Posts tagged canada

UpendED interview series: Caroline Ballhorn of Tin Can Studio

"People responding to Tin Can Studio has never been an issue. People love trailers. People are so drawn to them. Even if they don’t understand what you’re doing in it, they’re happy to be there. That’s been a real amazing part of the project."

Tin Can Radio September 2010 - John Rogers Park

In a fortuitous state of affairs, I discovered the existence of Tin Can Studio by way of a random post in my Twitter feed. Following the link to an article from The Scout, I first saw the shiny silver 1971 Streamline Prince trailer that was in the process of hosting the second go-round of an underground food series called Eat Together.

Hot on the trailer…er…trail, I contacted co-founder Caroline Ballhorn, an artist and Vancouver resident, to quizzically ask her about the beautiful vehicle, and how it operates. Tin Can Studio is an enigma. It is neither an eat-in food truck, nor a pirate radio station, nor an artist’s studio, nor a concert venue. It can be any one of those things at any given time, a malleable community center with a hitch.

Tin Can Studio can be followed right here on Tumblr. I highly suggest perusing their Flickr for beautiful shots of events that they’ve hosted thus far. If you’re in the Vancouver area and desire to host an event in a  mobile space, you’re in luck. Tin Can Studio may be available to rent in the near future.

You started Tin Can Studio while a student in Fine Arts at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. How did the project come about?

Being in art school at the time, I noticed a disconnect between the art I was doing in school, which was largely conceptual, and my life outside of school which was meeting all these amazing, artsy people that were not formally trained.

Tin Can Studio came out of a desire to create a hub for people to connect and share their secret artistic lives. I got the idea for the project proceeding my final year in school.

I decided to do Tin Can Studio as my senior project, but I knew that I couldn’t do it all by myself. My studio mate suggested that I talk to a design student at the school for assistance. I reached out to my friend Brodie Kitchen, who I’d only met briefly beforehand. I was like, “Hey you! You’re in design, right?” I then told him my idea, that I wanted to make a mobile space that’s both a project space and also a community hub. I also wanted the project to be something that I could continue after I graduated from art school.

Brody received a Millennium Scholarship a year or two before which had grant money associated with the scholarship for a community-based art project. He was like, “I’ll do a quick write-up, we’ll secure the grant money, and then we’ll buy a trailer.” I was like, okay. Here we go.


It became our full-time thing. In October 2009, we found the perfect Airstream trailer on Craigslist. Brodie was in industrial design and had trained as an electrician, so he was really qualified to do the stuff that I couldn’t do.

We were dealing with the physicality of renovating a trailer in the school’s parking lot while being full-time students and having jobs. During that time, we got to experience the program from different angles. We held music events in the beat-up shell of the trailer that we were renovating. We wanted it to be an active space while we were building it, and it became that for students and teachers. We had some teachers come out and sit there and tell us about what Emily Carr was like 15 years ago, that they had a mobile print mobile and how sad it was that things like that weren’t happening anymore.

We graduated in spring 2010, having completed the build out on a shoestring budget using sourced materials and volunteers.  For our grad show in May, we hosted 10 days of programming, sometimes two shows a day, including the shadow puppetry act “Mind of a Snail.”

How do you monetize the project now?

It hasn’t been profitable, but we’re at a breakeven moment. Right now we’re sitting on a little bit of money that we’ve saved from different events, including fundraisers. We’re talking a small amount. I have maybe $500 that we’re sort of like, “We could spend this on upgrading the electrical system, we could spend this on promotions, or we could take ourselves out for dinner!” Drawing on the resources of friends, we haven’t had to go too much into the hole, but I feel like I’ve been on this precipice for the past year or so where I feel like either I need to invest a semi-significant amount of money in Tin Can Studio to get to a point where it would be easy to run.

What logistical challenges have you faced?

Right now, it’s difficult to move it around because we don’t have a dedicated vehicle, which means you can’t park it on the street unless you pay for a parking spot or figure something else out. Luckily it’s not been too bad. It was parked in front of my house, for example, and my neighborhood happens to be a creative hub. It’s been able to operate there and have a decoy vehicle not even attached to it be parked in the front of it to avoid ticketing. The tickets that we have received we’ve managed to pay through crowdsourcing.

Tin Can Radio September 2010 - John Rogers Park

How has Tin Can Studio evolved since its inception?

Brodie’s stepped away from the project. He’s more involved now with other projects that he’s doing. It’s now run by me and Jenny Lee Craig. She’s more of an administrator and an event planner.

