Episode Summary – Running a Mobile Coffee Van Business
In this episode we meet Ben from Want Coffee, the owner of a mobile Coffee Van Business in Melbourne, Australia. Ben takes us through his journey from the initial idea of starting his business though to where he is today – juggling a thriving “side hussle” with a full-time job.
Ben shares some of the challenges he has faced along with what is most and least rewarding about owning a business.
Links and resources
Blog Could your metalworking hobby become a fabrication business?
Article What is the difference between a diy and professional power tools
Blog: Turning your woodworking hobby into a business
Episode: Buying a business-where to begin
Self Test: Business Readiness Test
4: Owning a Mobile Coffee Van Business – Interview with Want Coffee
An owner interview about starting and running a coffee van business.
You are listening to the “Should I Own A Business Podcast”- Listen Before You Leap!
[Brendan] – Hello, and welcome to episode 4 of the SIOAB Podcast with Brendan Barrow and Geoff Daniel.
[Brendan] Today, we introduce a new segment of the show where we interview an existing business owner to find out a little about their journey and whether there would be any lessons for you.
These owners might be seasoned veterans or may have only recently started their business. They’ll be from all sorts of industries and professions and have attained different levels of success to date.
Perhaps they may be in different countries, and we will hear that the “reality of business ownership and what it takes to be successful” is the same, wherever you happen to be.
And Geoff, you’ve got us started today by chatting to a guy who has started a mobile Coffee Van Business.
Running A Mobile Coffee Van Business
Meet Ben of Want Coffee
[Geoff] Yeah, that’s right, Brendan. I thought we might start with someone in coffee because, as you know, I’m a bit of a coffee snob and I also thought I might be able to jag myself a free sample – which I did and, I must say, it was a very, very fine coffee indeed.
So, you are about to meet a young man by the name of Ben and learn a little about him and also his mobile coffee van business called “Want Coffee.” The business primarily services events and sporting club functions and things like that – so not perhaps the typical mobile coffee van business that might drive between workplaces providing coffee to office staff or building sites and the like. Interestingly too, even though franchise systems heavily populate the mobile coffee van industry, Ben chose to go out on his own as an independent rather than join a franchise. I should point out that Want Coffee is a part-time business at this stage for Ben, and he still works full-time.
Ben talks about how the idea to start a mobile coffee van business came to him, the things he enjoys about the business, and some of the challenges he’s come across now that he is a couple of years into the journey.
Enjoy the chat with Ben from Want Coffee.
The Should I Own A Business Podcast (SIOAB)
Welcome to the Should I Own A Business Podcast.
If you are thinking of buying an existing business, a franchise, or starting a business from scratch, find out what business ownership is really like and if is it right for you?
Join us, and “Listen before you leap!”
Want Coffee interview
On the show today, I’m joined by Ben from Want Coffee, a mobile coffee van business based here in Melbourne, Australia, and welcome to the show. So let’s go back a while perhaps you started a mobile coffee van business now, we’re you always interested in having a business of your own.
No, came a little bit out of the blue. The way it happened was my wife, and I took the kids to swimming lessons. There were probably about 40 to 50 parents, watching their kids in the pool, watching their phones, scrolling through, and doing things like that. And I just thought, “Hey, I could really do with coffee now.” I saw one or two parents that had coffees, and I thought, Oh, this is a pretty good opportunity. There’s a lot of people here-40 to 50 people, and the swimming lessons were every 15 minutes. And there’s probably about 50 kids in the pool. So with the turnover rate of 40 to 50 parents every 15 minutes and a new batch every once in a while, we thought that’s a pretty good potential. A lot of parents early on a Saturday morning, desperate for a coffee and stuck at the pool. It was just something that came to mind, the maths and the fact that it’s 5 to 10-minute drive to go to McDonald’s, which is the nearest place to have a coffee. An opportunistic thing and the penny dropped-it’s the kind of opportunity you have at other sports such as netball, football, and others. It just sort of fell together.
Had you had any exposure to business in your past, even if it was when you were growing up?
What business experience had you?
