Michael Mulé started working as a dishwasher at age 16, and for the next 15 years the Amherst native job-hopped through three restaurants eventually working his way up to manager. During this time, Mulé encountered countless customers who were too drunk to drive safely, and he began to realize why they were so reluctant to go home without their vehicles.
In 2008, Mulé and business partner Phil Basile launched Designated Drivers of Buffalo, a company that provides transportation home to people too drunk to drive. A second location in Rochester would follow.
“Our customers are basically responsible people who realize there’s a lot to risk including their jobs, homes, cars,” said Mulé, who is 36 – and ambitious.
People Talk: Is your job stressful?
Michael Mulé: I mean we are primarily dealing with people who have been drinking. It’s long hours and late nights.
PT: Have you used your service?
MM: Yes. It would be the worst thing for me to do, to get in trouble for drunk driving. I’ve used it a couple of times just because I was out with my girlfriend, we’d have a couple of drinks at dinner, and it’s just not responsible. That’s really what it comes down to. One of the biggest misconceptions is that people don’t realize how little alcohol it takes to get over .08, the legal limit.
PT: Is there a demand for your business?
MM: Yes. People want to go out, they want to have fun but they feel in today’s climate that they can’t. They feel one person has to stop drinking, and then they’re not truly enjoying the environment or occasion they’re at. This gives people the opportunity to enjoy themselves and be responsible.
PT: It’s like calling a cab?
MM: Not really. We transport the customer and their vehicle. The customer never drives with us. We show up with two drivers. There is no flat fee. It’s based on mileage. If you’re a member …
MM: We have 1,600 members, and if you are a member with us it’s $99 a year …
PT: That’s hilarious. Was your business plan crafted in Amsterdam?
MM: Quite honestly, a lot of this has been trial and error. There’s been no real comparison-type business. Everything we’ve done, we’ve created in-house. We’ve changed our prices a bunch of different times.
PT: When deciding what you wanted to do for the rest of your life, what were you considering?
MM: If at some point I would have transitioned out of the restaurant business, it would have been sales. I still to this day hope that at some time my success from this business will springboard to me opening a restaurant.
PT: Did the entrepreneur in you show at a young age?
MM: When I was 12 or 13, I had a paper route. I got to a point where I was actually getting kids younger than me to deliver the papers and I was paying them. As a kid I would always come up with different ways of doing things.
PT: How do you ensure your customers’ safety?
MM: In Buffalo we have 50 drivers. In Rochester we have between 15 and 20. We put each driver through background checks, criminal background checks, DMV reports. We put them under our insurance,
PT: Random drug tests?
MM: Oh yeah.
PT: What is a lesson learned?
MM: Patience. Like any other small business it takes time to get your name out, and unfortunately we didn’t have a $100,000 marketing budget. For the first three or four years, it was all guerrilla marketing.
PT: Have you worked as a driver?
MM: The first year I did every aspect of this business. It was answering the phones till 4 a.m., driving the customer. We started out with six to eight employees. There would be many nights when we would be sitting doing absolutely nothing because the phones were not ringing. It was insane. I had just left the restaurant industry because I had gotten tired of the weekends and nights.
PT: You have a partnership with attorney William Mattar?
MM: He pays for everyone to use the service on New Year’s Eve. It was his idea when it started in 2008. We’ve done it six years in a row here and in Rochester.
PT: Where are most of your drop-offs?
MM: Hamburg, Orchard Park. Anyone who lives in the city and goes out in the city isn’t really concerned with our service. It’s people who are driving five to 10 miles who are really looking to use us. A 10-mile ride is $50 for members, $75 for nonmembers. We don’t charge the customer to pick them up.
PT: Are intoxicated people your only customers?
MM: No. We’ve gotten calls from exhausted doctors at medical campuses. We also do weddings, parties, banquets, where our drivers are actually on-site. Brides hire us for their wedding receptions. Corporate clients buy our services, kind of like DWI insurance. Anyone who is licensed will lose it with a DWI. We also do medical transports for outpatients who have had anesthesia, for example.
PT: Please explain the bond between a driver and his vehicle.
MM: You’re in Buffalo, New York. A car is your only real means of transportation. Our customers don’t take cabs. They spend $60,000 or $70,000 on their vehicles, and they don’t want to leave them. We commissioned a survey asking people why they would drive drunk and 90 percent said because they did not want to leave their vehicle.
PT: What are the demographics of your typical customer?
MM: White-collar males age 30 to 60, though we have blue-collar customers, too. And couples who make reservations for special occasions like their anniversaries. Demographically, it’s not about a specific person but a type of person. Are you a drinker?
PT: You must include a confidentiality clause in your service contract.
MM: Absolutely, even down to the type of car they’re driving because some of the cars – there’s only one or two of them in this town.
PT: Personally, what are you known for?
MM: I have a bit of a control issue. It becomes very difficult for me. And I’m not the most organized person.
PT: What is your professional goal?
MM: To build this into Hertz rental car. I want to see this in every city in America.