I learned a lot of lessons last year running Tin Can Studio. Last year, we did a pirate radio station thing. We’ve been doing a lot of other elaborate, short projects with different artists that take a lot of planning, which are mostly just labors of love. I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s not really sustainable. It doesn’t make sense for me to be involved in 10 elaborate projects that aren’t even my personal vision. To me, it’s about figuring out what the balance of being involved in those projects is and then stepping away. I’d also like to allow the trailer to be rented out as long as I’m comfortable with what the content of the project is.

Our first project this summer was a repeat of the Eat Together events that we did last summer. Last summer, I was way more involved — I was a food runner, I was helping with prep. I was helping out how in the way that you would help out a friend. This time, I was hands off with it and it was really successful. They artist/chefs from Eat Together were also able to pay us a portion of the profits from the dinners.

Do you have the change the build out for every event, or is it just a matter of redecorating?

It’s redecorating and sometimes adding or changing furniture. We had to build some tables for the Eat Together dinner party. The challenging part is securing a vehicle, trying to borrow one or figure something out without having to pay money, because renting one gets really expensive very quickly. You can do things for awhile without permits and without a business number.  This is something we were unsure about the whole way, if this is actually a business. I think, coming out of art school context, we both wanted this to be an artist run center. But even an artist’s center has a business model.


Do you see this as a for-profit business, or do you just want to break even? Do you envision this project becoming more expansive?

I would like it to, and I think I’m finally at a point in my life where I’m not afraid of that idea. I’ve never been afraid of having a business, but for some reason, this project has felt wrong for it to be driven by profit. Do I want it to make money? Of course. The question for me is if I want this to be my full-time gig. I’m not really sure because I do a lot of other things. Up until recently, I had a pretty heavy full-time job which I think also contributed to my burnout on the project. I’d be doing art with people with mental health problems and addictions, and then I’d come home and run this other project.

How do you figure out a budget with outside people who want to run projects in Tin Can Studio so that you’re adequately compensated?

We haven’t been. It’s been mostly people that we know who come to us and we work together. In a really DIY way, we figure out how the event is going to happen, and how to do it in a way in which we’re not going to lose money.

What is the mobile scene like in Vancouver?

With the proximity to Portland and the influence of Portland, I think there’s more of an interest. Vancouver is a really weird place when you start getting into by-laws and into stuff that deals with legislation. It’s one of the most legislated places I’ve ever encountered. You need a permit to go to a park and set up a tent for your family to have a picnic.

The Liminal Show

Just recently they’ve allowed food trucks to exist. It’s basically a lottery system. It’s like, “We’re going to license 10 food trucks!” and then a bunch of people apply. I think it’s just burgeoning in the stronghold of the city on what’s permissible. I think the pressure is put on by the incredible cost of real estate. In terms of a “scene,” there’s a handful of food trucks. People like them, but they struggle, I know. I think because Vancouver is so rainy, when it rains people go home. There isn’t too much of a street culture.

How does the seasonality of your location are affect your business?

When it’s raining, it’s hard to even engage with people because everybody’s feeling it. The winters are very cold. In the winter, using Tin Can Studio as an open space works sort of, but you really need to have someone in there directing the activity, otherwise people aren’t just going to go in. I did some experiments with just having a sign out that said “Come in, use the space” and observing from a distance to see if people would go in. People are too polite here and don’t want to barge in and step on toes. I’m thinking that, in the wintertime, we should offer it as an artists’ residency in conjunction with another space that has bathroom facilities and things of that nature.

Tin Can

Food enthusiasts Ken Tsui and Ellen Lee are gearing up for another summer of Eat Together meals. The super-cool series of pop-up suppers hosted in the Tin Can Studio, an 18ft 1972 Streamline trailer lovingly transformed into a roving community art studio and sometimes restaurant.

The UpendED interview series launches: Lisa Paul of Ice Pop Art

The weekly UpendED interview series will feature an entrepreneur in the mobile space who has an unique perspective perspective on the mobile vending industry.

For our inaugural post, we’re featuring Ice Pop Art founder Lisa Paul of Toronto, Ontario. Paul is a chef by trade as well as acting Director of Communications at Trinity College and a freelance writer for publications including The Globe. Her love of gourmet treats and entrepreneurship led her to found her company, a tricycle-based mobile vending service that will launch this summer. For more information about Paul and Ice Pop Art, follow Ice Pop Art

on Twitter.

Why did you choose the tricycle as your mobile mode of operation?

