Posts tagged interview series

An interview with Wafels & Dinges founder Thomas DeGeest

Thomas DeGeest is the Brussels, Belgium native and former IBM management consultant turned pastry jockey who founded Wafels & Dinges in 2007. At the time of its launch, the gourmet food truck movement in New York City was in a stage of infancy. The crumbs from these tasty Belgium-inspired treats helped to pave a path for an entire movement that would go on to receive international attention. In 2009, Wafels & Dinges was awarded the Vendy Award for Best Dessert, the zenith of two years of bitter work and sweet determination. Like other famous food trucks such as DessertTruck and Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, Wafel & Dinges will open a storefront in Lower Manhattan in the fall. Later this summer, a Wafel & Dinges test kitchen with tours and waffle making activities will also be opening to the public, satiating the foodie voyeur needs of the masses.

Here, Thomas DeGeest gives us a rundown on what Wafels & Dinges is up to, and how the business is growing by leaps and bounds…

READ MORE AT THE 2012 VENDY AWARD’S BLOG

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.

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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.

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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.

UpendED interview series: Ben Dubin-Thaler of BioBus

"The U.S. is in a bad way when it comes to science education. We’re ranked something like 17th in the world. In schools with over 50% minority enrollment, fewer than half of those schools have working science labs. The whole purpose that I had when I built the BioBus was to bring a hands-on science lab to students in low-income communities in order to inspire the next generation of scientists.”

Dr. Ben Dubin-Thaler is the 33-year-old founder of BioBus. Founded in 2007 after Dubin-Thaler completed his PhD in biophysics at Columbia University, BioBus now comprises four full-time employees and over 100 volunteers that oversee the daily operations of the New York-based non-profit organization. BioBus is also a founding member of the Mobile Laboratory Coalition, a consortium of scientists with traveling labs. In addition to this venture, Dubin-Thaler was also a member of the acting troupe “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping” which appeared in "What Would Jesus Buy?"

Find out how Dubin-Thaler’s acting troupe led to the creation of BioBus and why the roving lab may not be quite as expensive as it looks. Follow @BioBus on Twitter.

I looked online and I saw that Georgia State University had the first incarnation of a BioBus. Were you inspired by theirs to create your own?

I was inspired by a program at the University of Illinois called the Physics Van. That’s a program that’s been going on since I was in high school. Back in ’95, I did an internship with professor Mats Selen who is still running that program at the University of Illinois. They would bring cool physics demos and blow things up for elementary and middle school kids. That was really my inspiration for starting the BioBus, which was basically a just a slightly larger version of that.

How did you start the project?

I started the project by talking to people in a group called S.P.A.Z. who are a really amazing, anarchist-inspired collective that work in the Bay Area of San Francisco. I had known them for many years because I was in a performance group that toured on one of their buses. They are actually mobile entrepreneurs of a different kind. They take old transit buses and convert them into touring buses for bands and circuses and theater groups.

When I first started plans for BioBus, I talked to my friends at S.P.A.Z. They helped me to find a bus that was suitable and connected me to an amazing community of self-described “bus nuts” who are a group of people that maintain these 1970s, and sometimes even older, vintage GMC buses. They also helped me to convert the bus to run on vegetable oil and start the initial conversion to a lab space.

How were you paying for all of this?

In the beginning, it was just the little savings I’d managed to scrape together when I was doing my PhD at Columbia, and also money that I banked from my family members and colleagues of mine, other scientists. It was very low budget to start out.

What would you say were the total startup costs for the initial version of the BioBus?

The bus itself I purchased for $15,000. It had already been converted to an RV, so it had electricity and running water which was a great because I didn’t have to do the really basic, basic conversions. Beyond that, it was basically just my living expenses and travel expenses. When you’re living in an anarchist community in San Francisco, your cost of living can be very, very low.

What about the lab build-out? It seems like that could be very detailed and very expensive as well.

I used a type of modular aluminum construction material called 80/20. For about $3,000 I purchased the basic materials for constructing the lab.

So you built the lab yourself, pretty much?

We built the lab ourselves. I hired a carpenter for a couple of days to build some seating areas, but that wasn’t a real huge expense. All of the wood that we used for the majority of the building materials was repurposed from construction waste that we were able to pull out of dumpsters. Again, the advantages of collaborating with a collective like S.P.A.Z. is that they know where all the waste in San Francisco is, all the stuff that most people would say, ‘Oh, you know, this is just extra trash.’

The BioBus is now a non-profit, correct?

BioBus is a 501(c)3 non-profit.

Why did you decide to go the non-profit route instead of making it a for-profit venture?

It definitely could have been a for-profit. But in order for it to be a for-profit, I would be in a lot of debt right now. I would have had to take out loans in order to get the equipment that was instead donated to us. We have close to $200,000 of donated lab equipment on the bus. Certainly those companies would not have donated to us had it not been for the fact that they were supporting a non-profit and they also were receiving tax deductions for their donation.

I recently interviewed the owner of Lulu’s Local Eatery, and she has a garden on her roof built by Bus Roots. I was looking on your website and noticed that your bus also has a roof garden built by Bus Roots. Can you tell me about it?

We were the first people with grass on our roof, I think. Marco Castro is the person that I worked with to put the garden on the rooftop.

Does that change the operating costs, having the garden up there?

No, none.

What do you use it for?

The roof garden was put up to show that plants, like ideas, can grow anywhere.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with green roofs in general, but they reduce the temperature of the inside of a building. So they’re a way to cool without using fans or air conditioner and it’s also potentially a way to grow food. We actually have blackberries growing on our current green roof.

BioBus is the 501(c)3 non-profit registered under Cell Motion Laboratories. Do you have any other ventures under that banner?

The BioBus is the main project. Over 90% of the budget of Cell Motion Laboratories goes to BioBus. There’s a small amount of research that we do with Baylor College of Medicine that’s supported by contracts. We just got a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to help train forest service staff to help operate mobile labs. They’re starting the program in Jordan. We’re consulting with them to help prepare them for their new program. It’s some research and some consulting, but at the moment, our primary project is the BioBus.

