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No happy hours. No liquor sold in grocery stores. There are few things as well regulated in North Carolina as alcohol, so when Trolley Pub Founder Kai Kaapro decided to expand his fledgling mobile business to the South, he was prepared for an uphill battle. Luckily, he came armed with a law degree and a business with drive.
If you’ve visited downtown lately, you’ve probably seen one of his open-air vehicles ramble by. Trolley Pub Raleigh is a fleet of (mostly) pedal-powered vehicles that seat up to 14 people for pub crawls around town. Riders bring their own beer and flex their muscles as they cycle through the city.
These BYOB booze cruises have turned into big business. Tours are often booked a month in advance, and the company recently expanded to include a bottle shop where passengers can stock up on libations before their tour.
Six years ago, the self-described accidental entrepreneur was in law school when he watched a YouTube video of a pedal-powered trolley in Amsterdam. He and business partner Andrew Cole found a craftsman to make a working prototype and opened the first Trolley Pub in Tucson, Arizona in 2011. They now operate in five states, including in four cities in North Carolina.
Kaapro moved to Raleigh in 2013, quitting his young law career to focus full-time on Trolley Pub. The 32-year-old mostly works behind the scenes, but every once in awhile, he hops back on the trolley for a tour around the city he now calls home.
What makes a great Trolley Pub driver?
You need the right personality. You have to have a certain amount of outgoingness and assertiveness to deal with 14 personalities who are out drinking and celebrating. You have to be able to assert yourself, but you also need to be fun. So that’s two conflicting traits, in a way, and we have to find people that can balance both. We’ve actually found that our best drivers are teachers! They know how to have fun and deal with people.
Has anyone ever gotten a little wild and fallen off the trolley?
We actually have a great safety record…and customers better wear their seatbelts or they’ll get kicked off!
So what happens if someone does act up?
We have different policies, but they first get some warnings. A lot of times, it’s just one or two people who aren’t obeying the rules, and the drivers will simply eject that person from the trolley. They can meet back up with their friends later on. It happens at least once a month here in Raleigh, where we have to cancel some portion of a tour. I’m always happy when it happens, because it means the drivers are doing their job.
Did you meet interesting people when you were conducting the tours yourself?
I once had a group of Russian visitors who didn’t speak any English. They were just blaring Russian pop music and having the time of their lives. I’ve met so many interesting people from all walks of life. Once, I drove a Mormon tour that brought Jello and snacks and we went to ice cream parlors. That was probably the most wholesome tour I’ve ever thrown.
Do you ever take the Trolley Pub tour for fun?
Yes! I’m my own best customer. I built a business in that classic line of thinking that I would create something I’d want to use. Even after all these years, I still love going out, entertaining people visiting town or celebrating with friends.
Tell us about getting Trolley Pub up and running here in North Carolina.
Every city we worked with has been different. Raleigh was the most welcoming city we’ve ever opened in and it was actually the easiest—thankfully—because it was early on. If we hadn’t been able to do it, we could have gotten discouraged! My legal background has been an advantage. North Carolina regulates alcohol and vehicles at the state level, but every city also has their own regulations over for-hire and carriers like limousines and taxis, so you have to work with both. In Raleigh, it really just took a few conversations with the city attorney and the police attorney; they agreed with our interpretation and were very helpful. Also, the downtown business community was very supportive. But opening in Wilmington took a year-and-a-half! We had to get an ordinance passed, basically, to make it legal there.
What have you learned while building your business?
The first two years were very difficult and the business took some time to grow. But we’ve always been very versatile when things didn’t work. It’s important to change your mindset and change your ambitions based on the circumstances. Don’t get stuck on one idea.
Like your idea to only use pedal power?
When we first opened it was pedal-only, and I would say the motor came by a very loud customer demand. I figured out pretty quickly that the exercise component of it wasn’t the main reason people were coming out to ride it. We found a handyman and some contractors and came up with a design to add a motor.
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