 Because I can’t afford a vehicle :laughs:. We used to have a lot of Dickie Dee carts here when I was growing up. They basically ran the same kind of trikes — a tricycle with a front-end freezer. They used to bike around the neighborhoods ringing their little bell. I don’t remember if they sold just one brand of product, but they definitely sold pre-fab ice cream products and popsicles. I just thought it would be an easy, economical way to start this kind of business without having to invest in a huge piece of machinery. I can’t afford to buy a truck that I would convert into a kitchen and a selling vehicle at this point. I’m a cyclist, too. That’s how I get around anyway and I really enjoy being on a bike.

When do you come up with the concept for Ice Pop Art? When did you start even thinking to do this?

 I came across a gourmet popsicle shop in the U.S. when I was in New Orleans in the fall of 2010. Because of my chef’s background, I just thought it was the coolest thing that people are doing gourmet popsicles. They weren’t doing them here yet at all. There was no one in Toronto or that I even knew of in Canada that was doing this. Around Christmastime of that same year, I was walking around with a friend of mine, just telling her about this cool business that I’d come across and she suggested that we try and do it. We played around with the idea and then for various reasons, her personal life became very complicated. I was getting married last summer and catering and it just was bad timing. It was also in June, so there was so way that I was going to have a summer business up and running.

I shoved the idea off to the side and didn’t think about it anymore and then as the year kind of crept on, I started to think more about what I was going to do with my life. I’d been working at different jobs and I came back to the idea again. The turning point was when I spoke to the bank and figured out I could get a loan. I had previously researched loans through the government and grants and those kind of different things. There’s nothing here for those kind of things in the service industry in this country.  But I was able to get a small business loan through my bank, and I didn’t even know that that was an option. When I realized that I could actually do that, it just all became a little more real.

 What were your startup costs?

 It’s shockingly expensive actually. I’m kind of guessing that this is why no one had done it yet. The cost is actually a bit prohibitive for something this small. Even for having no storefront, no retail experience for people to come into, no restaurant, or café, just the trike and the equipment, this business will probably cost me $15,000 to start up the first year. That’s mostly for the equipment, renting a kitchen space, food costs, all of the licensing,  and the website. Because it is such a short summer season here, I don’t think it’s a very lucrative business model. But I would really like to run my own business, and I want to try doing this first. My goal is to pay back a good chunk of the equipment costs this summer. I don’t expect to make any money this year, and I would expect to make next to nothing again next year, but I’m not giving up my day job. I’m lucky in that I have a three-day a week job that pays pretty decently. I can keep that going while I try and get this business off the ground this year and then next year it should be even easier to run because I will have had the first year of experience and hopefully be more established in the community.

Did you do your own build-out or are you getting the trike custom retrofitted?

 I’m actually getting it from New York City, from Worksman Cycles. They have a couple of models that you can choose from that you can customize to your preference. If you want to add gears, if you want to change the seat, if you want to add parking brakes, if you want to change the color of the frame, you can do all of that. But otherwise, there’s a couple of different freezers with different hatches at the top. Some are larger than others. Some are meant more for gelatos where the opening door is a lot larger so you have more room for scooping. Mine will be quite small because I only have a popsicle on a stick that I need to pull out. And I don’t want to lose more cold air.

In Toronto, do they have a lot of laws restricting street vendors? Do you worry about that?

 Yeah. A lot. It’s insane here. There’s so much red tape to operating as a street vendor here. For example, there’s a moratorium on almost the entire downtown core of the city, so as a mobile vendor, whether I’m a cyclist or someone who’s driving and dropping off my hot dog cart, I’m not allowed anywhere in the downtown core, which is hugely limiting because it’s a massive thing when all of your access to the downtown population is gone. The couple tourist areas down by the lake, you’re not allowed over there either. Just to start off with, there are a lot of places you can’t even go. Then when you do apply to places that you’re allowed to have accessibility to, you need to fit into a category. So, for me, I’m actually having an issue right now because I’m mobile, but actually want to pick a stationary location to cycle to, which is mainly because I’m 4.5 months pregnant. In the city, I’m sort of overlapping two categories right now, so they’re not sure where to stick me.

Which agencies regulate street vendors in Toronto?

 The city (of Toronto) regulates the permits: can you vend, can you use city property near public spaces to do things. Our health department is part of the government, and their responsibility is, do you have a food handler’s certificate if you’re the only person on the premise handling the food. They also will do health inspections of the kitchens that people are producing in. That’s usually on a spontaneous basis. They’ll show up at the kitchens anytime they want and inspect to make sure that your fridges are cold enough and your freezers are cold enough.