Where does the BioBus go? Does it stay in-state or does it go all over the country?

Check out our website. It’ll show you every place we’ve ever been over the last four years. We’ve been all over the country.

Are you thinking about getting another bus at some point to go along with the one you have currently?

We don’t have any plans for another bus right now, although I think in the future we may work with other organizations to build BioBuses where there’s a need. Eventually, I would like to try to convince school districts that having mobile labs is an effective way for having cutting edge, hands-on research for their students.

The BioBus is focuses on education for kids in grades K-12. What you do think about expanding the program to encompass continuing education programs for adults (à la Genspace and Skillshare)?

I think that with the out-of-control spiraling of traditional academia, I think that there’s a real opportunity for BioBus to fill a need for adult education. We’ve done that in different situations. In the summertime, we do a lot of public events like the World Science Festival and Figment.

UpendED interview series: Lauren Loomis of Lulu’s Local Eatery

"The start up capital that you need for a food truck is a lot lower than a brick and mortar. To put a whole lot of money into a building that we would just be renting didn’t make a whole lot of sense for us."


Lauren Loomis, 26, is the proprietor of a unique brand of food truck — the kind with a garden on top! Lulu’s Local Eatery launched a month ago in St. Louis and specializes in locally sourced, organic cuisines. Loomis and business partner/ fiancé Robbie Tucker, 28, used a Kickstarter campaign to raise $2,786 to build the garden and resourcefulness to fund the rest. Here’s the story of how their young enterprise came to be. See the continuing story as tweeted daily from @lulusfoodtruck.

How did the concept of Lulu’s Local Eatery come together?

Robbie Tucker, my partner, fiancé, and co-owner of Lulu’s, have been together for six years. He and I were living together in Chicago, decided we wanted to start our own business, but weren’t really sure what that would look like. Then we got into sustainability and wanting to learn how to grow our own foods. We packed up and went to New Zealand and Australia for about a year, traveled our way WWOOFing: staying with farmers in exchange for free food and accommodation, learning skills and the meaning behind caring for your meal, understanding farm to plate and how your meal gets to your plate. It was really meaningful for us.

When we got back to the states, we had a culture shock about there not being a whole lot of fresh food in the States, it being hard to get fresh foods at an affordable price. I have a passion for cooking and I’ve been creating my own recipes since I was a teenager. I really wanted to do a farm-fresh food on-the-go concept. We talked about opening a café at one point. We moved to St. Louis because the cost of living is so low and it’s such a great, vibrant city and the food truck scene was really getting started. There’s now about 31 trucks here. It’s really robust and the community is really great. So that’s what we did. Now we have Lulu’s. Lulu’s Local Eatery is about four weeks old.

Before you decided to go traveling, what were you both doing professionally?

I was working for a corporation in human resources and Robbie was a jazz drummer. He still is, but he was more like a full-time freelance drummer.

Regarding the truck, why did you decide on a food truck rather than a brick and mortar establishment?

The start up capital that you need for a food truck is a lot lower than a brick and mortar. To put a whole lot of money into a building that we would just be renting didn’t make a whole lot of sense for us.

What were your start up costs?

I’d say probably around $40,000 to $50,000.

For the truck itself?

Our truck was $30,000 and it got retrofitted and everything.

So that bumped it up to $40,000?

Yeah. With our starting inventory with the materials and equipment and everything,

Was there any resource that you consulted or any specific people that you asked to help you learn how to run a food truck?

Essentially, a food truck is a restaurant on wheels, so we consulted a lot of our restaurant friends, people who work in restaurants and friends who own restaurants. We sat down with them and picked their brains about what their monthly expenses, how to get in touch with distributors, all of those questions. We basically utilized friends and people in the community. We started sending out emails to people in the community, letting them know what we wanted to do and asking them to meet with us. We sat down with farmers, vendors, café owners. We utilized the St. Louis Food Truck Association, sat down with the president of the association, and talked to him about what the climate was like, and what the typical day in the life of a food truck owner was like.

I recommend for someone interested in starting a food truck to sit down with someone from their local food truck association or go to one of their meetings. Start making friends everywhere you go. Tell people what you’re doing and start making friends. People want to help you. You don’t realize it, but they do.

Where there any online resources that you used?

Not a whole lot, honestly. I guess we read articles, but they’re not a whole lot of resources available.

Did you have any issues with sourcing materials or ingredients?

Not really. Missouri has an incredible local food movement, especially in the greater St. Louis area. There are food coops and restaurants that offer great local food. There were a lot of resources for us. Because we’re local and that’s our thing, people really wanted to support us because it’s a passion project. They were like, “Oh, cool. You’re part of the movement!” So we just ended up being really fortunate on that. But obviously we’re in the Midwest and we get a decent winter here, so it’s a seasonal business from that standpoint. We can only do so much locally in the cooler months. So that’s a barrier. That’s a challenge.

Have either of you worked in food service before?

We both have worked in restaurants before. I don’t have any formal culinary training or anything.

Did having worked in a restaurant help you at all?

Oh gosh, yes. Absolutely. I think before you get into the food business, you gotta go work in a restaurant just to get a feel for it. It’s a whole different kind of work. It’s physical. It’s kind of emotional, too, ‘cause you’re putting your energy into the food and all that stuff. It’s good for a lot of people, but it’s not good for everybody.

How was the truck funded?

We had private investors and we ended up getting a loan as well, a small business loan.

Did you get a loan through a regular bank?

It was through the Missouri Department of Economic Development. Through the economic stimulus plan, they have a federal pool of money, and I think they dispersed it among the 50 states. I know the money is available in Missouri, but I don’t know about other states. But I know that it is from a federal economic stimulus program and the goal is to help small businesses. We went though a really intense, lengthy application process, but ended up getting approved. That was fantastic.

Were your other private investors friends and family?

Yeah.

Did you put up any of the money yourself at all?

Yes.

From the time you decided to launch until you got going, how long was the fundraising process minus the Kickstarter campaign?

I guess the time frame would be up to a year minus the actual launch; developing a business plan and then helping people understand what they’re investing in.

