Starting and Owning a Mobile Coffee Van Business
Running a mobile coffee van business- key questions and answers interview.
Starting and owning a mobile coffee van business might be a great way for you to own a business. But, what is it really like, and would you enjoy running a coffee truck?
To help answer that question, we interviewed Ben, a mobile coffee van business owner in Melbourne, Australia.
Ben takes us through his journey from the initial idea of starting his mobile cafe to juggling a thriving “side hustle” with a full-time job.
Ben shares some of the challenges he has faced and the most and least rewarding facets of owning a coffee cart business.
Why did you choose to start a mobile coffee business?
I have always been an employee working in office jobs. So owning a business was not on my radar, but the idea rather came out of the blue.
It happened on a normal Saturday morning in June at a swimming pool.
While watching my kids at a swimming lesson, I thought, “Hey, I could really do with a coffee now.” I wondered if the other 40-50 parents might be thinking the same. Swimming lessons started every 15 minutes, which brought a new group of parents!
There was nowhere nearby to buy a coffee, and I thought, “Oh, this is a pretty good opportunity for a coffee van.”
Have you always wanted to be your own boss?
Oh, look, I always have had that that pie in the sky thought that I’d love to be my own boss.
While there were moments at work sitting at a desk, grinding away and thinking, ” I’d really like to be doing an outside job.”
And then in winter, “Man, I’m glad I’ve got an inside job.” But it wasn’t a real desire until at the pool.
It was when I saw ” a good opportunity.”
What previous business experience did you have?
I never owned a business before and had always been an employee.
However, I am familiar with the business owner mindset as my parents owned a busy berry farm.
As a youngster, I helped on the farm, including packing berries for the markets. So I knew the work ethic required, but I had no experience of the economics of my coffee cart idea.
What steps were there to get your mobile coffee van making money?
So the process went fairly quickly. In about six months, we spent a lot of money, bought a mobile coffee van, and learned to make coffees.
I did a one-day barista course, and I loved it. I’ve never done any cafe work before. Although I’d worked in bars when I was just out of high school, I had no hospitality experience in cafes.
And it was fun. I just loved doing it.
Next, we did some basic research looking into how saturated the market was around our area. Also, we checked our competitors out to see if they were franchises or not? By checking websites or visiting mobile coffee shops we saw what they offered and their prices.
I started writing a business plan template that I found on the internet.
The business plan was a way of getting all my thoughts in one place.
You can imagine it was quite involved at that stage, and there was a fair amount of effort and excitement involved.
We weren’t looking to get into the business straight away but Hyundai had a van sale on, so we looked at the vehicles on offer.
Because the van was a bargain that we bought it, and the business was born. The van sale was the trigger!
How did you choose the best coffee van and equipment?
The next part of the research was how to fit out the van and choose the best coffee equipment to put in it.
There were a couple of different places that do coffee van fit-outs here in Melbourne.
But they’re more for food trucks, not mobile coffee vans. Food truck fit-out is quite different, so we chose a specialised coffee van fitter instead.
There were a couple of dedicated coffee van converters we liked, with one in Sydney and one in Queensland.
So I made a road trip to Sydney, and it took about two weeks for the van to be finished. I then drove the van back in January.
That’s when the business was up and running. But, amazingly, it was only about 6 months after the idea came into my head.
It’s fair to say I was still learning the craft of making coffee.
I experimented with different coffee, milk and products. My neighbours loved me because I made lots of free coffee.
How did you train to be a barista in your coffee business?
Before getting into this, I’m a little ashamed to say I didn’t have much exposure to the purest coffee.
I liked sugary moccas, vanilla lattes, that sort of stuff. But with the access to a coffee machine, unlimited coffee, and time I tried heaps of coffees. As a result, my palate for coffee has now expanded along with my expertise.
My training was the one day course and then heaps of practice. The experimenting also helped me learn quickly.
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What is it like running a mobile coffee van?
I still work Monday to Friday in an office job. So our coffee business focus is on functions and events.
And it’s probably going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. So my business plan has been to build up slowly on the weekends to get a solid client base. Our season is mostly April through until October-ish.
Summer hits us a bit hard since there’s not so much sport like netball and football over summer.
And so, a successful business for us is using the adage “to make hay when the sun shines.” Well, we make coffee when it’s cold.
So through winter, I work seven days a week because I’m working in my normal job and then making coffee every weekend- Saturdays, Sundays, and Friday nights.
And I take any coffee job that I can get. I have a booking calendar that goes out several months in advance to have events lined up.
There may be a point in the future where, as my children get older, I start to look at it as a job opportunity for them.
It could provide an opportunity for them to have their own business in five years.
We’re getting pretty close to that as we’ve been running now for three years.
This year I’ve already got all of the football season booked for Sundays and Saturdays for one club.
And I’ve just gained another club as well. My alternate days so are now full. I go to Auskick games on Friday nights. So it’s a nice robust calendar already packed out.
What surprises did you have starting a coffee van business?
Nothing appeared that was super out of the ordinary. There were food, health safety requirements, and council inspections.
And from a food handling perspective, the council has a system called Street Trader, where you log all your jobs ahead of time.
It’s a little frustrating because you’re interacting with councils. So councils want things done in certain ways, and they want it done seven days in advance.
The mobile coffee van business is a lot more fluid than that. You get a phone call at five o’clock for a job the following day. Street Trader wants you to put it in seven days in advance, which is just not possible.
I enter the details at the booking time. That way, if there’s a council inspection, I have done the bare minimum by logging the jobs.
What else can you sell to increase your sales?
We are also restricted on what we are allowed to sell.
There are a few things about food handling to note. As a coffee business, we can do pre-packaged milk drinks and stuff like that.