I grew up on a berry farm for probably about seven or eight years. My parents grew about 20 different types of berries-strawberries, raspberries, red currants, and gooseberries were perhaps the main ones. I can remember, people would come and pick their own berries.
And then they’d also be mom, dad and pop; And the staff that would come and do picking every morning. Once the picking and being done by lunchtime, they did the packing. Everybody moved to the packing shed and packed pallets and pallets of strawberries. At about five o’clock, dad would put all these sorted, hand glad wrapped, hand piled up into little pyramids of all these berries into cardboard boxes. He drove, probably about five-hours from country New South Wales to Sydney, because there weren’t proper multiple lane highways then. It was a single carriageway highway. And he drove to Sydney markets for the following day, two or three days a week, usually Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the weekends. That’s the only exposure I had to the economy of a business.
How long had you thought about owning a business?
So you saw that there’s a heck of a lot of hard work involved in running a business?
Yes, but I think a lot of that got lost in the fog of childhood memories. I did not think about it much more until I was well and truly in the middle of my own business.
So in between then and leaping into this particular business with the coffee, you’d not thought at any time in there, gee, you know, “I’d love to be my own boss or, or something along those lines?”
Oh, look, there’s always that that pie in the sky thought that I’d love to be my own boss. I’ve worked corporate office work for the predominance of my working life. There were moments when you’re sitting at a desk, grinding away typing away and thinking like, man, “I’d really like to be doing an outside job.” And then it gets to winter, and you’re like, Man, “I’m glad I’ve got an inside job.” It wasn’t really, “Oh, I need to do this,” until, at the pool. It was “this could be a quite good opportunity.”
All right, so you’ve got the idea you’re at the swimming pool. Can you think back to what the process might have been from that point, having this little seed of an idea through to signing on the dotted line or key in the door? Whatever it was, that was actually yeah, go time for the business.
How long did it take to start the business?
So it went fairly quickly. That was about June of 2016, and by January of 2017, we spent a lot of money, bought a mobile coffee van, and we learned to make coffees. The steps in between were basically from the concept of making in a coffee van. My wife said, well, you probably better learn how to make your coffee and see if you enjoy it.
I did a one-day barista course in the city and loved it. I’ve never done any cafe work before; Although I’d worked in bars and stuff when I was young and out of high school, but not done any hospitality in cafes. There were only a couple of people in the class, which meant I had a lot of time on the coffee machine. And it was fun. I just loved doing it. From there, we did some basic research looking into how saturated the market was around where I live, what sort of other competitors are that are out there, were they franchises or not? If they were, what were they offering? What products did they have? We did some website research and looked at different people’s websites, all that sort of stuff. I started to do a bit of a business plan with some research on the internet to look at a business plan and what to put into it. It was quite involved at that stage; there’s a fair amount of effort involved here. And after that, we weren’t looking seriously to get into the business. But Hyundai had a sale on, and we thought, we should look and see what sort of vehicles were around? And what things to look for in a vehicle for a mobile coffee van and the business was born.
Fitting out a coffee van is different to a food van.
Yeah, pretty much because the sale on the van was such a good bargain that we thought, even if we don’t go through it with a mobile coffee business, then it could have been a courier business or something else.
Then part of the research was how to fit out the van, what to go in it. And there’s a couple of different places that do fit-outs here in Melbourne. But they’re more for food trucks, not mobile coffee vans, and I didn’t want to go down that food truck path. There’s a couple of dedicated ones that do mobile coffee vans, one in Sydney and one in Queensland. So I made a road trip to Sydney. And we did the fit-out, in about two weeks, and then brought the van back in January of 2017.
And yeah, that’s when it’s up and running. So it was at that stage, I was still learning the craft of making a coffee. What types of milk and products to use, the kind of coffee I wanted to use. So my neighbors loved me because I just made lots of free coffee.
Were you a coffee expert before you started a coffee business?
Before getting into this, I’m a little ashamed to say that I didn’t have that much exposure to the purest coffee. I liked sugary, you know, moccas, vanilla lattes, that sort of stuff. But, you know, with the access to a machine, access to unlimited coffee, and time to be able to make different types of coffee and things, then my palate for coffee, has now expanded.
