To some concern and resistance, the City of Toronto implemented a significant taxi reform program in 1998, imposing a more consistent set of regulations and rearranging how the industry was run. From the public’s perspective, cabs seemed to become newer and cleaner almost immediately, and drivers were (hopefully) to become less-intimidating.
One of the most interesting programs resulting from the 1998 reform is still mysterious to most riders: the Ambassador Taxicab program. Driven only by owners and identified by yellow plates and a busy, ugly logo, Ambassador cabs are intended to provide a premium service to the customer. Drivers pass a 40-day course that teaches customer service, enhanced safety, vehicle maintenance, route planning, and even business management. The purpose is to appeal to riders with an experience more akin to a liveried car than a taxi service.
It’s not clear how much of an impact the Ambassador program has had on customers, but a more effective implementation of this concept might be targeted to restaurants.
Compared to some other cities, Toronto has been slow to implement effective public disclosure and ratings systems. DineSafe was widely welcomed despite its potential shortcomings and the City is now trying to mandate compulsory food certification for all food handlers. The closest we have to a “premium” certification is Ontario’s Eat Smart! Healthy Restaurant Program, which combines an establishment’s positive health inspection results with an offering of healthier available foods.
What if we took the premium branding concept even further? A restaurant owner would enroll in an extensive voluntary course that would emphasize excellent service and impeccable food handling. Staff might be consistently dressed and relatively knowledgeable about local after-dinner attractions. On request, customers would receive a menu with basic nutritional information printed beneath each dish, and additional badges could verify organically-sourced, fair trade, and free-range items.
Aside from the benefit aimed at the customer, restaurant owners would also be rewarded under the plan. Tax credits would be given for using fresh local produce, and the program would be well-promoted in tourist publications. Nutritional testing might be subsidized by the City or as performed as part of a relevant university’s curriculum. As an additional perk intended to keep important tourist money flowing, the dinner receipt could be shown for same-day discounts on local shows and attractions. Appropriate menu ad placement from some of these attractions might even defray the cost of certification.
Obviously, the cost for any establishment seeking this premium ranking would be significant. Any restaurant or coffee shop owner will say how incredibly difficult their place is to maintain with high overhead and relatively small margins. Critics may also point-out that a premium program might disproportionately reward upscale and chain restaurants who can afford to make the changes with less effort, especially since many of the elements (like obtaining nutritional information) are already in place.
Nonetheless, it’s a hook, and undoubtedly one that would appeal to certain consumers. Like the Ambassador Taxicab program, it’s implementation would not indicate a condemnation of the existing industry, but rather guarantee fantastic service, healthy menu choices, and a positive history of food safety. Bragging rights alone might be worth it for some restaurant owners, yet the real benefit could be stabilizing a base of return customers whom are increasingly demanding transparency, safety, and conscience from their food handlers.
Photo of tables by BLA1NE in the Torontoist Flickr group.