When COVID-19 arrived in Ontario, Cody Ruberto and his rideshare company, Uride, immediately put a number of safety measures in place.
Drivers were given gloves and masks to wear while driving, passengers were only permitted to sit in the back seat of the vehicles, and cars were thoroughly sanitized after every ride, with drivers wiping down door handles, seatbelts and anywhere else passengers may have made contact.
Windows were kept rolled down during the ride to keep the air flowing, and the company has committed to helping drivers outfit their vehicles with plexi-glass dividers to further enforce physical distancing measures.
But fairly quickly, Uride started getting requests from clients for other services, such as grocery delivery.
“We really wanted to help solve this problem where a lot of people were in quarantine or self-isolating,” said Ruberto, who understands first-hand the need for alternatives to traditional in-store shopping.
The professional soccer player, who splits his time between Thunder Bay and the United Kingdom, was overseas gearing up for the upcoming season when it was put on hold due to COVID-19.
He flew back to Canada the next day, went into quarantine, and had family deliver supplies to him.
But he recognizes not everyone is as lucky.
“I was fortunate that I had family that could go and pick up groceries and leave it at the door for me, but there's a lot of people who don't have those options and were put in a really hard place," he said.
Within a few weeks of receiving those first inquiries, the company had launched Uride Services, which allows clients to order supplies – groceries, alcohol, takeout food, pet care items – either through the smartphone app or the website, and have them delivered directly to their door the same day.
“Initially, we launched with grocery delivery and alcohol delivery,” Ruberto said. “Now in Thunder Bay we’re starting to roll out pet stores, we’re starting to roll out clothing stores, all different local shops, and that’s something we intend to roll out in all of our other markets as well.”
In Northern Ontario, Uride operates in Kenora, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, and Timmins, but the company’s services are now available in southern Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Ruberto said businesses interested in working with Uride can sign up on the Uride Services platform and the company will post their entire inventory and prices online, where customers can browse and purchase items.
“It’s similar to being in the store doing your shopping, except you’re doing everything online,” Ruberto said.
“Then it gets sent to one of our drivers, and they’ll go in, pick up the things that have been ordered and deliver it to the customer.”
It can be a welcome solution, both for shoppers who want to remain safely isolated, and for small to medium-sized businesses that don’t have the technical savvy or finances to implement e-commerce platforms, he noted.
Kitchener-based transportation company Driverseat, which offers shuttle and chauffeur services through franchises in Canada and the U.S., has implemented a similar service it dubs ‘shop and drop.’
Wanting to help keep people safe while also generating revenue, the company, started by two Sault Ste. Marie ex-pats, started offering grocery shopping services in March.
Driverseat CEO Brian Bazely, who founded the company with his brother Luke in 2012, said the company started partnering with grocery stores in some of its markets, which set up separate pickup lanes for Driverseat drivers to park.
“We could get 10 times less people in the grocery store, because one chauffeur can shop for 10 families,” said Bazely.
“That’s 10 times less vehicles on the road, and the cashier staff in the grocery store would have 10 times less people to come into contact with, which was safer for them.”
The Sault Ste. Marie franchise was one of the first to adopt this service, and others have followed.
As part of its commitment to ‘governance with purpose,’ Driverseat offers the service free of charge to the elderly and vulnerable people, Bazely said.
Like Uride, they, too, stepped up vehicle sanitization measures, provided drivers with personal protective equipment, and enhanced driver training. Vulnerable staff members were reassigned to tasks that posed less of a risk of exposure.
At the onset of COVID-19, Bazely said Driverseat worked with the federal government transporting Canadians re-entering the country who had to enter quarantine and couldn’t access public transit.
In those scenarios, Driverseat would deploy larger vehicles so passengers could sit eight or nine feet back from the driver to limit contact. Drivers would open the door, step back and let the passenger get in before closing the door and getting back in the vehicle.
Some franchise owners have recently started installing plexiglass screens in their vehicles where it doesn’t interfere with other safety measures, such as airbags.
Bazely believes there’s no question the future of the personal transportation industry will be changed by COVID-19 and that it will continue to evolve.
“The ‘new normal,’ I think, is a version of what’s the new normal after phase one opening versus phase two opening, versus 2021, versus all of 2022,” he said.
“The idea that you can put 15 people into a 15-seater vehicle might just not be the reality anymore.”
But still, he sees opportunity for growth, in transporting people to work, continuing with shop-and-drop services, and offering niche services that help transport vulnerable people, such as dementia patients, the elderly, children with anxiety issues, and more.
Through COVID-19, Driverseat has signed up six more entrepreneurs as franchisees, and he’s received interest from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Italy, and Chile.
The company’s goal is to become operational in 20 countries globally.
Driverseat already has drivers in a number of Northern Ontario communities, including Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury.
Ruberto agrees that the industry is changing, and as business picks up, he anticipates hiring more people to work on the Uride platform.
Whether people dislike grocery shopping, they want to protect vulnerable loved ones from exposure to illness, or they just want to spend their time on other things, he predicts many of the routines people are currently forming will remain long after the danger from COVID-19 has passed.
“When you experience the convenience of clicking a couple of buttons and getting something delivered to your door an hour later, or the same day, it’s tough to go back,” Ruberto said.
“You get more time to spend with your family, you get more time to work on whatever you’re passionate about, and I think that the patterns and habits that are being created right now will last for a while.”