BTB Burrito’s newest marketing device cruises the streets of Ann Arbor, seats 14 passengers and smells unmistakably like french fries.
The Ann Arbor-based Mexican food chain has rolled out a red “party bus” that runs on vegetable oil and is offering the bus as an eco-friendly taxi. BTB co-owner Adam Lowenstein said converting the bus to run on vegetable oil took about three months and $4,000, but will pay dividends in the long run.
“Basically, we don’t pay for gas,” he said. “We produce this waste product and we’re paying to get it picked up. But now, for free, we’re filtering and putting it into the bus and riding it around town.”
Anyone can call for a ride on the bus or flag it down from the street. A ride on the bus, which runs Tuesday through Saturday nights from 5 p.m. until about 3 a.m., costs $2.
Lowenstein said students can also rent out the bus for a ride to concerts or other events outside Ann Arbor.
Rishi Narayan, who owns Underground Printing and has a stake in the bus project, said he and BTB co-owner Justin Herrick have long wanted to create an environmentally-friendly kind of transportation. But using the remnants of tortilla chips to power the bus has some consequences, he said.
“We’re running the bus on used fryer grease,” he said. “It smells a little bit like french fries if you’re standing behind it.”
Benny Thomas Blevins, the bus’s driver, said most of the calls for the bus come before midnight. While he tries to pick people up immediately, he said during busy periods it can be hard to keep track of all the requests. It usually takes between 15 and 20 minutes for him to get students once they make the call.
When a Michigan Daily staff reporter rode the bus between midnight and 1 a.m. Sunday morning, the bus was about half full. Blevins, who used to drive a cab before switching to the bus, said he expects the atmosphere to get rowdier as business picks up, but that he’d be able to handle it.
“It’s basically just like a cab. You deal with the same kind of people all the time, you get your crazy people. Here, they can do a little bit more crazy things like roll around on the floor or something,” he said. “I got five kids so I’m pretty good at dealing with kids, you deal with kids at home and then you come and deal with somebody else’s kids here.”
LSA sophomore Trevor George, who used to ride in Blevins’s taxi, rode the bus late Saturday night across the street from his house to the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity.
“We only travel in style,” he said. “We don’t cross the street for nothing.”
Blevins said most of his customers so far have been students like George who were chummy with him as a cab driver. Later in the evening, though, a group of about seven guys who had never met Blevins before hopped aboard the bus.
Blevins took them to Scorekeepers Bar and Grill for a 21st birthday celebration. LSA junior Bennet Butler, who called the bus for the group, said he’d discovered the service from a sign on campus.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “If you’re trying to go green, the BTB bus is the place to be seen.”
Blevins said most students he’s spoken to have voiced appreciation for the bus since it started running about two weeks ago, but Lowenstein said it has caused confusion for some.
“A lot of people will get on and will be like, ‘Can I buy food here?'” he said. “Well, not a lot of people — only people that are really wasted.”
But he said the unique concept helps draw students in.
“People walk by and they want to have their picture taken with the bus and they just want to know what it is,” he said. “Once people realize it’s running off of vegetable oil, it’s like, ‘game over.’ People love that.”
Blevins said that while filling the bus with vegetable oil is more complicated than filling it with standard gasoline, he doesn’t mind. He said he’s a perfect fit for the job.
“The ironic thing is my (initials are) BTB, so we’re a match made in heaven,” he said.