When going to friends and family for private investing, what did you find that they wanted to hear from you or see the most before they committed to investing anything? Did they want to see your business plan? Did they want to hear that you were going to give them something in return?

I don’t know, it would depend on the person I suppose. It definitely helped us to develop the business plan just to organize our thoughts. We sat down and were like, what’s our mission? What’s our vision, what do we actually want? What do we want our perfect day to look like? Once we figured out what what we really wanted and could see ourselves doing this for a long time, then we came to the table with the inspiration and the passion that we needed to convince friends and family. Friends and family, they love you. They want to support you, but they want to make sure that it’s the right thing. In the beginning we had a lot of ideas. But it wasn’t until we sat down and had these meetings and brainstorming sessions that we were able to develop the business plan around that inspiration and passion.  According to our financial projections (aka as long as everything goes according to plan), Lulu’s will make a profit within year one.

How long did it take you to develop the business plan?

Start to finish, I’d say probably two months. We had other part-time jobs we were doing, so it’s not like we were doing it day and night for two months. It was kind of like a working document for two months.

When did your Kickstarter campaign run?

It was in April. It ended mid-April. We achieved our goal and built the garden the next week. April 25th was our first day of running Lulu’s.

Did you mainly use Kickstarter for publicity, or did you really need the money to build the garden?

 We really needed the money. We couldn’t have done it without the Kickstarter.

How did you even decide to put a garden on top of the food truck? Had you heard of that being done before?

 I read an article online about Busroots when I was in Australia, and I was like, “Oh, God. That’s so inspiring!” It was really creative. I just love people who think outside the box come up with creative solutions, especially for sustainability. I was really interested in that work. When we started talking about a food truck it just popped into my head that it would be awesome if we could take that concept of Busroots and put it on a food truck. We’re local and how much more local can you get than getting food from on top of your truck?

Did the money from Kickstarter cover the entire build-out process of the garden?

Yeah.

What are your plans for the garden?

We’re going to extend it. So, right now, it’s just on the front of the truck. We’re going to extend it to the middle section. I don’t know how many square feet that is, but it’s  a pretty big area that’s going to be garden. We’ve already harvested some of it and we use it in our recipes and everything. That’s the plan, to just use it as we have been and get people excited about it. Just seeing people’s reactions as we’re driving down the street and when they walk up to the truck is just great.

What are you growing on it right now?

We have about 15 different kinds of herbs and we have greens and lettuces and a strawberry plant up there. With the second garden, I think we’re going to do even more greens this time. Probably a lot of kale and a lot of Swiss chard and arugula.

Did the publicity from Kickstarter help a lot in the launch of the truck?

Yeah. To be honest, most of the people who saw our Kickstarter were people we knew. But it ended up that a friend of a friend of a friend posted it and then it was passed on to a local news station and then they did a news story about the gardens and the truck and everything, so that ended up being a really great publicity opportunity for us.

So was Kickstarter a good experience for you in general?

My gosh, yes. I would really recommend it, especially for passion projects.

What’s a normal day like for you on the truck?

We’re required by law to work out of a commissary kitchen. We went to the commissary about 9 o’clock and then we had to load all of our stuff from our kitchen into the truck. We got to the spot around 10, and then we prepped ‘til about 11 and opened for lunch at 11.  We stayed open until about 2. Then we came back and had to clean the truck, do all of the dishes and everything and get it ready for the next day, and then we came home and did a bunch of administrative stuff, and now (at about 7:30) we’re about ready to go back to the kitchen and prep for tomorrow. We prep at night so that we don’t have to worry about it in the morning.

So you’re running roughly a 12-hour day right now?

Yes.

And is it just the two working on the truck now?

We usually have an employee. His name is Mike and he works with us on the lunch shift and sometimes during events.

Does St. Louis have a lot of problems with legal restrictions when it comes to vendors?

It’s definitely up in the air when it comes to St. Louis about what’s going to happen long term. We’re so new here, which is unique, I think. In other cities, it’s like food trucks have been there forever, but for St. Louis, it’s really within the last two years that they’ve popped up. They don’t have concrete laws put into place. There are separate permits for the city and the suburbs, so we currently only have a city permit. We can’t vend in a county in the suburbs. We’re forced to park 200 feet away from any brick and mortar restaurant or street vendor. We can’t park within 15 feet of a bus stop or a fire hydrant.

There are 31 trucks, so it limits the number of spots that you can park at. In St. Louis, there are lots of parking spots potentially, but it’s a lot different than New York. There’s a lot of unused space. There are empty lots and stuff that there are not any food trucks around, but you wouldn’t want to park there. It’s like the issue is now that there’s only a few select really good spots that food truck can vie for, so that’s why they developed the association. Everybody in the association posts their schedule in advance and then works together so that everybody kinda shares the business equally.

Tell me about your cuisine.

It’s basically a global, eclectic mix of dishes that focus on fresh, organic, local ingredients whenever possible. The most popular thing is the sweet potato falafel that we offer. We make everything from scratch, so it’s all really fresh and homemade.

How have you been marketing Lulu’s? What outlets have been the most helpful for you?

We’ve been utilizing social marketing a lot everyday. It is totally essential to this business. We’ve been tweeting our location, retweeting articles about urban agriculture and all that kinda stuff that’s important to us and our brand. People have been commenting about our food and Kickstarter. It’s been really wonderful. I can’t imagine doing this business without Twitter or Facebook.

How do you manage Twitter and Facebook when you’re working 12 hours a day?

I’m on my phone all the time.

What payment system are you using?

We use Square. I highly recommend it. We use it on our iPad, so we use it as an inventory system, like a register. You can charge sales tax and download reports. It’s really user-friendly.

UpendED interview series: Debbie Rasmussen of Fly Away Zine Mobile

"It’s intended to be the first piece of a bigger caravan where there will be many mobile vehicles traveling around the country doing things that are related to free education, free skill shares, and free shows.”