Do you have to get a commercial kitchen space for this venture or are you going to make the popsicles at home?

You’re not really allowed to operate unless you’re using a commercial kitchen, which is also very challenging for someone like me. Since it’s a seasonal business, I don’t want to invest in buying or even leasing a space for a significant chunk of time. I want to do it for a very short time period. I figured out churches in Canada need money because a lot of churches are closing their doors because they’re broke. People aren’t donating to churches the way they used to and attendances are off. I started looking around at churches because most of them were also huge community centers and places of gathering and where they held dinners and lunches. Most of them have pretty great and well setup kitchens. So I found one in my neighborhood that’s just a half a block away from my house and I’m making arrangements with the guy that runs the place to rent that space on a per-use basis so that I’m not paying a monthly fee. When I go in and make the popsicles, I’ll pay for the water that I use and the time that I use the kitchen.

 What types of flavors are you going to produce?

 I’m going to do lots of flavors. Right now, I’m in the middle of recipe development and that’s going a bit slow. I’ve been mostly focused on trying to navigate the permits and the licenses and the equipment that I’m getting. There’s equipment coming from New York, there’s some coming from Florida, and there’s some coming from Brazil. I’ve never run a business before and there’s just so much learning, and so much to know about how to import stuff. It all just blew my mind. I had no idea I had to hire a customs broker, and how to find a shipper. That stuff took up most of my time, so I’m just starting to do flavor development now.

Speaking of which, how did you navigate the logistical challenges?

 I actually wrote a story recently for the Globe for the small business section. When I started out writing this story, I knew I was starting a business, but it was a long way away and I hadn’t actually gotten  around to looking into customs brokers or shippers. I had all these new contacts for professors who teach entrepreneurship, and I was able to go back and email a couple of them and say, ‘Hey look. I need to find shippers. What does this even mean and how do I do this?’ A lot of them were stumped, which was not very encouraging. It’s actually a really hard thing to do and I guess a lot of it is just trying to talk to people and get recommendations. I consulted probably two or three people that I knew. I don’t know many people that import things, so I didn’t have huge resources or a wealth of people that I could ask. It turned out to be one guy who runs his own coffee roastery and he does some importing, so I asked him. So far, I’ve been most happy and comfortable with the responses from the shippers and customs brokers that he’s recommended. The companies other people suggested were quite large and I didn’t get the same kind of personal feeling.

Where there any books or online articles or tools hat helped you?

 I didn’t consult much in the way of online research. It was mostly talking to people, although, that said, I did have to use government resources. For example, my freezer needs to be crated which was also new information to me. They needed to actually build a wooden crate to ship the freezer, and there are all of these wood restrictions, so I had to consult the government on what’s allowed to be in that crate, what’s not, and pass the information on to the person who’s building the crate in the U.S. just to make sure that all that red tape is done properly.

I did use a bit of customs broker research online. There’s actually a big body that rules over customs brokers in Canada. I consulted their website because they go through step by step what you need to ask brokers when you’re looking for one.

Do you do any type of business plan or did you have a plan of any sort when you started?

 No, I didn’t do a business plan. I don’t need an official business plan in the way that I don’t need to approach a financial institution with a full business plan to make my case for getting money. I do think that a business plan is really important and I would plan to do one after this summer before developing a business going forward. But what I didn’t want to do was get bogged down with measuring foot traffic in the corner where I decided to park my trike and spending free afternoons there and doing all the research I think you need to do for developing a business plan. I decided to, for this year, just kind of to hop in and see how it goes.

Do you think, for mobile entrepreneurs, it’s a better thing to pick a season to test your model and then, if it goes well, to figure out the bigger plan?

 I don’t think it’s a bad thing, as long as you’re really honest with yourself about what you’re getting into, you know your market, and you really have a good idea of what your product is, who you’re serving, and what your costs are. I didn’t do a business plan, but I did do a huge spreadsheet with what I felt like I was maybe going to make on an optimistic scale and on a pessimistic scale. I also looked at what all of my costs were going to be, so it’s not like I haven’t put lots of thought into how much this is actually going to cost, how much time I have, and how I’m going to make this work.

 Are you incorporating your business?

 I’m not incorporating. This year, I’m doing it as a sole proprietor.  I chose not to incorporate this year because if you’re not making money, I was advised that it’s better to do a sole proprietorship. I think it’s more costly to do it the other way, and with so many other costs I didn’t think it was warranted this year because it is only me.