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A “Con”-less Concept from the Coffee Cart Pros
By Alexis Rubinstein

We pass them on the streets, wait in their lines and purchase our coffees from stylish carts popping up all over the country. Here, we examine what goes into choosing the prime spot and most efficient and appealing designs to guarantee success. From past coffee cart uses to modern day coffee cart conveniences, this “portable” trend will surely become a permanent fixture in the industry.

Today, coffee carts are vehicles of retail, not of transporting goods. However, the original coffee cart was not parked in the main square mixing up mochaccinos for the villagers. In the Central Valley area of Costa Rica around the mid-19th century, coffee was cultivated in the surrounding countryside and transported over the mountains and to the coast. The only method that was efficient and plausible for these grueling trips was a well-built and sturdy oxcart. The oxcarts served as a status symbol for most families, and so began the tradition of decorating them with bright colors and flowers to signify the families’ wealth and stature. Additionally, each region of Costa Rica was said to have its own particular design, which allowed for easy identification.

Although today, planes, trains and automobiles have taken on the role of transporting the coffee beans from mountain to sea and beyond, the oxcarts remain a prominent piece of Costa Rican culture. While the flowers have since been replaced with paint (which both decorates and protects the wood), companies such as the Joaquín Chaverri Oxcart Factory have been making them in basically the same way for nearly three centuries. The colors are still bold, the carts still reliable and the wheels still squeaky – which folklore says is to warn the wives that their husbands are coming home, giving their lovers time to escape.

The evolution from mobile, ox-driven “wagons” to the super sleek coffee carts and kiosks of today has been incredibly beneficial to the coffee industry. A more affordable option than owning or leasing a store, the smaller, yet highly equipped carts and kiosks allow entrepreneurs to enter into the coffee retail world. In basically three steps: ensuring your cart/kiosk complies with your states’ health department codes, finding a location and choosing a design that best fits your needs, a new business venture can be underway.

Health Codes and Regulations
There is a certain stigma surrounding the health department and the regulations and restrictions they impose when opening up a coffee cart or kiosk. According to Bob Bezuhly, sales manager of CMC Espresso, the difficulty in getting your coffee cart or kiosk approved by the health department depends greatly upon the state, city and county in which the business will be located. “In most areas, as long as you provide the ability to keep things clean and sanitary, there should be no problem getting approvals,” Bezuhly explains. Los Angeles County in California is notorious for having stricter guidelines than most. “They just don’t like carts there,” Bezhuly jokes, “they generally make it difficult to meet all the requirements.”

However, we are seeing more companies working with both their clients and the health departments to ensure that no problems are encountered. CMC Espresso has created a mobile service unit (MSU), which is a thoughtful substitute for L.A. County’s law stating that everyday each coffee cart must be taken to a commissary. The MSU lends a convenient way to take your cart to have it cleaned, replenish the water, etc. The companies website (cmcespresso.com) even offers printable spec sheets on each model, allowing their clients to print the information and bring it with them to health department for a pre-approval.

As the regulations change, coffee cart manufacturers must adjust their design to incorporate the new requirements. Coffee Cart Biz, in San Marco, California, has recently been affected by a new rule passed by L.A. County, involving sink sizes in coffee carts. Tim Langdon, president of Coffee Cart Biz (coffeecartbiz.com) reveals, “Future plans include building and designing a specific, unique design for California health code, which now requires a three-compartment sink that is six feet in length.”

Location, Location, Location
Sounds pretty simple; find a high-traffic locale that is hopefully lacking in convenient coffee and set up a business. Although in times, it can be that blissfully obvious, finding a location for a coffee cart can be quite tricky. Most importantly, all fundamental aspects must be examined. Be sure there is a convenient power supply, water, plumbing, etc and have the health department approve your spot (in some states, you must also obtain permits). There is also much more than traffic to take into account. Bob Bezhuly explains, “A captive audience, a college campus, hospital or lobby of an office building, will produce a higher percentage of daily business, then say, in front of a retail store that generates more spontaneous purchases.” Customers who frequent the location are not only more likely to make a purchase, but also more likely to become loyal customers.