Debbie Rasmussen started out as the associate publisher of Bitch magazine in 2003, and enjoyed a tenure as publisher from 2005-2008. After ending her stint at Bitch, she became the trucker she always wanted to be. The Fly Away Zine Mobile is less of a business and more of a mobile project that connects communities around the nation with ad hoc literacy workshops centered around 'zine curation and librarianship. Last summer, the first tour of the Zine Mobile (Orderly Disorder: Zinester Librarians in Circulation Tour) took it to nine cities with four participants, including Rasmussen. The Zine Mobile was recently featured in Flavorwire’s round-up of incredibly unique bookmobiles from around the world. Read on to discover more about the founding of the Zine Mobile project, why Rasmussen chose life on the road over office life, and how the Zine Mobile project continues to operate without turning a profit. Follow the Zine Mobile’s Tumblr for future updates.

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What do you do as your day job?

I don’t really have a day job, I guess. I’m trying to build this project. I’m very intentionally going in an unprofessional direction. I really don’t even know what to say. I guess I consider myself an organizer, a writer, an editor, an activist, and a music player. I feel like all those things are kind of equal. And with the Zine Mobile, I guess I’m a librarian, a driver, and a curator.

How and when did you come up with the concept for the Fly Away Zine Mobile?

My last day job was working at Bitch magazine where I was the publisher. I loved it. In many ways I felt like it was my dream job, but in some ways it wasn’t. I was missing the days of smaller projects, of self-publishing, and zines. We were going though a lot of questions, like any media organization, of how much to focus to put online, how much to put in print, and all of that. I feel like we were putting more efforts into online stuff which I thought was very important, but I also didn’t feel as excited about online as I did print when I thought about it.

Another piece of it for me is, when I was little, I wanted to be a trucker for awhile. My dad was into CB radios, fixing them and selling them. We always had CBs in our cars and around the house. My sister and I would often talk with truckers over the CB, so trucker culture has always felt familiar to me. When I got older, we also had a motor home. The nomadic culture was something that was always appealing to me and in my blood so to speak. The Zine Mobile project kind of came about as a intersection of those two things, trying to step back from this bigger magazine into the smaller world of self-publishing and also really wanting to be moving, seeing places. Not wanting to be in an office job anymore was a big part of it, too. 

 When was the project launched?

It was about a year ago. I though of it when I was at Bitch. I don’t know if it even says so on the website, but the Zine Mobile actually was intended to be the first part of a bigger project. I don’t mean to be evasive on your questions, but some part of the stuff, we’re still figuring out what it’s going to look like. But it’s intended to be the first piece of a bigger caravan where there would be many mobile things kind of traveling around the country doing things that are related to free education, free skill shares, and free shows. The idea is to revitalize community, bringing things back into our neighborhoods and doing things ourselves rather than going to the chain store down the street.

How did you choose the type of van that would become the Zine Mobile?

It’s a 1997 Chevy Astro van. I got it when I was in Minnesota last year which is where I grew up. I looked at many vans. My dad used to be the one who helped me select my cars because he’s way more mechanically inclined than I am. He died a few years ago, so this was one of my first ventures all by myself. One of the biggest pieces of advice that he gave me that I would also pass onto other people is to shop around. I looked on Craigslist for weeks and called on many, looked at many. The one that I ended up getting that I really like, I didn’t end up getting right away. I keep looking until I felt like I had done enough research.

I’m just starting the process of looking for a new vehicle — the Astro has been so reliable and is comfortable and easy to drive, so I was dragging my feet a bit. But it’s time — we’re maxed out in both space and volume. So looking for something larger, wheelchair accessible, and diesel or already converted to run on veggie oil.

What did you end up spending for the van?

I think it was about $4,700. The one funny thing I learned about looking for a van is, at least where I was looking, there are two kinds of vans — a party van and then the souped up family van. Early on, for me anyway, I wanted something that had a little more gadgetry. The Zine Mobile in the Astro van I got has track lighting and many different light switches that ended up being really helpful.

Did you have the interior custom retrofitted?

Not really. I live on the road, so this is going to be my home eventually. So for me, I was jokingly calling it the Zine Mobile on Training Wheels. I intentionally got something that I felt like I would need to do very few modifications. The van that I have has little cabinets inside so I can put little tiny zines in there. I did quite a few temporary modifications, but I didn’t have to do much in terms of the structure or overhauling it. That’s something that I think I would like to do later, but I don’t want to do that right now.

Did you have a business plan or some kind of template you were using for the venture?

Not really. Part of the work we’re trying to do is challenging capitalism, but obviously we’re all kind of participating in it. All of those things are so deeply complicated for us that a lot of our work ends up being really meta almost. When we get to the nuts and bolts of it, I’m like okay, we do need a certain amount of money to get going. I basically just asked people — friends and family — and said I would love to raise this much money to get the vehicle to start and get going.

How much money did you raise before you went out on the road?

I think I raised between $6,000 and $7,000. For the inaugural tour, I’d hoped to have enough money to cover the cost of the vehicle and gas, and I did. Gas will change when the next Zine Mobile is running on veggie oil, and people are always generous with food when we’re on the road because they understand what we’re trying to do.

Were you paid from this project at all?

I’m a volunteer. I don’t pay myself for any of it.

In that case, what do you do for money when you’re on the road?

Since leaving the world of full-time day job three years ago, I’ve worked as a caretaker/gardener at a feminist land project, a facilitator/advocate for a publishing non-profit in crisis, an animal house-sitter, a land/home/library/estate organizer, archivist, and caretaker, as a house painter and laborer, and as a barista at a coffee shop I worked at during grad school in Madison. I take on side projects or odd jobs when it makes sense, and when I’m in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the right place doesn’t matter, because it’s work that could be done from anywhere.

Who was out on the road with you? What was the structure of the tour starting off?

The Zine Mobile technically launched in Minneapolis where I was and where I bought the van, but it didn’t actually get out on the road until I drove down to New Orleans and met three other librarians. They were all there for the American Library Association Conference. They all flew in — John Stevens flew in from Australia, Celia Perez flew in from Chicago, and Jenna Freedman flew in from New York. I drove down from Minneapolis and we all met in New Orleans and then we went on a nine-stop tour over the course of the next three weeks. That was the inaugural adventure of the Zine Mobile.

You said you want to get a fleet going. What’s your ideal as to how that’s going to be structured?

