BY DAN HOLLY - CORRESPONDENT
RALEIGH — Kevin Wilkes and Dana Chandler apparently did not notice the name of the cab company before hopping into a taxi in downtown Raleigh on a recent Friday night. The young couple told the driver their destination and settled in for a routine ride.
“Who’s the boss?” asked the driver, Musab Al-Hammimi.
“Excuse me?” Chandler said.
“Who wants to be the boss tonight?”
Al-Hammimi handed the couple his business card. They smiled as they read the company’s name – Trivia Taxi – and understood what the driver was asking: Which one of them wanted to be the spokesman for the trivia quiz he was about to give them?
They did not win, stumbling on the second question (“What is the world’s largest island?”). But they learned something (Greenland) and had more fun during the cab ride than they anticipated.
“We will definitely call you next time,” Wilkes said as they left at their destination.
Raleigh-based Trivia Taxi is riding a novel concept to growing success.
It’s basically a scaled-down version of “Cash Cab,” the TV show based in New York and other large cities where cab drivers bestow cash prizes on passengers for correctly answering questions. Trivia Taxi doesn’t award cash, only free rides.
Trivia Taxi vehicles are not tricked-out like “Cash Cab” cars – no flashing neon lights when passengers answer questions correctly, no video monitors for video bonus questions. But some Trivia Taxi drivers have iPods for audio bonus questions. And Trivia Taxi drivers are just as enthusiastic as “Cash Cab” host Ben Bailey.
Since Al-Hammimi partnered with Bryan Callahan in February and began expanding his business, Trivia Taxi has grown from one to six vehicles and is about to add a seventh. “We can’t keep up with the demand,” Callahan said.
Al-Hammimi and Callahan say the trivia is a good marketing tool. Lent Carr, president of the N.C. Taxi Workers Alliance, an association representing taxi drivers, credits Trivia Taxi with a clever idea. But he wondered whether the free rides shortchange drivers or result in a loss of tax revenue for the city.
Al-Hammimi and Callahan say they are trying to up the game of the taxi industry. “We’re just trying to do something,” Callahan said.
For a business that seems so whimsical, the roots are surprisingly serious. The idea came from Al-Hammimi.
Originally from Palestine, Al-Hammimi, 43, began driving a cab in 1991 while an undergraduate at Shaw University in Raleigh. Though he speaks good, unaccented English, his features are unmistakably Middle Eastern.
“The first question I always get asked is where I am from,” Al-Hammimi said.
Everything changed for him after Sept. 11, 2001, he said, because he began encountering some hostility when he disclosed his ethnicity.
“I had to find a way to reframe the whole conversation because I understood one thing,” Al-Hammimi said. “The moment I said ‘I’m from Palestine,’ I had a problem.”
So, Al-Hammimi began playing trivia contests with passengers to redirect their curiosity away from him. That was several years before “Cash Cab” debuted on the Discovery Channel in 2005.
When the city in 2008 allowed new cab companies, Al-Hammimi renamed his one-vehicle company Trivia Taxi. But he had no plans to expand it.
Meanwhile, Callahan, 31, moved to Raleigh from his native Florida to be near family. He started driving a cab to earn money while going to school to become a paramedic. But he plunged seriously into the taxi industry after meeting Al-Hammimi. A former marketing director, Callahan saw great potential in Trivia Taxi, so the two became business partners.
Harder, but fun
Trivia Taxi’s growth has come mainly from word of mouth, Callahan said.
Repeat customers tend to be young and educated. Drivers are required to memorize dozens of trivia questions and answers, so Callahan and Al-Hammimi are not worried about repeat customers getting too many questions they’ve heard before.
They are more worried about their customers’ technological savvy – attempts to look up answers by accessing the Internet through cell phones is a constant problem.
Jim Duffy, 39, a financial adviser, and J. Crumpler, 38, an attorney, are loyal customers, even though they have won one only once. They lost on a recent Friday night, failing to come up with the world’s second most popular sport (volleyball).
“If you try to compare them to ‘Cash Cab,’ the questions are a little harder,” Duffy said. But “it’s absolutely the funnest taxi cab.”