So I can certainly attest that now that you’ve made me a coffee. It was time well spent going to the course because it was excellent. So how did you discover what a successful coffee bean business looks like? You’d have no real exposure to a business per se. I don’t know if you’ve visited too many mobile coffee vans or had the experience of purchasing coffee from them. You probably seen them on the road, like you said, you do a little bit of research about who the competitors might be.
So had it was there a particular way you went to be at a successful mobile coffee van business for me would look like x?
What does business success look like ?
Okay, so part of that was, I still working Monday to Friday in an office job. So our business is a weekend business and functions and events. And it’s probably going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.The plan has been to build it up slowly on the weekends, get it to a point where we’ve got a solid client base in our season, which is mostly April through until October-ish. And then summer hits us a bit hard. So you know, it’s warmer weather. There’s not so much sport like netball and football over summer. And so 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-it’s about booking the calendar out several months in advance and having those jobs lined up. That’s what successful for me looks like-currently. There may be a point in future where, as my children get older, that I start to look at it as a job opportunity for them. It could provide an opportunity for them to work as potentially their own business in five years. That’s what it would look like for us. 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 out for Sundays and all Saturdays, mainly booked out for home games for one club. And I’ve just gained another club as well. So my alternate days, so Home and Away days and now full. I do Auskick on Friday nights. So it’s a nice robust calendar already packed out.
What surprises did you have starting a coffee van business?
So when you were starting, was there anything that surprised you like, for instance, the regulations to comply with or things that you didn’t expect, directly related to running a mobile coffee van business?
Um, nothing that was super out of the ordinary, the usual food, health safety requirements, and council inspections. And from a food handling perspective, they’ve got a system called Street Trader, which is 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, want you to put it in seven days in advance, it’s just not possible. But as long as you then put in details at that time, If you then have a council inspection, you’ve at least done the bare minimum of what you need to do, you’ve logged the jobs.
There are a few things about food handling. As a coffee business, we can do pre-packaged milk drinks and stuff like that. We’re able to do, coffee and milkshakes, but we can’t use ice or frozen berries without having to change our food handling classification, which requires another course and be more record keeping. And at the moment for us, the biggest issue is stock handling being a weekend business. So it’s not feasible for us to do that at the moment. We tried confectionery and soft drinks. But, depending on the kinds of jobs, footy clubs usually have their canteen or school events or selling ice pops, and so they don’t want us to compete. And that’s fair enough, where when we’re not here to rub people up the wrong way. So ultimately, what ends up happening is that I eat lots of Mars bars, and the stock control is me!
How do you get customers to buy coffee?
So thinking back again to the start, did you find it a difficult process to get customers on board to start with- you mentioned the swimming pool initially, did you end up going to work with there?
Yes, we did. And it was a good lesson in business because our kids go to that swimming pool. So we pay a considerable amount of money for our kids to learn to swim there. I pitched to the owners of the pool that they have lots of people there, and it would help promote their business with me being there, and it would be quite symbiotic. I’m providing coffee and something that stops the parents from leaving the premises, from going get a coffee and to, stay there, see, and the kids. Now, these guys run a fairly successful business, so they then wanted to charge me rent for being there. And that’s, and that’s fair enough, you know, I’m on their premises. But by the same token, I am a fully self-sufficient unit; I don’t take power, I don’t use water, I don’t need any of that sort of stuff. And I wasn’t taking up a car space in their car park. So we tried it the first swimming term as a rent-free trial, which was good. We built some business and some return clientele. Customers were quite happy that there was a coffee van there, then the second swimming term, they brought up the rental charge -now 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.
Part of running a business is that there’s always a cost, yeah, perhaps a contribution per cup back to the club or a percentage here or a flat fee there. And that’s, that’s probably the most significant and steepest learning curve I’ve had to learn is how to pitch the right amount to get the job, but to not burn myself on, working for free or, to overprice a job and not get it.
