Starting a mobile coffee shop allows you to fill a niche market, maintain flexibility and keep overhead costs to a minimum. Plus, you get to indulge in and share your own passion for coffee, and that enthusiasm will help you win the loyalty of customers. There's plenty to ponder and plenty to do in order to turn your idea into a thriving business.
Pros and Cons of a Mobile Coffee Shop
Because you're already batting around the idea of starting a mobile coffee shop, the benefits of doing so aren't lost on you. You can easily test out different markets by simply parking your coffee shop in different areas of town throughout the day. Once you find a location that keeps you busy, keep coming back to enjoy repeat business. You can even bring your mobile coffee shop to special events like early morning football games or 5K races to keep the money flowing.
All of those perks comes with an added bonus of no rental fees due each month and no utility payments. The small scale of your operation also limits the number of employees you'll need to hire and the stock in which you need to invest. However, you always have the option to scale your business by adding another mobile coffee shop.
Before you dive head first into the rest of the process of starting a mobile coffee shop, know that you'll still have some fees to pay. For example, you'll need permits in order to set up anywhere in the city, and you'll need space to keep your trailer/truck secure when not in use and for storing your inventory. Maintenance for your vehicle, not to mention gas money, also adds to your business expenses. However, if you know this is the path you want to take in order to light up people's lives with coffee, then officially setting up your business is the next step.
Basic Business Startup Process
Every new business owner has to follow the same basic steps to legalize the business and prepare for tax season. You could face fines if you fail to register your business with the local chamber of commerce, so don't gloss over this important step. After filling out a form and paying a nominal fee to register your business and get a general business permit, you may be directed to apply for additional permits.
You should also take some time to think about whether you'll be a sole proprietor or whether it's worth incorporating your business to protect your personal assets. If you're not sure what's best for you, consult a small business lawyer.
Also, swing by your bank to set up a separate business account and debit card before your business and personal finances turn into a muddy mess. If you dread filing your personal taxes, definitely be prepared to hire an accountant to keep things in order and to help file your business taxes. Finally, insure your business against any claims of liability. Make sure your company vehicle has adequate insurance as well.
Getting the Right Permits and Licenses
The last thing you want is to get your business up and running only to have it forcibly shut down because you didn't obtain the right permits before selling coffee. Although rules and regulations vary from city to city, you typically need a seller's permit, a food handlers' license and vending location permits.
Talk to your local chamber of commerce about the exact requirements. Understand that if you want to sell coffee at an event in a neighboring county, you might need to obtain permits from their local government in order to stay legal. Although the red tape can feel daunting at first, embrace this learning process. Soon it will be no sweat, and you'll feel even more confident as a business owner when you know you're following the law to the letter.
As a mobile coffee shop, you may not be required to have a food handlers' license or a health certificate because you'll be vending hot drinks in disposable, single-use cups. Some local municipalities govern coffee shops as strictly as restaurants, whereas others are more relaxed and don't view coffee products as a significant public health concern. Be prepared to obtain your food handlers' license as a legal precaution regardless. This certification can also set customers' minds at ease.
Investing in Your Mobile Coffee Equipment
Next, you need to think about the logistics of bringing your coffee to customers. What kind of vehicle do you envision? Will you tow a pop-out cart behind a pickup truck, SUV or van, or will you drive an all-in-one, self-contained coffee truck? Maybe you want to have a cart that can be pulled behind a bike for a low-cost and convenient way to move around town.
Regardless of how you choose to outfit your vehicle or cart, it's undoubtedly the most important piece to the puzzle. Its appearance will help determine whether or not people approach you for coffee, so it needs to look clean and inviting. Pay attention to your brand message while choosing your setup because if you offer sustainable coffee while driving a gas-guzzling diesel truck at the helm of your coffee cart, the integrity of your brand will take a nose dive.
Next, you need to have all the necessary equipment for making coffee, scaled to suit your needs and including basics like napkins and stirring straws. You don't want to run out of brew halfway through the morning rush nor do you want to have too much leftover coffee by the time you close up shop. Finding the sweet spot of not too much and not too little will require some in-the-field trial and error, but you can crunch some numbers to help you determine how many cups of coffee you need to make to meet your budget and revenue requirements and how that translates into the brewing capacity of your mobile coffee shop.