In a practical way, what I’m hoping it would look almost like a train car…not a train car, but some combination of cars or maybe bikes or some kind of peddle-powered caravan of people and each piece in the caravan would offer something different. The Zine Mobile is the library and reading and writing area. I’m hoping to evolve it into a pen pal station, too, to help revitalize letter writing correspondence and offer alternatives to electronic communication. Then there would be a trailer or a truck that would have a healthy food offering and another one for movement or dance, and maybe another one about music. That would be a categorical system. It might be like a traveling carnival but more oriented towards ideals of cooperation and sharing and giving things freely but with a central tenant of fun and play. That’s the idea.

How many vehicles do you want to get?

I feel open. I think it would cool to get a core group of people who want to permanently live on the road. My own experience is that a lot of people are really excited about this project and want to come temporarily, which is also awesome. So having this core group of people — maybe five or ten vehicles — and other people plugging in if they want to along the way. Kind of wandering around the country, following weather patterns, and trying to be south for the winter and all that.

How do you see this model as being profitable, or do you?

No. [We’re] trying to bring ideas into focus other than profits. Things like cooperation and offering these things for free, trusting that people will donate what they can, if they can, or someone else along the way will cover it. That’s definitely been my experience with the Zine Mobile aspect so far. Sometimes I’ll stop and people will offer money for gas, and at other places they don’t, but in the end it all works out. For me, this isn’t about making a profit. It’s just sort of about living really simply in the world and trying to be an example that we would all benefit from if we were living a little more simply.

Do you see mobile businesses gaining traction? Do you see it as a thing that will gain popularity in the coming years?

I do. I think there’s this general trend, and I’m glad for it, of downsizing and simplifying and I certainly think one of the positive aspects of technology is making it much easier to be mobile. I have no statistics about home ownership and things like that, but it certainly seems like people are sizing down, if not sizing down to the point of being mobile. But I do think once we downsize and simplify, it makes it easier to be mobile, as long as you consider that choice.

I think as far as being permanently mobile, it’s been a really interesting experience for me this past year just seeing challenges present themselves, like this expectation that you have to have a home somewhere, you have to be in one place. From car registration to doing taxes, whatever, it’s like the system is set up against the idea of mobility.

How does the Zine Mobile operate? When the Zine Mobile goes to a city, what happens?

It depends. It’s a pretty flexible and open-ended project. A lot of times I will go and do open library hours at public parks or community centers or the parking lot of a public library. I often set up a little zine making station with a typewriter and paper supplies and writing utensils and all of that. When I was in Oakland, I was part of a zine show, and just pulled up outside of a café and kind of did the same thing. When we went on tour, we did a lot of zine readings in libraries and community centers and different kinds of places. I guess for the events, the common thread tends to be writing and reading and general literacy.

Did people actually go inside the Zine Mobile to participate in any of the classes?

Yeah. Because it’s an Astro van, it’s obviously very little. But the way that it’s set up is intended to be like a little mobile library and also a reading room. I’ve done special events where I’ve gone to someone’s house if they’ve requested it, where they’ve got, like, a poetry group. It’s an experience. You’re sitting in this little van surrounded by these really amazing zines, these little handmade magazines.

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Did you have issues with any regulations regarding vending? You’re not really a vendor because you’re not selling anything, but did you run into any problems regardless?

No, not yet. I guess the biggest thing for me is that since I live mobily also, the Zine Mobile is technically my home. I have to be somewhat aware of where I am if I am going to sleep in it overnight. But that’s something very different from mobile businesses, I’m sure.

Where do you stay when you’re on the road?

A third of my time I spend with friends and family, a third of my time I spend in the Zine Mobile, and a third of my time I spend doing house sits and animal sits along the way.

How else did you get the word out there about the Fly Away Zine Mobile tour? Did you utilize social media in addition to the blog?

We used Facebook quite a bit on tour. I got off Facebook about six months ago myself. I had the Zine Mobile page up for awhile and then I ended up taking it down. I used Twitter for a bit and I didn’t like that either. I tried to update the blog. If you’ve seen it, you know I was terrible at it. I used Tumblr, too. I feel simultaneously curious about these new types of media because my own background is in media. I feel a certain kind of expectation or responsibility to test them out. I do see how people find them useful. I myself am looking to spend so much less time on the computer that I just can’t get myself to spend a lot of time [doing updates]. For better or worse, the Zine Mobile often does end up being a product of word of mouth which is kind of nice because I appreciate keeping it kind of small and contained at least for now.

When will the next incarnation of Zine Mobile go out on the road?

I am talking to people now about summer plans that would start in June.

Do you have an idea of how long you’d like to stay out on the road when it goes out this time?

I think it’ll be another four months again. I think it’s interesting what happened this past summer. I got on the road and went to Oakland and ended up taking on this library archiving project that ended up consuming all of my time. I joked that the Zine Mobile went into hibernation, which it kind of did even though I was still doing some special events. That might be a general pattern where it’s a little more dormant in the winter and a little more out there in the summer.

What practical advice can you give to people who are launching a mobile business, either for-profit or non-profit?

The idea of using magnetic letters on the outside of the vehicle was so helpful to me. It’s sounds pretty basic, but it didn’t occur to me until late in the process.

I really loved it, and it’s a great way to not do anything permanent until you’re ready. That’s something I would have appreciated knowing.

Where do you get big magnetic letters?

My friend got be these big sheets of magnetic paper that I just cut out letters on. Totally low-budget, do-it-yourself. I think she just got it from an office supply store. She got a bunch of sheets for me for like $5.http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lnx1eqPJ401ql6q97o1_1280.jpg

UpendED interview series: Jerome Chang of DessertTruck

"There’s nothing magical about a truck that’s going to make running it easier. It is not easier. The overhead is not necessarily lower."

