By JULIUS DENNIS
It has been three years since the experimental Uber offshoot Hi Oscar began operating in Alice Springs, but most around town who use the rideshare app know that when you call Oscar, you’re really calling Toni.
Toni Ryland, who initially moved to Alice to drive tour coaches, first started using the app as a side hustle, but soon fell in love with the work.
Three years later she says that her work is “not a job, it’s a lifestyle”.
Toni is Hi Oscar in Alice. She is the admin, the social media and the driver. She is even the director of the Pink Oscar arm of the company, which ensures that women can request women drivers so they “can feel as safe as possible.” She has pink rims on her Mitsubishi hybrid to match.
Hi Oscar is a young company and it has quirks where it differs from rideshare giants like Uber, Didi or Ola. First of all, you can only book a ride between 9am and 6pm, even if the pick-up time falls outside of those hours, something which has at times confused users.
More importantly, where Uber provides drivers with 70% of takings per ride, Hi Oscar gives 85%. A small difference from the outside, but one that Toni says ensures she makes ample money to get by, even in the quiet months of January and February.
The News spent an hour and half with Toni on Friday night. Business was slow, with just one rider getting dropped off at the brewery for his usual Friday evening drinks, but prior to that 5pm to 6:30pm timeslot, Toni said she had been “manic.”
“I was rushing around like a mad woman.
“From 4 ‘til 4:30 you could have ten drivers on the road and still not get everybody.”
Combine that rush with the off-to-work crowd on weekday mornings, and Toni says that she has a loose list of regulars who provide a steady and predictable amount of work.
Toni says that she has around 400 “casual regulars,” some of whom are less casual and designated time slots on her week. For the gentleman on his way to the brewery, it’s every Friday drop-off and pickup. People like these are the bread and butter of the business.
“The people that I drive around are my friends. I don’t want to let them down. That’s why the service is so popular, I’m reliable as much as I can be.”
“The crust” of Toni’s business is the weekend evenings, where some nights she will stay out as late as 11pm dropping off riders on the way home from an evening out.
To spend time as a passenger without a destination in Toni’s hybrid, (which is remarkably fuel efficient) is to travel at a million miles an hour. Not literally, she is a very safe operator, but figuratively, in the number of things that can be seen and achieved.
It is also easy to understand how she becomes friends with her riders. She is personable and open and sometimes a little over the top. She describes herself as “a real person,” one that doesn’t pull any punches, a confidant of many.
On a Friday night, Toni spends all of her spare time promoting the work of food retailers around town to her some 5000 Facebook followers.
That night, Big Red’s Rollin Smoke, a pop up barbecue joint, was an early pit stop.
Not for a feed, but to get a few photos to post on Facebook and a quick chat. Here it should be mentioned that while it is generally against the Journalist Code of Ethics to take freebies from interviewees and sources, it was impossible for this reporter to refuse an iced tea from Toni while she enthusiastically hyped the “I Love Sweets” tent next to Big Red’s.
Toni’s relationship with the hospitality industry of Alice was cemented during the first wave of Covid-19 hysteria.
Before Covid, business was going better than can be expected by the average rideshare driver, but as the airport closed and people began their government mandated reclusion, the trips started to dry up.
“For my sanity, I have to keep busy,” says Toni, a trait that is clearly illustrated in her long hours and constant online engagement.
So when the Alice Springs Takeaway Facebook page was started, Toni started up a cheaper rate for food delivery around town, dubbed Fancy Oscar: “So that we could do the Covid patients without it costing them a fortune, and keeping me busy.”
While this business also slowed when JobKeeper kicked in and restaurants started running their own delivery systems, it did give Toni something to do during the quiet times.
Now Toni says the business is back to 60 or 70 per cent of what it was pre-pandemic, but her love for the food vendors around town lives on through her social media posting.
Plus it gives her something to do in between rides.
“So you can imagine, this is how I spend most of my time,” Toni says, while pulled up next to Harvey Norman, sharing pictures of her favourite food vendors and listening to the radio, her hybrid quietly charging itself.
To fill the time between drives it’s either this or Netflix. Sometimes she’ll stop home and get some things done around the house, or she’ll go for a swim. During the week she even has time to turn off the app and go get a massage.
Remember, it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle.
For most rideshare drivers, the casual, bit-here, bit-there, nature of the work makes it a stepping stone between careers, but for Toni it’s a long term commitment.
“I’ve found my worth. I’d be silly to leave.”