PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA
DSC_6061 ew

LISA MATTE is co-owner of Gold Rush Taxi in Placerville.

Prospecting

Taxi covers two counties

By From page B2 | August 18, 2014

Gold Rush Taxi not only goes the extra mile with service and customer satisfaction, that extra mile could be as far away as Montana.

“That happened in June a year ago with Lisa,” said Wyl Bonner, senior driver for the Placerville-based cab company. “Lisa (one of the owners) and another driver ended up going to on a 26-hour hell ride to save a guy millions of dollars.”

Here’s what happened:

“We got a call from Jackson Rancheria in Amador County, a gambler there had gotten a phone call saying if he didn’t make it to court in 48 hours he stood to lose millions,” Bonner recounted. “He was told that the judge wouldn’t accept an electronic signature and he needed to be there in person. ‘There’ was Butte, Montana.”

It turned out all airlines were booked, no charters were available and the guy’s health was such he couldn’t drive himself. He called Gold Rush, which also operates in neighboring Amador in addition to all of El Dorado County.

“Lisa told him it would cost $2,500 up front and that there was no guarantee that they’d get him there in time,” said Bonner, adding that Lisa Matte was accompanied by another cabbie. “The guy said, ‘That’s OK, I  am a gambler.’ They got him there with two hours to spare.”

The happy client ended up giving Matte and her buddy a $500 tip.

There’s little doubt that Gold Rush Taxi has swept into El Dorado County with a flair for going that extra mile, from opening up passengers’ doors with a smile and a bow to carrying in groceries for those in need of aid.

“Full service means courtesy service — we don’t consider our passengers as a hard piece of cargo,” said Bonner, one of the very first drivers hired by Matte and her partner, Tory Younghusband when they started the company in February 2012. Even though there already were three other cab companies in Placerville at that time, Matte, 43, said she felt there was a need for one more.

“I was working for Aladdin Bail Bonds at the time and I would see the clients call for a cab,” she explained. Watching what happened with that process, she decided improvements were needed.

“I saw a need for a premium taxi service,” she said. “Something needed to change so that people had an option.”

Two-and-a half-years later, the two white Toyota Scions zipping along local roadways in two counties, golden lettering on their sides, have become a common sight — and a welcome one as well, according to driver Duncan Allen.

“I’ve been with the company for three months, and I love it,” he began in an intriguing English accent. “One of the fares I recall as memorable would be the couple from Australia who were celebrating their son’s wedding and their 43rd wedding anniversary up in Tahoe. We always arrive with flowers for anniversaries, so I delivered them to her and she was so grateful.

“She still had them in her hand when I picked them up a couple days later in South Lake Tahoe.”

Allen, 50, said even though it has been just a few months, he already is toying with the idea of writing a book about taxi rides, recounting another fare that encouraged the idea.

“I had told a client about my book idea, and when we arrived at his home, he said, ‘Stop the meter, I have a gift for you,’” Allen continued. “He went inside, then came back out with a book called ‘Inside My Taxi,’ where a guy had taken photos during his driving career. I would like to write vignettes about my 100 most interesting rides.

“I told the client his gift would be my first one.”

Allen said he is amazed at the diverse and interesting clientele locally, a fact embraced by fellow driver Bonner.

“We enjoy chatting with our fares, with the conversation intended to make them more comfortable,” he said. “That means you have to be conversant with a wide variety of personalities. We’ve heard that some of the other cab drivers make a practice of not talking — they just take your money and show you their taillights.”

That won’t happen with Gold Rush Taxi, Bonner assured.

“I’m not only the senior driver, I’m also the trainer,” he smiled. “I’m not a gunny sergeant, but …” Bonner said the chief lesson new drivers need to learn is to say “yes” to the customer.

Drivers must have a minimum of seven years with no moving violations and are drug tested and cleared with background checks, he added.

“The Placerville police know everything there is to know about our five drivers,” Bonner said.
Gold Rush Taxi also believes in community service — again, going that extra mile, even into the smoke and flames of the recent Sand Fire in El Dorado’s South County.

“We offered free cab rides to the victims of the fire who had to evacuate,” said Matte. “We were stationed at Ponderosa High and the fairgrounds (where evacuees sought help) and we ended up giving rides to 15 to 20 people, everything from getting groceries to medical needs.”