Developing Your Coffee Menu
Now, it's time to turn your attention to your main attraction: your coffee menu. While you may not have the capacity to offer dozens of specialties, you definitely have room for the basic ingredients and the infinite combinations that can be enjoyed from them. A basic black coffee, espresso, sugar, whole milk and flavored syrups will allow you to offer a delicious menu to many customers. If possible, you can appeal to an even greater number of coffee lovers by offering milk alternatives and sugar alternatives.
Next, it's time to make some signature flavors. Be careful about using names associated with large coffee chains since they might be copyrighted. However, the popularity of flavors like pumpkin spice shouldn't be ignored. Offer your own pumpkin-spiced treat as well as other popular flavors like caramel and mocha.
You won't know exactly what's popular with customers until you get your mobile coffee shop out there and start taking orders. However, you can research other coffee shop menus to look for consistent offerings or experiment in making your own tasty concoctions until you make something unique and delicious. You can even seat yourself in a competitor's shop near the counter and tally the types of orders made in an hour. Be prepared for as many flavor combinations as possible, and you'll do well.
Sourcing Your Coffee
It's no good to set up your mobile coffee shop and not have any coffee, so finding a reliable source for coffee beans is a definite priority. It's more cost effective in the long run to purchase wholesale coffee beans. Research to find wholesale coffee bean suppliers and purchase a sample pack. You'll want coffee beans that provide a rich flavor your customers will crave time and time again and that store well, grind well and arrive quickly.
Don't put all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak, when sourcing your coffee. Having a variety of suppliers is a good business practice regardless of the industry. With more than one supplier, you'll be able to keep your customers satisfied even when your original supplier experiences a poor crop or when bad weather delays a shipment from a certain part of the world.
Depending on your own personal preferences or those of your client base, you may want to source your coffee from certain areas of the world, from sustainable farms, from women-owned businesses or from farms with other special designations or credentials. This information can help you attract customers and gain their loyalty. You may also want to purchase organic coffee. Research all of the options and compare them to your budget and to what you believe your target customer is willing to pay.
Finding Locations Where You Can Set Up
Don't be "all dressed up with nowhere to go" with your mobile coffee shop. You'll need to find great locations at which to set up, ideally throughout the morning in order to serve people as they're trying to wake up for a day of work. So, where do many people pass by on foot during their commute? That's exactly where you want to set up your mobile coffee shop.
However, your local government will surely have rules and regulations regarding street food vendors and where you can park your mobile coffee shop and sell your products. In fact, you'll likely need to apply for a permit for the exact location and duration of your stay, so you'll need to plan your route if you want to set up in more than one place during the day.
Also pay attention to special events taking place in the early morning when attendees will welcome a pick-me-up from a hot drink while the sun comes up. Sign up as a vendor with the event coordinators and obtain the proper permits for selling in that location. The more you advertise and build your reputation as a popular mobile coffee shop, the more event coordinators will reach out directly to you. However, in the beginning, you will need to spend time seeking out these opportunities yourself.
Advertising Your Mobile Coffee Shop
Word of mouth is the best advertising you can enjoy, but you need to earn that recognition. That's why it's important to treat your customers with respect. Get their orders made correctly and in a reasonable amount of time, treating them kindly and fixing any mistakes quickly. Make sure your coffee is both delicious and competitively priced.
Other than building brand recognition by simply getting your mobile coffee shop out on the streets, it's also wise to build a social media presence. This will make it easy to allow people to contact you for event opportunities, peruse your menu at their leisure, write reviews and share their experiences with friends. Be active, friendly and engaging when posting and interacting with visitors.
A Facebook page offers enough functionality to replace a website in some cases, but Instagram and Snapchat may also be worth pursuing. Don't forget to claim your Google My Business page to show up on Google Maps results pages and also claim your listing on popular review sites like Yelp. Finally, don't discount the importance of asking for reviews. You can even put a call to action on your disposable coffee cups to remind satisfied customers to share their experience, which can help your business grow and stay strong.
- Entrepreneur: Business Licenses and Permits
- Perfect Daily Grind: How to Create a Coffee Menu: A Guide for Restaurants & Bakeries
- Intercontinental Coffee Trading: Coffee Bean Selection Guide: How to Choose the Right Wholesale Coffee Beans for Your Coffee Shop
- Google My Business: Add or Claim Your Business Listing
- Place a stack of brochures on your mobile coffee cart when serving guests at an event -- this can help generate referral business to keep your schedule full.
Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.