plate in his spinal column left the elder Hoskins unable to continue in the profession. Hoskins settled upon the idea of calling old friends for another dip into driving taxi -- namely Sykes, the one-time colleague who at the time owned the main taxi operation in Brainerd.

“I said, ‘Jim, did you ever think about selling the taxi?’” Hoskins recalled. ‘‘He said, ‘Actually, I was just going to list it.’ I bought it from Jim and the rest is history. Over the years we’ve just been growing and growing.”

Three representatives for Grab A Cab, including co-owner Lisa Nebel (left), co-owner Leonard Smith, and company accountant Denise Tautges are behind the cab service founded two years ago. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Three representatives for Grab A Cab, including co-owner Lisa Nebel (left), co-owner Leonard Smith, and company accountant Denise Tautges are behind the cab service founded two years ago. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

One such offshoot of this growing business is, in fact, Grab A Cab -- a two-year-old operation with three vehicles of its own. Co-owners Nebel and Smith boast a blend of transportation gigs between the two of them -- experience as diverse as driving special education buses and charter buses, to steering delivery trucks and taxis.

They brought this experience when they decided to buy Grab A Cab in November of last year, taking the wheel for a taxi service struggling with financial difficulties at that time.

“We decided to strike out on a new venture,” Nebel said. “We decided to take a leap. It’s a good business. We decided it needed a new face.”

“It’s the people. I’ve always been in customer’s relations, so it’s good,” she added. “It’s the people that you meet. Community is huge.”

While Kirk Kuhl also features experience with mass transportation, he is just as likely to be seen tackling technical difficulties for internet service providers in the area. Kuhl came to the lakes area about 20 years ago from first Oakland, California, then a stop in the Twin Cities metro, where he drove charter bus.

Lyft driver Kirk Kuhl stops for a break in downtown Brainerd recently. His driving helps fund his extra hobbies. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Lyft driver Kirk Kuhl stops for a break in downtown Brainerd recently. His driving helps fund his extra hobbies. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“A little bit of a culture shock,” Kuhl said dryly.

Lyft -- a relative newcomer in the area and representative of a shift in mass transportation -- seemed like an interesting option for Kuhl, who said he was looking for a little cash to fund his “habits and hobbies” with a nice side gig to his day job.

He’s been driving Lyft in the area since December 2018, after undergoing about 7-10 days of background checks, applications and a process during which documents are submitted to be vetted as a competent, safe and friendly driver. He noted vehicles older than 2007 are not accepted by Lyft and others must be in acceptable condition.

Taxi! Taxi!

The daily ins and out of a given taxi driver can differ greatly from person to person, or operation to operation.

For example, Hoskins expects his drivers to put in 12-hour shifts on the regular, which helps to fill in the gaps for the area’s only 24/7 taxi cab service. Roughly 80% of the company’s trips come between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., Hoskins said.

“We get bombarded. Some days, it doesn’t matter what time or day it is, there’s certain parts of the day where there’s a lot more people calling for rides than drivers to give them,” Hoskins said. “I always tell my drivers, ‘Let the calls work you, don’t work the calls.’”

An example would be planning a trip to pick up and drop off multiple people on a single route, instead of rushing back and forth to accommodate everyone in a speedy fashion.

Leonard Smith in a black Chrysler minivan in the Grab A Cab fleet. Grab A Cab operates from 7:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. everyday, serving the Brainerd lakes area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Leonard Smith in a black Chrysler minivan in the Grab A Cab fleet. Grab A Cab operates from 7:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. everyday, serving the Brainerd lakes area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

On the other hand, Nebel and Smith said they have eight-hour shifts for their drivers -- typically operating from 7:30 a.m. in the morning until 3 a.m. the following night, though this may change for contractual obligations or in the case of some regulars who require their assistance at a given time.

However, Smith noted, the “mad rush” is typically between 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on a given day. Bar rush at about 1 a.m to some time before 3 a.m. also factors as a high point in calls.

As for Kuhl, it’s all about when he’s available and, more importantly, about how he feels. He said he typically punches in between 6 to 8:30 p.m., but if the fish aren’t biting, he doesn’t worry too much.

A typical day driving Lyft involves five to eight rides, he said. At the longest, he’s put in seven hours at a stretch -- not too bad for a man who enjoys driving the freeways, Kuhl said. That and if the vehicle has satellite radio is key.

“For me, it’s kinda dependent on how busy it is. I do my day job, go home and spend time with my family, then I punch in,” Kuhl said. “Super flexible on the timing. Usually, if I log in and don’t get a ride within an hour and a half, or if I don’t get a new ride an hour and a half after the last, I log off. It’s dependent on your schedule and what you put in.”

All three services operate primarily in the Brainerd lakes area and surrounding communities. Kuhl said he generally has a 45-minute round-trip restriction or coverage area, but he has driven people down to Cambridge and back. Grab A Cab’s coverage area includes places as far as Pine River, an occasional trip to Cambridge or the Twin Cities. Brainerd Area Taxi operates as far as the Twin Cities twice a week, or will go to even Wisconsin, Iowa and Chicago, though Hoskins noted about 90% of their trips remain in the lakes area.