That is a very common problem with many businesses -how to set pricing. No doubt about it. You mentioned before that quite a bit of the work you do is events, a function, or something along those lines.
A day in the life of running a coffee van business
Can you talk us through what “a day in the life” looks like?
So you’ve got an event on for the day? Do you have to start much before you leave the house, for instance? How much you have to do yet in preparation?
So as a weekend business, I, during Monday to Friday, and at lunchtimes lining up jobs, that’s usually the start of the season early in the season. During the week, there’s preparation work on calendar management, making sure that you’ve got the jobs lined up for the weekend, knowing what’s on? Is it an option? Is it three options? Or, is it a car launch event? Or is it regular footy? And then calculations around milk. The number of liters versus the proposed likelihood of customers to make sure that I’m not in the middle of me serving and ringing Wendy saying, “Hey, can you get 20 liters of milk and bring it quickly?”
Have you got that wrong very often-running out or had too much?
No, generally, we err on the side of caution and always get more. And again, my neighbors love it because I end up then delivering free milk to the neighborhood. It’s that whole stock management over the weekend issue again.
But generally, we’re pretty good with that 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 on a Friday, when we go and buy the milk, and put it in the van so that it’s 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 afterward; it’s not a massive job though on Friday nights. 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 about 40 minutes of wipe down, cleaning, restock, reorder, purchase more milk for the following day. Ready to go again.
What is behind scenes of running a coffee van business?
So it’s not just pouring coffees; there is a lot more to it?
Yeah. And that doesn’t take into the accounting side of it. So the till, balancing the coffee’s made with the spreadsheet. Because we are weekend business and we 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. But I do need to start to look at exploring the electronic processes and making things easy because it’s another, 40 minutes. If we have a big day, we make between 150 and 200 coffees for the day. That’s a lot of paperwork to track it, 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, it is the case of simple works. Because, you know, we take orders on Post It Notes with texters; We put them on a spike; we count them, and it works. But we could be doing it a little bit more efficiently.
What do you find rewarding about serving coffee?
All right. Now that you’ve been running for a while, what aspects of the business that you find rewarding? Is it dealing with people? I guess you meet some nice people, and maybe the other way as well. But in terms of anything you find rewarding?
I just really love making a good coffee. I like the process am the aromas, the customer service interaction, people generally come to me less happy than when they leave. I’m providing a cup of happiness. I like making people smile. I like the fact that when I give someone a coffee, it’s a happy purchase. They’re not buying tires, a grudge purchase (apologies to the tires). Yeah, sorry. But you know what I mean? It’s a happy purchase. It’s not a grudge purchase. So that the other things that I like, is the customer interaction, as you said, you made some characters from, you know, it’s all different spectrums of people that you’re dealing with, and adults, grandparents, kids, it’s just, it’s, it’s fun.
What do you find challenging about owning a business?
Good stuff. How about the opposite? Have there been challenges that you didn’t anticipate or anything about the business you don’t like?
And the biggest thing that I find-it’s not challenging, but it’s tedious is the level of cleaning. As a food handling business, there is a lot of cleaning, and I’m very particular with the cleaning because ultimately, it’s a cornerstone of having a clean van, a presentable van, being able to put up hygienic food and beverages, is a must. So there is a lot of cleaning involved. The stock management is a challenge for us. But because we’ve shrunk our menu from having all the extra bits and pieces, it’s become a lot more manageable. If we went full-time Monday to Friday, and did a run or had a fixed position and had drive-thru and that sort of setup, then I think stock control would become a challenge. But then that comes down to routine and processes. And we can get those in place pretty quickly.
Excellent. Alright, so thinking now about the business that you’ve been running for this time, reasonably successfully. Thinking also back to when you started? Is there any advice you think you could give for someone who’s sitting there at the moment thinking about? I wonder if I should get into business? Not necessarily coffee or anything but business in general? Is there any, anything that you would say to someone in that position?
What could you have done better starting a business?
