Eateries should take the wheel

The Baltimore Sun

Restaurants have been good to us over the years. They've provided a setting for our magical moments - from first dates to proposals. They've acted as hosts for our anniversaries and rehearsal dinners. And the lamb chops have been tasty, too.

In the spirit of this celebratory but perilous season, when highway carnage inevitably spikes, it's time to give back. So I'd like to present the restaurant industry - especially those upper-tier eateries that ply us with fine food and wine - with a gift-wrapped idea. Sorry, no returns.

It's a way of dealing with a central paradox of the business: Restaurants want their customers to have a good time, to get home safely, to have a thoroughly pleasant experience.

And they want to sell them alcohol - from a champagne aperitif, to a fine bottle of cabernet sauvignon to an after-dinner snifter of cognac. That's where the big margins are.

And also the big perils. Sell the customer too much of your fine products, then put that person on the road, and you've got the makings of a most unpleasant evening indeed. An experience that culminates in a drunken-driving arrest is one the customer may seek to avoid in the future.

Such an outcome is increasingly a concern as local jurisdictions step up their enforcement of laws against impaired driving - as well they should. My home county, Howard, is known for its strict enforcement practices. You don't have to blow .07 percent - the blood-alcohol level at which one is presumed to be impaired as a driver - to find yourself in handcuffs.

My proposal, refined with the help of a gifted Columbia restaurateur and longtime friend, is that restaurants put themselves in the business of picking up their customers, wining and dining them and getting them home safe and sound. Call it Door-to-Door Dining.

Sell the experience as a package and make the transportation costs a modest add-on to the check. When a customer makes a reservation, automatically offer pickup and drop-off service within a reasonable radius. Chances are diners will more than make up for added costs with extra indulgence. If they don't, well, you still have a happy clientele.

Some high-end restaurants have versions of this service in effect already, but it's not within the resources of all these businesses. But why shouldn't a group of restaurants form a consortium - with the help of local government - to create such a service?

One obvious objection is that diners already have the option of calling a taxi. True, but all too often they don't. There is a perception, especially in the suburbs, that a taxi ride is horrendously expensive. You bet it's cheaper than a DWI bust, but try explaining that to people who have had a few drinks. (Think of all the rich Hollywood types - Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Mel Gibson - who couldn't afford a cab.)

If the cost of a taxi could be eased, and rolled into the credit card payment for the meal, diners are more likely to recognize an attractive alternative to taking a chance on the road. Far from cutting the taxi companies out of the action, the restaurants should find a way to make them partners in providing affordable service. (Smart taxi operators will seize each ride as an opportunity to market their services with a refrigerator magnet or a voucher for a future trip.)

There may also be a role for local transit agencies - perhaps in bringing diners to a central collection point. After all, their buses, in many cases, are sitting idle at the times people are finishing dinner.

Local governments and restaurant associations would be the ideal entities to get the discussion started and to work out such issues as regulation and liability. If state legislation is needed to facilitate such a service, invite local legislative delegations to the table.

Why should local officials get involved in such an effort? Simple. Traffic safety is both a public health and a law enforcement issue. Busting people is costly for both the buster and the busted. A thriving restaurant scene is good for economic development and the quality of life.

So where to start? At the risk of being presumptuous, I'd like to volunteer Howard County. It's more geographically compact than Anne Arundel or Baltimore counties. It has a critical mass of fine restaurants with local ownership. It has local political leadership with an activist streak. And it has a chief public health officer in Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, who's been known to take an expansive view of his role.

Get the right folks together in a room. Design a workable, economical program. Market it aggressively. By the next holiday season, local restaurants might be selling a lot more Grand Marnier after dinner - to folks who will make it home safe, sound and with no need for an attorney.

So, Merry Christmas 2007. May future Christmases, Hanukkahs, Kwanzaas and Festivuses (Festuvi?) be even merrier - and safer.

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