Posts tagged retrofit

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.

12

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.

IMG_8664

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: 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.

BADASS BUILDOUTS - 12 Stylistically Awesome Pizzerias

BADASS BUILDOUTS - 12 Stylistically Awesome Pizzerias

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.

Following