We can sell coffee and milkshakes without using ice or frozen berries. Otherwise, we need to change our food handling classification, which requires another course and more record-keeping.
So it’s not feasible for us at the moment. We tried confectionery and soft drinks without much success.
Because sports clubs or schools usually have their canteen, they don’t want us to compete.
And that’s fair enough, where when we’re not here to rub customers up the wrong way. So ultimately, what ends up happening is that I eat lots of Mars bars, and the stock control is me!
And at the moment, my biggest issue is stock management.
How do you find customers to buy coffee?
I did sell coffee at the original swimming pool where the whole idea started. And it was a good lesson in business!
So I suggested to the owners that I provide a coffee service to stop the parents from leaving the premises. My business would help promote their business and it would be symbiotic.
These guys ran a fairly successful business and they wanted to charge me rent.
While I’m on their premises, I am a fully self-sufficient unit that doesn’t take power or use water.
Furthermore, I wasn’t taking up a car space in their car park. So we tried the first swimming term as a rent-free trial, which was good. We built some business and some return clientele.
Customers were happy that there was a coffee van there, but the owners introduced the rental charge in the second swimming term. While it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s $25 for the day, more for the morning.
That’s five coffees before you even start the day. And at the time, we were doing maybe 35 coffees.
So, it’s not much, but it does add up. It becomes a fixed cost. So we moved on from there and built some local football teams, some school functions, and events.
Running a mobile coffee shop has a hidden cost, such as a contribution per cup or a percentage or a flat fee back to the club.
Probably the most significant and steepest learning curve I’ve had to learn is how to pitch the right amount to get the job. The balance is not burning myself by working for free or overprice a job and not get it.
I look for sporting events, perhaps markets or car launches where there are crowds of people who might want coffee-hence the business name.
What is in a typical week owning a coffee van business
I spend some time from Monday to Friday and at lunchtime lining up jobs. That’s usually the start or early in the sports season.
During the week, there’s preparation work and calendar management. I ensure I have venues lined up for the weekend by knowing what’s on?
And then, I do calculations about the milk required. While I don’t want to run out, we err on the side of caution and always get more as needed. And again, my neighbours love it because I end up then delivering free milk to them.
It’s that whole stock management over the weekend issue again.
But generally, we’ve worked at a ratio of full to skinny to soy milk and the volumes to cater for most events. On the weekends with football, the main thing is calendar management during the week, prep work, so we buy the milk on a Friday and put it in the van to be ready.
On Fridays, I’ll finish office work early and go straight from finishing work to Auskick. And then there’ll be a little bit of clean up afterwards; it’s not a massive job.
Saturdays, it’s usually from six o’clock in the morning onwards until probably two or three depending on when the last game is.
Then you travel time home and then spend about 40 minutes of wipe down, cleaning, restock, reorder, purchase more milk for the following day.
Ready to go again.
What is behind the scenes of running a coffee van business?
So it’s not just pouring coffees; there is a lot more to it!
For example, balancing the coffee’s made with the spreadsheet.
And then that doesn’t take into the accounting side of it.
Because we are weekend business, our systems are still a little bit manual. We don’t have any computer processes and no point of sale software or tracking software.
We use Xero for accounting, and we use Square for credit card purchases. I plan to explore the electronic processes and make things easy because it will save another 40 minutes.
If we have a big day, we make between 150 and 200 coffees for the day. That creates a lot of paperwork to track, balancing the tills and the electronic payments-all that admin. Larger cafes that work full time and probably have more efficient processes in place.
But for us, simple works. So, for example, we take orders on Post It Notes with texters. We collect them on a spike and count them. But we could be doing it a little bit more efficiently.
What do you find rewarding about serving coffee?
I just really love making a good coffee including the process and the aromas, the customer service interaction. Hopefully, customers generally come to me less happy than when they leave.
I’m providing a cup of happiness and making people smile. I like the fact that when I give someone a coffee, it’s a happy purchase rather than a grudge purchase.
There are all spectrums of people you’re serving- adults, parents, grandparents, and kids-it’s just fun.
What do you find challenging about owning a coffee van business?
And the biggest thing that I find is the level of cleaning which is not challenging, but it’s tedious.
As a food handling business, there is a lot of cleaning. I’m very particular with the cleaning because, ultimately, it’s a cornerstone of a hygienic van.
The stock management was a challenge for us, however since we’ve shrunk our menu, it’s become a lot more manageable.
If we went full-time Monday to Friday and did a run or had a fixed van position or a drive-thru, then stock control would become a challenge.
But then that comes down to routine and processes which we could improve pretty quickly.
What advice would you give to a new coffee van owner?
We probably didn’t do enough initial market research.
Off the top, my head, there are six competitors that I know of, in less than three Km’s from where I live, and that’s the vans that are parked and then go into their run.
That’s not including franchises or fixed drive through open all day.
We probably should have done a little more research into that, although I don’t think it would have changed our decision.
I’m always glad that I started the coffee business.
But more market research would have opened my eyes to the competition as there are more than I expected.
If I was also working Monday to Friday through the industrial estates, that would be tough because many coffee franchises do it.
Try to think outside the box on options that don’t clash with existing coffee businesses.
I’m also not about to go out to eat someone else’s lunch and take clients from them.
Ultimately, we’re all out there as small business people paying for kids dancing lessons, mortgages and bills.
It’s about being fair and respectful to other people as well. But, you know, understand that you’re still going to run a business to make money.
So the moral of the story is research, research, and when you think you’ve done enough, do some more research.
We hope our chat with Ben has provided some insight into the realities of owning a part-time business in the mobile coffee van niche.
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