When asked why he started a company that puts breathalyzer vending machines in bars, Park City resident Russ Smith doesn't hesitate to talk about a personal experience with drinking and driving.
Several years ago, Smith had been out on Main Street drinking with friends. He got in his car to drive home and realized after he started driving that he shouldn't have been. A police officer pulled Smith over. "Of course, I'm going through a really bad divorce at this time," Smith said, "So I'm thinking 'What's going to happen with my kids? This could really be a major problem.'"
Smith passed a road-side sobriety test and made it home without injuring himself or anyone else, but was shaken. "I couldn't understand why I left the bar and didn't think I was drunk," Smith said. "So it started me thinking, why isn't there a way in all bars for people to be able to test themselves before they leave?"
Smith answered his own question when he founded Breathe Legal two years ago. Breathe Legal is a franchised company that puts breathalyzers in bars, restaurants, stadiums, convention centers and even fraternity houses. The machines allow patrons to swipe their credit cards, blow into a disposable straw and instantly be provided their blood alcohol levels. The user fee is typically $3.25 per use.
Breathe Legal has placed its machines in drinking locales from California to New York and plenty of places in between, including Utah. They estimate that within the next 12 months they will have a minimum of 750 to 800 machines in operation, with the potential for a couple thousand more.
Smith and Breathe Legal's CFO Joanna Fankhauser rave about their breathalyzer machines like proud parents. "They're more accurate than what the police use (in their patrol cars)", Fankhauser said. "Ours are calibrated every 30 days and we use a much higher-quality fuel cell in our units than most.
"If our machines aren't calibrated within 30 days, we can remotely shut them down."
The Breathe Legal machines also take advantage of modern technology when it comes to advertising. Franchisees, who are granted exclusive control over their own designated territories by Breathe Legal, can get updates on their various machines' use from their smart phones and, more importantly, remotely upload advertising
Machines can even be set up to call users cabs if they are too inebriated to drive and don't have a ride.
The machines are also designed for privacy, as they keep no records of individual test results. "If there's a record kept, I think people might be not want to use it, just in case there was ever a problem," Smith said, "so what we've done, we've tried to make it very user-friendly."
Fankhauser noted the lack of recordkeeping was also for liability purposes. "That's one thing our lawyers were actually pretty adamant about, is that there's no record, no printout, no sending it to cell phones, nothing like that. In fact, it's only displayed for three seconds on the screen."
The most common users of Breathe Legal machines are young people, Fankhauser said. "I just think they're more comfortable with technology."
"We also feel that that demographic has embraced being responsible," Smith added.
The focus on younger people is crystal clear when you realize that Breathe Legal's marketing slogan is "Safe is Sexy."
"We want people to drink, we just want them to do it responsibly," Smith said. "We support drinking," Fankhauser quickly added.
As for why the company is based in Park City, it's simply where Russ Smith has lived since 1999. It does have its benefits for the company, however. New franchisees need to be trained before they can begin installing machines and operating under the Breathe Legal name. Training is conducted at the company's brand new Park City headquarters and Smith said that people don't seem to mind traveling here.
It's a small operation, for now anyway. Smith, Fankhauser and their assistant Kris Bowser are doing it all, including travel to both coasts to drum up new business. Smith has big hopes for the future, however.
"We feel that at some point that there will be legislation that requires some sort of machine," he said, "in bars that derive a certain percent of their revenue from alcohol sales," for drinkers "to be able to test themselves.
"And so we really want to be in a position to capitalize on that."