PITTSBURGH — For the first time in 25 years, Erik Lingren was out of work but overqualified.
After leaving his job as executive director of the nonprofit Venture Outdoors and deciding to go into business for himself, Lingren was at a crossroads. Or, as he likes to say, a bridge.
For months, he sat in interviews with managers who were younger and less experienced than him until June 2014 when he became the boss again. This time his office was his four-door Tacoma pickup truck, as he registered to be an Uber driver to fill the financial gap as he started a Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt franchise.
Lingren and his brother-in-law, John Barnoski, who was also an Uber driver at one point, purchased and transferred ownership of their first franchise location in September 2015. The pair invested approximately $35,000 in franchise fees for a multiunit package. Their seasonal location in PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, represents their second location and they’re bringing a third Menchie’s location to Pittsburgh later this year.
The stores currently employ 18 fro-yo enthusiasts who finish every order with “have a smiley day.” Another 12 to 15 employees are projected to be hired for the new store, which has a tentative opening for Labor Day.
Between Uber and Menchie’s, Lingren figures he works roughly 50 to 65 hours a week, although he’s taken a hiatus from driving in the last few months to focus on his franchise operation.
He hasn’t deleted his account, though. Driving allows him to exercise what he describes as his “gift of gab” when he shares sight-seeing recommendations with tourists.
Uber has also proven to be a reliable safety net. The average Menchie’s store costs between $229,557 and $425,310 in startup costs including inspection costs, equipment and opening inventory, according to the company website.
Early on, Lingren set a goal: he would drive three days a week and earn $100 each day to cover his house payments.
“Just because I was transitioning from being one type of employer to self employed, the bank didn’t care. They still wanted their mortgage (payment),” he said.
Each trip as an Uber driver is different. Sometimes it’s bringing kids home from school. One day it meant ferrying members of the band One Republic to the movies. Lingren said he loves being an ambassador for Pittsburgh.
With almost two years of experience under his belt, he can proudly say he’s never turned down a ride and boasts a 4.89 out of 5 star rating.
Lingren treats his commitment to the San Francisco ride-hailing company just like he would any other business deal. He signed on to provide a service, he said.
“If someone needs a ride from point A to point B, then I’m there,” he said. “That’s what the customer needs and what they’re paying for. If I’m the closest car, then I’m coming to get you.”
Even when he was driving consistently, he would often take off weeks at a time for employee training at his franchise. This type of flexibility works for what Pittsburgh-based FranNet consultant John Tubridy calls “corporate refugees.”
Newly self-employed entrepreneurs using ride hailing to make ends meet seems to be a trend among the clientele of FranNet, a managing consultant firm headquartered in Louisville, Ky., that offers education and networking for those looking to open a franchise.
Not all of Tubridy’s clients are as outspoken about their new venture as Lingren.
Many are used to demanding, but lucrative, work environments. They see Uber and Lyft as a way to maintain their lifestyles, he said. “It’ll never show up on their resume but it’s something to keep the house afloat,” he said.