Matte said one Gold Rush driver, Erin Ankrom, received a phone call from an evacuee who said he needed a cab at Sandridge Road and Highway 49, in the heart of the Sand Fire. “He had a backpack and a suitcase when Erin got there, and his uninsured home had just gone up in flames,” Matte said. “He told Erin, ‘Take me someplace cooler, like Arizona.’”

Humor in the midst of tragedy is hard to come by, but Gold Rush Taxi’s employees have empathy and understanding for their clients. In fact, they even attend funerals when the time comes.

“Our regular clients become like family to us; it becomes a series of descending snapshots when they die,” said Bonner, 61. “We attend their funerals. One fare, she was Miss Harley-Davidson back in the ’80s; the people at her church asked us to speak at her funeral. I did, and three of us attended. We also have a dedication page on our Website, goldrushtaxi.com.”
The bond formed by “regulars” and the cabbies is solid, with the drivers helping with folding wheelchairs and walkers, carrying in groceries and gladly performing other chores along the journey.

“We get a number of Christmas cards,” said Bonner, who added that one of his personal goals with each fare is to “get them to smile before they leave.”

“We’re really invested in our seniors,” said Matte, “who need shopping, medical appointments. We have a lot of business people, too, who need to be picked up at the Placerville Airport.”

“We actually serve everyone from drunks on the sidewalk to Google executives,” Bonner said, recounting a fare a couple of months ago where he received a call from a pilot with an Italian accent.

“He called and said, ‘Can you pick us up at the Placerville Airport in 15 minutes?’ He said they were taxiing right then in Palo Alto.”

Despite figuring that 15 minutes wouldn’t be nearly enough time for the flight, Bonner nonetheless drove to the airport in 10 minutes. Five minutes later, here came the plane.

“It looked like a space ship,” he said of the turbo-prop craft with striking rear wings. “It really looked like it came from another planet. They made a hot-stick landing that got the attention of the other pilots up there.”

Bonner said the Google execs on board met with county officials, enjoyed lunch at Sweetie Pies on Main Street in Placerville, then were whisked away again, all the while being served by Gold Rush Taxi.

Matte added that many of the company’s clients are from the Silicon Valley, coming to enjoy the area’s bounty of beauty, taking rafting trips, enjoying the premier wineries and the like.

In this modern era of cell phones and instant communication, there is no dispatch center as depicted in the TV show, “Taxi,” but once a client calls, service is prompt and professional, Matte assured. The meter doesn’t start running until the customer is in the car, added Bonner, even if the pick-up is as remote as Omo Ranch or Georgetown. Gold Rush charges $3 for flag drop and $3 a mile, which is standard for this county, according to Matte. Discounts are offered for round trips and specialty rides. Seniors also enjoy a special rate.

Each driver works on commission, working 12-hour shifts. Bonner said he pulls a 60-hour work week and enjoys tooling around in the boxlike Scions, vehicles that each driver is responsible for keeping clean and pristine.

“There’s a lot more inside-room than people think, looking at them from the outside,” he said. “People say it looks like we’re driving around in a toaster or a loaf of bread, then they are surprised to see us fly around as fast as everyone else. Plus, the wheelbase allows us to get into tight parking spots and negotiate tricky turns.”

They might look like they’re zooming about, but the Gold Rush Taxi cabs are driven carefully, with the clients’ safety foremost in the drivers’ minds, according to Bonner. In a 15-minute drive with the veteran cabbie, despite his continual, entertaining chatter, it was noted he observed all posted speed limits, cruised smoothly to stops at red (and yellow) lights and made safe, reasonable turns and other maneuvers.

“Safety comes first, and because we run background checks with the police, were are able to give our clients confidence in picking up seniors, children — we also pick up for the Women’s Shelter and take them to ‘safe houses,’” said Bonner.

He added that in its first year, Gold Rush Taxi drivers could almost take a nap in between fares, but now business is rolling along at a great clip. Each shift sees eight to a dozen calls for service, and much of the business is from referrals, according to Matte, who said she is “amazed” at the company’s growth in customers. She added that she and her partner would like to expand the taxi service into Placer and Calaveras counties, so that the entire historical Gold Rush area is encompassed. There are plans to add a four-wheel drive cab to the fleet before winter.

Gold Rush Taxi is fully licensed and permitted, and their meters are calibrated by the state and the county.

“We keep it honest,” said Bonner.

Gold Rush Taxi may be reached at 530-651-GOLD (4653) or in Amador County at 209-256-3828.

Pat Lakey

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