No Drive Drinking

For merrymaking on St. Patrick’s and other days and nights, restaurants like Montvale’s Porter House roll out the courtesy shuttle.

Dan Riecken regularly picks up and drops off customers.
Designated Dan: At the wheel of what he calls the "Porter House-pitality bus," Dan Riecken regularly picks up and drops off customers--kibitzing with them coming and, especially, going.
Photo by John O'Boyle

“Step right this way—for the Magical Mystery Tour!” called Dan Riecken from the wheel of the minibus parked outside the Porter House, an Irish steakhouse and cigar lounge in Montvale.

Six passengers clambered aboard, chuckling at the driver’s jovial spiel. It was a little after 11 pm on a Saturday night. One rider tapped his smartphone and, presto, the classic Beatles tune filled the chilly air.
There was no mystery as to destinations. The passenger who had summoned the Beatles song on his phone would be returned to the Courtyard Marriott in Montvale, where the minibus had picked him up hours earlier. Three Porter House employees, having finished their shifts, would be dropped off at the Spring Valley, New York, train station. This writer and her husband were along for the ride and would return to the restaurant for the next run of what Riecken calls the Porter House-pitality Bus.

Among revelers, the designated driver has become a kind of self-effacing folk hero. But not every group lines up an abstaining driver, and sometimes individuals drink more than they expected to. To cover a variety of circumstances, some unrelated to alcohol, Porter House owner Fintan Seeley, a native of Carlow, Ireland, created the restaurant’s shuttle service last November.

“It gives customers that peace of mind,” he says. “They feel like they might be over the limit and just not want to take the chance. Today people realize you might be 100 percent fine to drive the car, but legally you’re not.”

Seeley’s wife, Kelly, the restaurant’s general manager and a native of Belfast, adds, “It’s also for people who don’t have a car—for example, people staying at a hotel. Taxis are hard to get around here, and they’re expensive.”

The Porter House shuttle operates from 8 pm to closing (2 to 3 am, depending on day of the week), Thursdays through Sundays, as well as on holidays and occasions such as Thanksgiving Eve, New Year’s Eve, Super Bowl Sunday and certainly St. Patrick’s Day.

It isn’t alone. “Don’t drink and drive!” urges the home page of Doc’s Pub, an Irish sports bar in Burlington. “Let us take you home on our Blarney Bus! Just ask!” On Long Beach Island, Nardi’s is famous for its pink Party Bus, which picks up customers around the Island and returns them to the pick-up points.

“For years, I’ve been threatening to do it,” says Seeley, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering and also owns the Blind Boar in Norwood. He says he got the idea for the shuttle from visiting Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which runs a free, citywide bus service, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where the Parrot Lounge used to shuttle customers up and down the beach.

After an online search, Seeley flew to Utah to buy a 14-seat minibus with two fuel tanks and drove it back to New Jersey. One tank holds diesel fuel, the other vegetable oil converted to 100 percent biofuel. “I was throwing out 40 to 50 gallons of vegetable oil a week,” Seeley says. “Now I use that.”

In cold temperatures, explains driver Riecken, the engine has to be started with diesel fuel. When the engine warms up, he switches to the bio fuel. Sometimes, he says, a faint whiff of french fries wafts into the cabin. Riecken jokes that the aroma helps whet passengers’ appetites. Riecken, 64, understands engines. He owns Northvale Auto Parts. That’s where you’ll find him during the day.

Driver Dan, as customers call him, says he typically makes five to seven shuttle runs a night, depending on demand. There is no set schedule. He will drive as much as 20 minutes from the Porter House to pick up or drop off customers. Sometimes he needn’t go nearly that far. “I picked up a toga party one night of 12 people just down the street,” he recalls. “They didn’t want to walk in togas. It was cold out.”

Fliers posted in the restaurant inform customers of the free service. Bartenders and servers mention it, and so will the emcee on nights when a band is playing.

Drink is not allowed on the shuttle. Riecken says he will personally walk riders to their door if he thinks the extra attention is warranted. Once in a while, someone who drove to the restaurant decides it would be wiser to ride the shuttle home, and comes back for the car the next day.

Riecken’s banter keeps the mood light and also earns him tips. Referring to the shuttle’s floor-to-ceiling metal grab bars, he intones: “When the vehicle is in motion, ladies, please refrain from using the stripper pole. I can’t watch and drive at the same time.”

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