In front of Cathcart & Reddy, all that remains of its mobile predecessor is an emblem of its likeness that juts out beneath the awning. Conspicuously dubbed, DessertTruck was a grandaddy in New York City’s gourmet food truck movement. Its 2007 debut came before the rise of the New York City Food Truck Association and a slew of sweet competitors. Two years later, a brick and mortar arm by the same name was introduced at 6 Clinton Street in the Lower East Side. In February 2012, the truck was retired for good, and DessertTruck’s storefront began rebranding under the name of Cathcart & Reddy. Jerome Chang, co-founder and executive chef of both enterprises, talks about the bittersweet business of running a food truck in New York City, and why parking the truck for good was one of the best decisions he could have made.

How did DessertTruck start?

My background is in fine dining. I’m 36 now. I started the truck over five years ago. I’m of a generation where we really don’t buy into pretension and status based on superficial things quite as much as the previous generation. I was working at white table cloth restaurants. I didn’t necessarily subscribe to that kind of lifestyle or culture.

My last job before I opened the truck was as a pastry sous chef at La Cirque. I just wanted to be able to bring high quality desserts to the masses in a very approachable, casual, and more affordable way. No one had done that before.

Didn’t you say that you had a law background, too?

I was a lawyer for a year.

It seems that a lot of people who have background in law end up doing food trucks.

You’ll find lawyers in every industry. Lawyers always dream about changing careers.

You said you wanted to be more connected with the food, but why via a truck specifically? Why not just start with a smaller restaurant?

If I had opened up a pastry café with the menu that we had for the truck, which consisted of a warm chocolate bread pudding with bacon creme anglaise or a molten chocolate cake with sea salt, olive oil, ganache and candied pistachios, or a milk chocolate mousse with a peanut butter cream center and caramel popcorn…if you walk into a coffee shop or café and then see that the primary menu is composed of these desserts, you would probably think it’s a little weird.

People still, even after we’ve opened this brick and mortar shop, and it’s been over two years, people still find it a little unusual or unique. There’s something about a truck that automatically breaks down barriers. There’s something about it that opens people’s minds. Not everyone’s open to trucks, but if you’re willing to walk up to a truck, your mind is already very open. It was easy to introduce this kind of gourmet menu at these prices through a truck. It’s not necessarily because it was cheaper. It was just more fun, the attitude of it and all that.

A lot of people have been telling me that costs for launching a truck were way higher than they ever expected. So, was it actually cheaper?

No, it wasn’t cheaper.

What were your startup costs for the truck?

Realistically, the truck itself was about 60 grand. But the startup costs, especially for our gourmet menu that requires a lot of components and probably more storage than the average truck, realistically were about $140,000.

Did you start with any staff?

It was just me and my business partner. This was back before the crash and a lot of that we were able to put on a credit card.

When did you launch it?

In 2007. It was retired in February 2012.

What came about with you deciding to transition away from the truck?

The cost of it, the headaches. This is in New York City, though. Every city is different. Running a truck is going to be different from city to city to city because every city has its own ordinances regulating trucks. But New York City is one of the worst, I think, based on what I’ve heard.

What were some of the trials and tribulations you had over that period? You had a pretty good run.

It was a great run. Trials and tribulations…again, not (being) rich, so $140,000 was already way over budget. That’s number 1. Number 2, we were using a used truck which was unreliable, so it had a lot of breakdowns. That was a big headache. And it wasn’t just the truck. You have generator issues, too, always. If you’re going to have a generator running a lot of your power, you’re constantly going to have problems.

And why is that?

Generators are not built to be running 16 hours a day or 12 hours a day, seven days a week. At least the size that we’re talking about.

So how often were you having to take the truck off the road for repairs?

I don’t know exactly, but a lot. Anybody who followed our truck definitely knows that we were out of commission on a regular basis. And then also the weather. Once the weather’s bad, we thought, okay, let’s try it the first few months. If it’s raining we’d go out and see, because we didn’t know if people would come out or not. But people are just too scared. They just don’t come out. We made very few sales (in the rain).

Did it help at all, dealing with legal problems in the city, to be a part of the New York Food Truck Association?

That came much later. That food truck association didn’t start until, I think, three years in.

As far as having the place now, what is better about having a brick and mortar establishment versus a truck?

Predictability. When you have a problem with a food truck, you don’t have a lot of service providers out there to fix the problem quickly and efficiently. So if there’s something wrong with your generator, you’re going to have to find a way to either unmount it from the truck and drive it over to a repair guy, or if you’re lucky enough — and I don’t know anybody like this — find a guy who’s going to come out to your truck wherever it’s parked to fix it, or you have to drive the truck itself to a repair guy. So that’s one tiny little example of the issues you have to deal with for a repair. But if you have a restaurant or a café and you have an oven problem, you have a gazillion different service guys competing for your business who will come out. Yeah, they’re not cheap, but still it’s going to get done probably within 24 hours.

Is it that the market hasn’t evolved yet to deal with the problems within the industry?

The market will probably never evolve because there will probably never be enough trucks to have a service provider that will make house calls for a generator issue, for example. A lot of trucks are very unique in the way they’re built out. You have to have someone who kind of knows what they’re doing with your truck.

Do you see the issues involving truck licensing regulations in the city getting any better since you started?

A lot of the licensing regulations here don’t make sense. It seems like it’s getting worse. That’s just my opinion, but I have never really been able to keep up with every single change that has been happening with food trucks. I almost feel like an outsider now. It’s worse partly because it’s so many out there. A lot of people who are not foodies who don’t read Eater every day or don’t read the food blogs every day, they’re just going to say, ‘They’re a heck of a lot of trucks now. So cool, but it’s hard to distinguish between the two. And, oh, by the way, I remember the city was really trying to crack down on them.’ It’s just a really mixed bag of public perception which is not all that great, I don’t think.

Do you think having the truck helped with marketing and getting the brand out there?

Oh yeah. Totally.

What did you think of participating in fairs and popups like Madison Square Eats and other food markets around the city?

In our first year and a half, we used to do that all the time and we used to be really excited about it and it was a lot of fun to go to these different events, whether it was a fundraiser or a booth at a fair or a truck fair. In the end, it just seemed like more work than it was worth looking back on it. It didn’t seem to strengthen our brand and…I don’t know what it was. It just didn’t seem worth it. We definitely didn’t seem to be making any money from it, or a lot.

