These two Salt Lake men are fighting hard to restore the taxicab to its former glory
Technology, in the form of Uber and Lyft, almost leveled the taxicab industry in Salt Lake City, but Yellow Cab and Ute Cab have a new game plan and they’re fighting back
Almoh Bahaji and Jay Wacker, a couple of friendly, blue jeans-wearing 60-year-olds, don’t look like counterrevolutionaries. Nor do their no-frills offices in the yellow cinderblock building on the west side of town look like the kind of high ground from which to launch an offensive.
But make no mistake, these men are fighting back hard, bound and determined to return the once and mighty king to its former glory.
Namely, the taxicab.
Everyone knows cabs haven’t had an easy go of it the past decade. First came Uber, then Lyft, ride-sharing companies you could summon from your phone!
Not only did the new technology quickly and efficiently bring rides to you no matter where you were, but the drivers got online consumer ratings, a sort of built-in quality control — in sharp contrast to cabs, where customer service often amounted to you’re-lucky-we-picked-you-up.
Gone was the virtual monopoly cabs had enjoyed since the invention of the Model T. Demand plunged practically overnight.
Yellow Cab of Salt Lake City is a case in point. Riding high with a fleet of 150 cabs circa 2012, by 2016 it was down to 40.
The owners and shareholders put the business up for sale, which was no surprise. What was a surprise was that someone bought it.
People were pretty sure Almoh Bahaji had either lost his mind or was about to.
But Almoh had two very good reasons for buying what looked like a dinosaur: One, he had been driving for the company since 1999; two, and more importantly, during that time he’d bought dozens of cabs that he contracted out to other drivers.
If Yellow Cab ceased to exist, he’d be left with a garage full of yellow colored cars and nowhere to drive them.
Fortunately, facing long odds did not scare a man who first had to escape a civil war in his homeland of Somalia before arriving in Salt Lake City in 1996 as a refugee with $80 to his name.
He was living in The Road Home homeless shelter when he drove his first cab.
After that, he says, “I began living the American dream.”
He first socked enough away to purchase his own car. Then he socked enough away to buy more cars and hire them out. His fleet was front and center for the 2002 Olympics, when Salt Lake taxis had their greatest month ever.
The taxicab business — For Yellow Cab and for Almoh — stayed steady through 2009, when Uber was born, and through 2012, when Lyft came to be. Then came the slippery slope, followed by the fire sale.
First thing Almoh did when the company was his was admit to himself what he didn’t know.
He could see that the previous management “didn’t plan very well for Uber and Lyft; they didn’t form any strategy,” but he didn’t know how to modernize the business.
“That’s why I got Jay,” he says.
Jay is Jay Wacker, a man who in one way or another has been in the transportation business all of his life, as a driver, a dispatcher, a customer service director, a manager. With his experience and track record preceding him, Almoh asked Jay to be his operations supervisor.
“I’ll give you six months,” he said.
That was five years ago.
The fact they’re still standing is testament to where hard work and determination will get you.
That and a new business model.
Instead of being repelled by technology, they embraced it. They got a rider app called CURB that does the same thing as the Uber and Lyft apps. They aggressively went after contracts with hotels and other businesses, including the airport, promising better service with their new software. They chiseled away at the longstanding negative taxi culture of customers serving the driver rather than the other way around.
“Taxis were the only one doing it for a long time and they were fairly apathetic to customer service, and to some extent they still are,” says Jay. “But we’re trying to get an understanding of what a taxi service is supposed to look like instead of the old legacy. We’re a service industry. That’s all we have is service.”
Like everything else, the new business model didn’t plan for the pandemic, but somehow it managed to survive 2020, if barely. At the lowest point during the lockdown they were down to just 10 drivers.
They have rebounded ever since, to the point they now have 84 cabs in their fleet (they’ve also acquired Ute Cab), they’re getting 800 app hits a day (not including corporate accounts and the airport) — and they’re constantly looking to add more cabs and more drivers.
A good sign that they’re doing something right: of their last dozen driver hires, 10 have come from Uber and Lyft.
“We can compete with Uber and Lyft,” says Jay, noting that one big advantage cabs have is that, unlike their ride-sharing competitors, they charge the same fare for the same route no matter the time of day and regardless of supply and demand. There are no surge charges.
“People don’t like surge charges,” he says.
“I like our position, I like where we are,” says the counterrevolutionary, a noticeable touch of pride in his voice. “We took over a dying business and revitalized it. Our future looks bright. We’re a long way from being done.”