Yeah, we probably didn’t do enough initial research in the market that we have gone into. As much as we did do, you know, internet searches, we saw there’s a couple of local coffee events that have a drive-thru. Off the top, my head there’s six that I know of, in less than three Km’s from where I leave, 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 bit more research into that. It doesn’t detract from going ahead and doing the business; we still would have done it. I’m always glad that I have. But it would have opened my eyes to the market competition that’s out there more than what I sort of went into it thinking there was. I think, again, if I was also working Monday to Friday, and trying to carve out a little patch or territory for Monday to Friday, coffee run through the industrial estates and things like that, that would be tough because there is a lot of people that do it. And I need to be thinking outside the box on other options that don’t then clash with existing businesses, as much as businesses about competition and promoting your own business. I’m also not about to go out to eat someone else’s lunch and take clients from them. Ultimately, we’re all out here as small business people paying for dancing lessons, your mortgage and bits, and alike. 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.
Quick tips for starting a mobile coffee business
So the moral of the story, I guess, is research, research, and when you think you’ve done enough, do some more research. Yeah, fantastic. Ben from Want Coffee. Thanks for joining us
Thanks, Jeff. Time for coffee indeed.
When experts talk about the reasons for the astronomic number of business failures, they blame such things as under capitalization or poor business management. It’s taboo to say that some owners should never have been in business, as it just wasn’t right for them.
We believe our conversation will help people to make informed decisions about owning a business and being successful. We hope to help reduce business failures and unhappiness.
You are listening to the Should I Own A Business Podcast -Listen before you Leap!
Some key points about running a coffee van business
So Ben sounds like a very happy business owner! There were some very interesting takeaways from that, Geoff! Bit of a tragic pun there, eh? Takeaways!
[Geoff] Yeah there was…A couple of things I probably should point out for our listeners who aren’t from Australia and the first thing is that coffee is a very big thing here – you wouldn’t survive in coffee here unless you can make a great Coffee. Not just one or two types either.
The other item is that Ben refers to Football clubs and the like – weekend sport is also a big deal here – almost every parent spends at least part of their weekend watching their kids cause havoc on the sporting oval or pitch. He also mentioned that his business is quite seasonal from April to October being the cooler months, which, of course, will be different for those in the northern hemisphere.
[Brendan] Originally being from the UK, I can also promise you that “Cooler” in Australia is not quite the same thing as “cooler” in London or Manchester and probably many parts of the US.
Some of the interesting points we note in our ad-lib discussion:
- Ben saw an opportunity (he saw parents waiting for kids – saw some with coffee the got the idea.)
His farming work ethic from an early age seems to be there.
It took about six months from the idea to the start, which is quite fast.
The idea came first, then came the learning to be able to provide the product (Coffee).
It was notable that buying the van was a catalyst for leaping in.
- Business planning exposed some of the complexities (fitting out the van, etc.), and Ben went a bit cold, then bought the van.
The van itself is impressive.
The need to be aware of some of the issues with compliance. (These issues only applicable in the area he works in)
- Ben’s a go-getter (approaching sporting clubs, realtors, schools, etc.)
- He had to find a way to access customers without coming up against established competitors and going head to head.
- He mentioned difficulties in setting prices, which is very common.
- A lot of work that you wouldn’t see – not just pouring coffee.
Cleaning, stock control, and admin, to name a few, are all behind the scenes.
- Transition strategies via part-time businesses into full-time businesses need considering.
[Geoff] 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. If you’re interested in finding out a little more about Ben and his business, you can catch him on his Facebook page -details on our website. And, as I mentioned, we’ll also have some photos below.
Other resources that might help you when starting a business?
Turning your hobby into a business.
What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional artist.
How customer expectation can change your home based business.
In our next Episode, we have some great ideas about “How To Use Your Excitement” in a productive way when you are thinking of getting into business. We hope you will join us next week.
Bye for now.
The information contained in this podcast is general in nature and does not take into account your personal situation. The content does not constitute legal or financial advice and should not be used as such. You should consider whether the information is appropriate to your needs, and where applicable, seek professional advice from a financial adviser or lawyer in your own jurisdiction. To find out more, please go to Should I Own A Business.com