You’re rebranding the restaurant as Cathcart & Reddy. Just curious, but what is that about? Why the name change?

Because we don’t have a truck anymore. And again, even recently, just doing a catering event under our old name, people got us confused with other trucks. You can blame our name. That’s fine. I understand. Partly we started with a not very strong brand name, but people still get confused despite all the press that we’ve gotten. [Side note: Cathcart & Reddy are the surnames of Susanna Cathcart-Garcia, Chang’s business partner, and Sandesh Reddy, a pastry chef and supporter of the enterprise.]

Do you think it’s hard to break into the industry, especially in New York City, as far as competition goes and maybe cliques and getting a good space? 

No, but we were lucky. We were on the front end and we were able to find a really busy corner that no one had claimed. And our business was always at night. We were very different from a lot of other trucks in that 85% of our revenue came around dinner or afterwards. It’s not lunch. We were never trying to fight for Midtown, although we tried Midtown occasionally. We never really had to fight for spots or wanted to fight for spots.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to open a truck? Honest advice.

The honest advice is really, everything that a business mentor, or the SBA, or the SBDC tells you about what you need to think about when opening any business, you gotta think about it and apply it to your truck business, too. The same principles apply. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it is running a business. There’s nothing magical about a truck that’s going to make it easier. Especially in New York City, it is counterintuitive. It is not easier. The overhead is not necessarily lower.

You can find a way, but it’s going to take a lot of legwork, a lot of research, and a lot of hard work, thinking, sitting down, and managing what your day is going to be like every single day. Please, please, please, if you haven’t been in the food business before, volunteer or something for at least six months just to see what it’s like. That’s one thing that helped us, I think. I’d been trained as a chef, worked in restaurants for a long time. That helped a lot in dealing with a lot of the nuances of running any hospitality business. Know your city’s rules and regulations and don’t assume that because you’re a truck you can get away without paying taxes.

I remember when we first started, we got an angry e-mail because we’d been getting a lot of press, and I guess this was a business owner pissed as hell at us: ‘We don’t like you because you don’t have to pay taxes, blah, blah, blah.’ I’m like, dude, we collect sales tax. I don’t know why you think we don’t have to collect sales tax. There are a lot of weird ideas and myths about trucks out there. Please don’t think it’s easy, at all.

Would you expect someone who’s just starting a new, small operation to be in the red in the beginning way more often than they’re in the black?

Oh yeah. Again, a lot of the same business principles apply. Expect to be in the red. You might get lucky, but don’t rely on luck. You’ve got to rely on preparation. If you’re lucky, that’s icing on the cake. We were lucky. Take it from me. We took for granted the kind of success that we had. We’ve been doing it for over five years. It’s been in people’s consciousness for over five years now, so don’t expect to automatically get a lot of press anymore, anywhere I think.

Are there good resources that people can use to find out what to do and where to source, or is it really about networking?

I’m one of the worst people to ask about that. When I started, there were no other gourmet food trucks out there. I just did a lot of embarrassing question asking, pounding the pavement, asking street vendors who were mostly reluctant to say anything to me. It was a lot of luck and a lot of asking embarrassing questions for me and a lot of it was also experience from restaurants. I knew who the vendors were, too, just based on the restaurants where I’d worked.

Did your law background help at all?

 Not really.

Where do you see this restaurant going?

I want to see if we can do more catering and retail.

Would you ever go back to a truck later?

Only if someone else ran it and they had a crapload of money, and it was just sort of a side project or hobby for them, and they just wanted to have their kicks for shits and giggles.

You mean, you’d franchise it out for someone else to run?

Yeah, something like that, or just have me consult. I would never want to do day-to-day management of a truck again. No way.

UpendED interview series: Sister Moon

“I knew in the city food trucks were how a lot of people were making money and I was like, I can do the same thing, but with jewelry and fabrics and oils and other things.”

Some experiences in mobile entrepreneurship are more eclectic than others. Such is the case with Nicki D’Agnostino, aka Sister Moon, a 29-year-old hairstylist from Grafton Lakes, a rural town outside of Albany, NY. Last year, inspired by the popularity and mobility of food trucks, she and her business partner turned a 1975 Shasta caravan into a traveling, Arabian Nights-inspired clothing store. Here’s the story of how the Gypsy caravan store came to be, why it’s currently up for sale, and why her ride on a wave of SunshineAndMoonbeams was way more exciting than your average venture. You can follow Sister Moon on Twitter


When was the project started?

It was last summer. We were going to a lot of festivals and we wanted a way to be able to travel, have an amazing summer, and see all the music we wanted to see for free. We needed a way to make money to do that. So, we figured we’d take the caravan on the road.

When did you get the idea for the caravan? I thought it was so beautiful how you retrofitted the interior.

Thank you! You know, I just had this vision of it being a vintage trailer of sorts. I grew up on the road with my parents and we had a cool conversion van that was always towing something along. I had this idea that whatever it was, it needed to be towed. At first it started out that we were going to get a VW bus. We looked at so many different kinds of vehicles, with an engine and pulled — we looked at everything. I found this 1975 Shasta camper and I just fell in love with it.

Let me get a little background. Did you have a store before?

No, I was a hairstylist for many years, and I traveled and did fashion shows. I also studied color and I painted for a long time. It was just sort of the next phase of what I could create. I collaborated with another woman, Sister Sunshine, and the idea came about between the two of us.

What was the name of the caravan store?

The store didn’t really have a name. We called it The Sisters of the Light. It was just supposed to be an essence, a movement, not a store.

 

What was the path of the tour?

It was unknown initially. And, like I said, we knew when we started that we wanted it to be a journey. What happens on a journey is that you just flow with it. So we were seeing where it was taking us rather than us planning anything. Our first outing was the Furthur Festival in Saratoga Springs. We got a really amazing group of talented artists together and piled in my van and drove the caravan up to Saratoga and camped out for the day. So many people wandered to our space. We’d just set up and it didn’t look like a store. As soon as they came into the caravan, they saw gems glistening from the windows and beautiful Brazilian bathing suits and paintings from local artists. It’s really cool inside and you kind of just want to hang. So you sit and talk with people and they want to look at your wares and talk about them, and you eventually, hopefully, make a sale because you gotta make some money.

