An online resource for innovative entrepreneurs that host their businesses in vehicles and pop-up shops. Interested in following suit? Peruse our selection of original interviews and curated content for tips and insights. Visit our company site for more information! UpendED.co
If you’re interested in getting a look at the underbelly of the mobile vending circuit, a public hearing is being held this month in which you should attend. The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is holding a forum on July 19th from 10am-12pm at 125 Worth Street, New York, NY 10013. The purpose of the meeting is to overhaul and amend sections of the Chapter 6. rules for Mobile Food Vending as outlined by the department. Those rules include adjustments to restrictions surrounding commissaries, setting boundaries for the sizes of carts, and fees, fines, and permissions with respect to general operations.
Some food-truck operators in New Orleans, who have long bemoaned hurdles for navigating the city’s protocol for getting up to code, say they plan to form a nonprofit association that will create a single point of contact as they work to persuade officials to ease some of the rules of the game, like increasing the number of permits issued annually, extending the time a truck can stay in one spot, and expanding hours of operation. The city’s licensing process for food trucks covers the gourmet food trucks that have sprung up in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina as well as a range of other mobile vendors, with wares from produce to snowballs. Food truck operators say that as the local industry has changed, the regulations have become outdated.
Rachel Billow, whose La Cocinita food truck serves Latin American food, said she is working with several other mobile food operators to apply for a nonprofit association.
Adding to the frustrations, they also say there are sometimes gaps in how the city deals with the regulations; some food truck operators avoid the red tape altogether, defying the rules and hoping for the best.
Rachel Billow, whose La Cocinita food truck serves Latin American food, said she is working with several other mobile food operators to apply for a nonprofit association under 501(c)(6) status, a designation that is used for trade associations like the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. From there, the group plans to ask city officials “for an official interpretation of the laws” governing food trucks before moving forward and requesting meetings with city council members.
"Basically, then we can better address which laws are problematic," Billow said, adding that the group hopes cut through some of the confusion of the existing regulations to "clarify a few things.."
Andrew Legrand, a Metairie lawyer who has been helping Billow and others complete the nonprofit paperwork, said he believes the move will “get all the food trucks on the same page.”
"We’re at a time when New Orleans has more restaurants than ever before — I think there’s thousands — so why not have food trucks out there kind of contributing to that," said Legrand, who got involved after reading about their efforts online.
Though the movement to organize food trucks under one organization is still in its early stages in the city, mobile operators have banded together like this elsewhere across the country, said Matt Geller, who runs the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, which formed in early 2010 to help navigate Los Angeles County’s many regulating bodies, including four health departments.
"There was a lot of misinformation," said Geller, who had worked in restaurants and has a background in law. "Even the regulators didn’t know what was going on."
The southern California group started with 29 members. Now, it has around 140, and is considering expanding statewide. Geller said he has worked with local officials there to take another look at decades-old regulations that he says had hampered mobile food vending, and led discussions on how they can be configured to get up to speed. The group has also challenged some laws in court, including the proximity that an operator can be to a restaurant, a sticking point that operators in New Orleans would also like to change.
Members of the group pay $50 dues each month, which helps fund the group’s efforts to challenge unfavorable rules and has also been put toward renting lots where vendors can setup shop with one another a few nights a week, often timed in conjunction with special events nearby.
His advice for the burgeoning industry? “I would encourage all food trucks in an area to get together and try to speak in one voice,” he said. “We’re not going to be an underground industry and get overregulated. The trend is growing too fast to fly under the radar.”
Porc Mobile was born when Josh Saltzman pooled money to buy a white mail truck and convert it into a roving kitchen, dishing out barbecue and baguettes topped with goat cheese on Washington’s city streets.
While customers flock, so has the health department: six times since beginning operations last year, Saltzman said. Inspectors often arrive unannounced during the lunch rush, targeting food trucks because they’re so visible, he said.
If you live in New York City and make it a point to keep track of the annual Vendy Awards, please also support The Street Vendor Project. A project of the Urban Justice Center, the organization provides year-round legal counseling and support for street and mobile vendors in the NYC area, most from underrepresented groups.
If you’re a vendor and would like to attend the monthly group meeting, please meet us at the main office at 7:30pm on Tuesday, May 8th. The address is 123 Williams Street on the 16th floor.
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
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 gottenaround 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.