Confidential Escalade: A Twin Cities Business Insight

    At 5 p.m. on a rainy summer Sunday, the Mall of America is packed. The food court is especially crowded, and that’s where I meet Chey Eisenmann, the owner of Chey Car, a local black car service. While she only has one Escalade, she has an impressive following of 20,000 Twitter users who eagerly await her insights, rumors, and early warnings.

    As we sit down at Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls, Eisenmann explains that the out-of-towners frequent her car service, while the locals prefer Shake Shack, just a few feet away in the food court. There’s a certain truth to her statement, but it’s hard to verify.

    Operating seven days a week, Eisenmann is always working. Sunday is particularly busy as it’s the key day for airport pickups when everyone is returning home. After enjoying our lobster rolls, we discuss the night’s agenda, which includes picking up passengers from Oslo, Jacksonville, and LaGuardia. However, the flights are running late, and Eisenmann might have to call in her reserves.

    We arrive at the specialized ride pickup area at MSP. ’90s on 9 is playing on SiriusXM, and the temperature in the Escalade is set to a comfortable 63 degrees. Eisenmann is dressed in her uniform of black slacks, black jacket, and a white or off-white shirt. The car is stocked with FIJI waters and gummy bears.

    While waiting for the Oslo flight to land, Eisenmann texts a welcome message, checks if the passengers have checked bags, and tries to time her arrival accordingly. However, the unpredictability of customs and baggage operations can make this task challenging. Eisenmann wants to clarify that it’s illegal to pick up passengers at baggage claim, despite many people asking for this service.

    The passengers from Oslo, a retired couple from southwest Edina, are waiting for us at the pickup area. Eisenmann would have preferred to be the one waiting for them, but Global Entry made that impossible. As we drive them home, they share stories about their trip on the Norwegian coastal ferry, the Hurtigruten. The conversation is quintessentially Minnesotan, filled with compliments about the beautiful country and lacking any viral-worthy tweets. We drop them off and head to the park-and-ride near Fort Snelling to prepare for the Jacksonville pickup.

    Eisenmann believes that people have been driving recklessly since the pandemic, with more wrong-way drivers on the freeways. She considers the roads to be more dangerous now.

    The flight from Jacksonville is also running late, as is the one from LaGuardia. This overlap means that Chey Car will lose some revenue. Eisenmann contacts Omar, her top relief driver, who drives a Tesla X, and assigns him to pick up the passengers from LaGuardia.

    On our way to a car wash, we stop at the Holiday at 34th Avenue for a quick wash and tire shine. Eisenmann keeps an array of cleaning products in the car, including 3M Plastic Protectant. During winter, the car is washed three to four times a day, but in summer, once is usually enough. Eisenmann comments on how professional chauffeurs are obsessed with cleanliness.

    Eisenmann’s journey to where she is today has been intriguing. She was adopted and raised in the Driftless region of southeast Minnesota. She studied at the University of Minnesota and St. Catherine University before working in ad sales for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and then a tech company. In 2009, she started driving a cab and transitioned to a black car service in 2014 when Uber became popular. Chey Car barely survived the pandemic, unlike many other black car businesses.

    Eisenmann credits Twitter for aiding her recovery, with 70% of her new customers coming from the social media platform. As soon as the older generation received their COVID-19 shots, her business boomed. Eisenmann enjoys studying her community and staying informed about their needs and topics of discussion. Her Twitter presence has made her recognizable, with people often asking if she’s “Chey on Twitter.”

    Her career in the cab and black car industry has allowed her to interact with a diverse range of people in Minnesota. It has given her insights into various communities, including those on life’s margins. Eisenmann has become well-connected with both the state’s corporate and political elite. Her Twitter feed is filled with local whispers and insider information from the gambling and sex trade industries.

    Before the pandemic, her biggest customer was Medtronic. However, the corporate segment of her business has significantly shrunk since then. Only 25% of her corporate clientele has returned, while the leisure segment has grown to 75%. She remarks that other markets have seen a corporate rebound, but Minneapolis has not.