From idea to first outing, what was the timeline on the launch of the store?

It happened really quickly. I came back from Mexico in February. We went to Coachella in April. From May to June, we did complete renovations on the Shasta and that took us about a month. We were on the road right after that.

How long were you on the road?

We did a whole summer, up until October.

Did you adhere to any sort of business model?

It really wasn’t legitimate at all. I don’t want to try and say that I did things by the book. The whole concept of the way we ran our store is illegal in New York. You can’t actually sell anything out of an RV trailer and call that a business. It’s completely illegal. Fortunately, our initial idea wasn’t ‘let’s have a store on wheels!’ It was more like more like, let’s do something to generate a positivity and beautiful love and magic and do what we like doing all at the same time.

How did you get the stuff to sell?

Sister Sunshine is an amazing bikini bathing suit designer. She’s worked in New York City for many years. She and I met, and we just started collaborating, making jewelry, and book and crystal hunting. She made all of the bathing suits that we sold. She’s also a collector of beautiful things from all over the world. I’ve collected vintage for many years, so I had already had everything that I needed to sell stashed up and she did as well.

From what you said earlier, I was thinking that you had wares from a collection of local artists.

We had local artists paint on the inside of the caravan and another guy who’s a metal artist made all of the hanging racks and our dressing room.

You had a dressing room in there, too?

Yeah, it was cool. He made a circular metal piece that we attached to the ceiling and put these beautiful draperies around it. It was kind of like a shower circle ring.

That’s amazing. What is his name? I’m curious about his work.

His name is Matt Hart.

Tell me more about the elaborate décor inside the caravan.

We are obsessed with gypsies of sort. Moroccan gypsies, Indian, you name it. We spent a lot of energy just researching those places and the fabrics and the colors. Sophie (Sister Sunshine), just from being in the city and running all over collecting beautiful swatches, had so much fabric and we needed to put it to good use. It became our ceiling, which was the main attraction of the whole caravan.

The year before, I had worked really hard at my business as a stylist. I did everything under the sun. Photo shoots, fashion shows, private work at a salon, you name it. I did everything and I just saved a bunch of money. All of a sudden I had this money that I wasn’t really doing much with it, and then the idea for the caravan came about. So I had earned just enough money to purchase the trailer and then do the renovations on it.

Do you mind talking about the purchase cost of the trailer and the renovations and retrofitting costs?

I really didn’t keep track of that. I probably spent about $1,000 because we already had our material for the inside. We already had all of our wares. Really, it was just sort of transforming…creating a sort of smoke and mirrors of what we wanted to be a gypsy caravan.  There is no lighting. It’s completely skin and bones with the most amazing veneer. I reinforced it the inner shell of the caravan. The thing was rotted to hell. It’s a 1975 model.

Did you get the Shasta off of Craigslist?

I’d been typing in the type of trailer that I wanted for a long time and I was looking all over the place. Finally it brought me to this guy on Craigslist and that lived about an hour and a half away in Amsterdam. I show up there and he comes out and shakes my left hand — he’s got one arm — and basically this was his carton trailer. It had just been sitting there forever. But the outside of it — the paint, the old-school striping— just everything about it was exactly what I needed. I didn’t care what the inside looked like. I knew I could change that.

Are you saying that all of your expenses amounted to $1,000 or that the caravan was $1,000?

I’m not really discussing how much right now just because I’m trying to sell it. But I can tell you that my initial investment on that 1975 Shasta camper was not even half of what I invested. I was pretty smart about it. There was no other was I could get one within my means.

I guess what I’m interested in are the retrofitting costs (i.e. the metal work).

That did cost a bit of money, but because we’re old friends, we help each other out.

I think it’s more about him (Matt Hart) being about to generate his love and his respect for what we were doing. He cared about the cause very much.

For someone who wanted to launch a venture similar to yours, what would you say to them with respect to money?

Get your friends together that are talented and collaborate some energy that’s amazing in this world. It can’t always be about a money factor. I can’t borrow money, I have no credit, I live off the land. I don’t pay taxes. It’s that sort of thing.

In general, what would you suggest that someone budget for a project like this?

I would say, budget what you feel is credible to your lifestyle. You have to be respectful of money. You can’t count money that you don’t have. You have to be a smart person, but at the same time still be passionate, and it’ll come to you. You many not have it initially, but someone will see the passion of what you want to do and the universe will grant that to you if it’s meant to be and then you accept its gift.

How many festivals did you make it to with the caravan?

Last year, I think we did seven to ten venues. For all of October, we were at Saratoga Apple Farm for the entire month. It was amazing. People come from all over came through. They come from the city and they brought their families, so it was our most lucrative spot financially. On weekends, we made more money there than we did anywhere else. We definitely got a lot of chicks to buy our bikinis at the festivals. That was huge. We went with things that we knew people would like. We also did face painting and tarot cards. There was a lot that was involved.

All inside the caravan?

Yes.

Would you take the caravan back out on the road?

I kind of see it as a stationary at this point, having people come to me. I’ve taken it a lot around the Albany area where I live, where I know a lot of people. I still see people being able to come to it. I recently moved up right next to the peace pagoda in Grafton Lake, so there’s a lot of people that come from all over the place to visit the peace pagoda. So I’m hoping, if I don’t sell it, it’ll be a part of this other bit of land.

Why do you want people to come to you now instead of taking it out on the road?

It’s money. I can’t afford the gas. I have a 1982 conversion van. It’s a dual gas tank vehicle. I’m not generating enough income to do that kind of traveling again. We sold off everything, all of our collections. What we had is gone. So, at this point, I don’t have any way of generating that gas money to move it around.

Have you have any legal vending troubles (fines, police, etc.)?

We never took it into Brooklyn, although we had many invites from a few artists that wanted us to come down with it. But we never took them up on it because, honestly, I couldn’t see driving that thing down the Westside Highway. I would be really scared for it. It would be out of its element in a way. But when you’re in more of a rural outskirt, outside the city area…we never ran into any trouble. We never even thought about it, actually.

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.

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