Advice and adversity

Drivers have to deal with the usual hassles of the road -- inattentive drivers, inclement weather, heavy traffic and the extraordinary toll placed on vehicles after hundreds of thousands of miles per year.

But, beyond that, there’s also other challenges that arise -- for traditional taxi services, it can be competing with each other or services like Lyft or Uber; for Lyft drives like Kuhl it can be the struggle to locate and find customers in big events; and for all of them it can be customers who contact multiple cab companies at once to have them “race” to get there first.

“We don’t race,” Nebel said flatly. “That’s just ridiculous, when they play the card like that.”

“I try not to,” added Smith, who iterated that he communicates and expects about 20 minutes to reach customers. “Safety is the main concern. I’ll get there when I say I get there.”

‘“It’s very difficult, it’s very challenging,” Hoskins said. “We drive all the way across town. We could have three or four other calls to get to, but we’re driving to you. It’s very difficult.”

Hoskins said area residents forcing taxi drivers to engage in “races” is an issue, and added he tells people to, at the very least, call the other companies once a taxi has arrived, so as to not waste their time further.

In terms of Lyft, Hoskins said they charge more, but the key difference is Lyft operates on a part-time, side-gig model at best, while traditional taxi drivers offer 24/7 access, plus all the features of professional driving and service.

On the other hand, the usual hitch that comes up during a Lyft drive is its geopositioning, Kuhl said -- namely, it’s difficult to pinpoint where a person is if they’re along a busy stretch of road, or involved in a large event or gathering, such as Lakes Jam.

“It’s a lot of messing around,” Kuhl said.

Aside from that, all three services gave two forms of advice -- follow the golden rule to treat others as you want to be treated and, generally speaking, expect other drivers to do the unexpected at any given moment on the road.

“Drive as if everyone else is an ... idiot,” Kuhl said. “But, as a Lyft driver, just be happy and personal. I’ve never had anyone sour or anything. You get back what you put out. If you’re nice, they’re generally appreciative and nice to you back.”

“You have to watch yourself out there, because you don’t know,” Smith said.

“You want to give them good service,” Nebel said, along with a clean cab and nice drivers.

“Just expect every other driver to do the exact opposite of what they should do or what you think they will do, and you’ll be safe in Brainerd,” said Hoskins, who noted the company has a policy stating no one should put the car in reverse for parking or pick-ups as a safety precaution. “I just assume that people are going to do something wrong. I’m usually right, and I’ve avoided a lot of accidents that way.”

On the road

In addition, drivers shared some other tidbits that may shed some light on transport services in the Brainerd lakes area.

  • Hoskins said Brainerd Area Taxi minivans cover roughly 300 miles on an average day.

  • While Brainerd Area Taxi favors foreign makes -- Japanese companies such as Honda or Hyundai -- Grab A Cab swears by American makes like Chrysler and Dodge. Hoskins said it’s a matter of durability and fuel efficiency, while Smith pointed to the scarcity of repair parts for foreign makes in the lakes area that pushes them towards American cars. As for Kuhl, he drives a 2012 Ford Edge.

  • Kuhl noted he makes about $15-$20 per hour driving Lyft, while the driver and company split fees at a ratio of 70/30. Hoskins said his company splits revenue fees at 55/45, but provides the vehicle and pays to maintain it.

  • Both cab companies favor minivans even if they’ve had sedans often in the past. The reason? Bar rush. It quickly became apparent, Hoskins said, that cabbies need a vehicle that can transport six people when 1 a.m. rolls around.

  • So, what kind of life do taxi drivers get out of their vehicles? Hoskins said his company typically buys them used, at about 90,000 to 100,000 miles, then drives them for about 2.5 years until they’re 300,000 to 400,000 miles. The record holder? A Pontiac Trans Sport that reached over 750,000 miles -- that, and it had the original engine and transmission to boot.

  • Both cab companies said they conduct a “religious” amount of maintenance checks -- a pre-trip, end-trip and end-of-the-day check on the engine, fluid levels and tires to the tune of at least three times a day. Tires are typically replaced twice a year.

For your info

  • Business: Brainerd Area Taxi.

  • Location: Brainerd.

  • Number of employees: Four full-time drivers and two part-time drivers.

  • Did you know? The taxi company is the only one to offer 24/7 coverage in the Brainerd lakes area and the company’s minivans cover roughly 300 miles on an average day.

For your info

  • Business: Grab a Cab.

  • Location: Brainerd.

  • Number of employees: Seven.

  • Did you know? Grab A Cab’s coverage area includes places as far as Pine River, an occasional trip to Cambridge or the Twin Cities.

For your info

  • Business: Lyft.

  • Did you know? To drive for Lyft, drivers must undergo about 7-10 days of background checks, applications and a process during which documents are submitted to be vetted as a competent, safe and friendly driver. Vehicles older than 2007 are not accepted by Lyft and others must be in acceptable condition.