    The cab business was more eclectic, but the black car business has its own challenges. It’s difficult to scale due to peak demand, which often coincides with airport rush hours. Minnesotans have specific preferences for airport trips, even booking months in advance. The most challenging time for Eisenmann is when customers request airport pickups at 3 a.m. for 5 a.m. flights, as the check-in counters and security rarely open before 4 a.m.

    Eisenmann rarely gets more than three hours of sleep a night but wishes she could have eight hours. However, her business and the complexities of her customers’ lives demand her attention. She understands that everyone has their own struggles, and her quality of life lies in serving her community.

    Despite the challenges, Eisenmann believes she offers a great value for her customers. Her rates are half of the national average, catering to the price-sensitivity of Minnesotans. However, her costs have increased significantly since 2019, and while she increased her prices by 24%, higher increases were met with resistance. Her lowest-priced ride is $72, including a mandatory 20% service charge. The average cash tip ranges from $20 to $40.

    As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Eisenmann attracts female customers and families who feel more comfortable with her. She also serves elderly clients and increasingly transports them to medical appointments.

    Eisenmann has chosen not to put her overflow drivers on payroll, relying on independent contractors instead. The pandemic highlighted the precariousness of her business model, and she remains cautious about scaling. Expansion brings greater risks, especially during economic downturns.

    She acknowledges that her business is not a path to riches; it’s too volatile for financial stability. Independent operators like Eisenmann need to generate at least $150,000 in revenue to sustain themselves, an increase from $120,000 five years ago. While 2022 was her best year, tripling historical norms, this year has been far from similar.

    Eisenmann’s clients appreciate her for more than just her reliable service and competitive pricing. It’s her personality that sets her apart. She keeps up to date with news and current events, making engaging conversations with her passengers. She adjusts her demeanor according to the clients in her car, reading their moods and preferences accurately. Her clients have become friends, valuing the mundane but enjoyable interaction during their travels.

    Eisenmann’s Twitter presence has transformed her business. While she initially joined Twitter for news and traffic updates, she quickly realized its potential as a platform for communication and connection. Her early followers included reporters, and her involvement in the cab industry often led her to crime scenes, establishing connections with journalists. In 2014, Eisenmann even wrote a cover story for City Pages titled “Confessions of a Lady Cab Driver.”

    She experienced a surge in followers during the lockdown due to her willingness to leave her house and provide real-time experiences. During the social unrest following George Floyd’s death, she assisted workers who were stranded due to the suspension of bus services. Eisenmann even reported a gas station arson to the authorities.

    Eisenmann views Twitter as a means of sharing information rather than soliciting business. However, the visibility it provides keeps her top of mind for potential customers. Her followers feel a sense of familiarity and trust with her, which ultimately translates into new business.

    While Eisenmann’s tweets anonymize the conversations she has with her passengers, some people still get paranoid and believe she’s referring to them. She occasionally receives requests to retract a tweet, and she happily obliges. Relationships matter more to her than Twitter.

    Eisenmann’s willingness to address controversial topics occasionally lands her in hot waters. She was accused of advocating for child abuse after tweeting about disciplining children who committed car thefts. However, she ensures that her tweets are respectful and avoids sharing confidential information.

    People are drawn to Eisenmann because they feel isolated and need someone to talk to. She has noticed an increase in confessions, with more people opening up about their crimes. She believes that the sense of isolation continues to affect people.

    Regular passengers appreciate Eisenmann’s ability to provide intriguing details about topics without revealing specific sources. She is known for her incredible memory and can pick up conversations where they left off during previous rides.

    Eisenmann believes she provides a unique experience both in the car and on Twitter. She entertains her passengers, offers insights, and listens attentively. Her loquaciousness and willingness to engage have endeared her to her clients, making her more than just a silent driver.

    Driving an Escalade, a new one of which costs around $100,000, is no small expense. Eisemann replaces her cars every two years, averaging 65,000 miles a year, though during the post-COVID boom, she drove 90,000 miles. The pandemic continues to cast a shadow on her business, as she repays loans received during the crisis.

    Ultimately, spending time with Eisenmann is a unique experience. She shares her thoughts and opinions, making conversations captivating. Whether you follow her on Twitter or ride in her car, she leaves a lasting impression on those who interact with her.

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