Coffee cart from Burgess Enterprises.
Burgess Enterprises, (burgessenterprises.net) first entered the specialty beverage industry in 1961 and have since made their mark on the coffee cart scene. About 30 years later, their three cart models (Portofino, Firenze and Venezia) were introduced, making Burgess Enterprises the “first to roll out a national cart program, which made us pioneers and the leading manufacturer in the world,” says Robert Burgess, c.e.o./president of Burgess Enterprises. After many years of experience and close interactions with their clients, Burgess Enterprises discovered the need for a reference tool for those who didn’t know how to choose a location for their coffee carts. In 1993, the company released Sidewalks to Skywalks: How to Land a Location for Your Espresso Cart.

Design and finishes should also be adjusted depending on the location of your cart or kiosk. With the multitude of customization options most manufacturers offer, your possibilities are seemingly endless. Surfaces, materials and overhead structures that are meant to withstand weather are just to name a few. “A clients location affects every design that we do,” says Tim Langdon. “If we didn’t ask about indoors/outdoors or the projected volume, we wouldn’t be able to supply our clients with the perfect cart. A design for a coffee cart on a college campus is completely different than that for a church.”

Aesthetically Pleasing
Once your location and cart have been chosen and approved by your local health department, some may say, this is where the fun begins. It is wise to try and match the décor or style of your cart with that of your customer base. Coffee carts and kiosk owners in hospital lobbies may opt for sturdy but less “designer” finishes. Laminates seem to be the most standard option for countertops, while most manufacturers are offering impressive upgrades of Corian and granite, which would fit better in a more upscale location.

“Most important is being able to produce a consistent high-quality drink from a business that looks elegant and well put together,” says Tim Langdon. “We tend not to use stainless steel because it looks like a hot dog cart or something you would see at a street fair. What we manufacture is uniform with the coffee industry. They are carts designed to sell $3.50 cappuccinos.” Tim Langdon and Coffee Cart Biz realize they must never lose sight of the product being sold from their carts and kiosks. Chai lattes, frappes and double-shot, skim milk iced coffees are worlds away from the pretzels, roasted nuts and sausages that are usually found being delivered from carts; and so, the design must reflect this accordingly.

An additional concern with the aesthetics of a coffee cart or kiosk is the good old phrase: “keeping up with Jones’.” In order to keep the revenue coming, you must ensure that your establishment is equally as appealing as the other guy around the corner. This could require updating your cart with new colors, logos and design elements. Burgess Enterprises allows their customers to add to their existing coffee bars, carts and kiosks without purchasing a whole new setup. With the ease of an inter-locking design, panels can easily be removed and replaced, colors can be changed, etc, supplying economical revamping opportunities. “This means that clients don’t need to get stuck with having an outdated kiosk,” says Robert Burgess.

Crown kiosk from CMC Espresso.
Generally, most coffee cart owners chose their manufacturer based on the look of their models. Although CMC Espresso is concerned with “long-term functioning,” “people respond more to aesthetics than they do to functionality,” says Bob Bezhuly. “What brings them to call is ‘I love the look of your carts,’ which helps them get into the locations they want.” Logically, a college campus or office building will be more likely to allow you to set up shop if they approve of the overall look of the cart of kiosk.

Choosing and designing your cart or kiosk is only the beginning; you must then consider all of the add-on options and modular possibilities. In the mid to late 1990’s, “Millrock implemented over 500 modular stores for Starbucks, building all their stores east of the Mississippi between 1995 and 2000,” says Millrock’s senior vice president, David Stackhouse. Although Millrock (millrock.com) no longer builds stores for Starbucks, they offer free store layout, a modular casework program and over 30 models of display cases for food, bakery and beverages. If the intention is to make the most out of your limited cart or kiosk space, and feature a large amount of products, Millrock’s modular options add style with their designs and increase revenue by allowing for a “grab-n-go” or a pre-packaged foods section. “For carts and kiosks, adding more items for increased impulse sales is important to allow each customer transaction to have a higher ticket,” explains Stackhouse. Additionally, “Menu and lighting systems are essential for helping customers make a quick decision. And of course, for retailers looking to establish their brand, a signature look and feel is essential.”

Highly Functional
Designing your cart or kiosk can take a lot of thoughtful planning and can mean the difference between a steady stream of customers or a few just trickling in. Similar to a store layout, traffic patterns and merchandise setup are important aspects to consider. If your customer has an opportunity to browse you refrigerated case with enticing pre-packaged sandwiches while waiting in line to purchase their latte, it is more likely impulse buying will take place.

High on the list of priorities should be finding the right operator or barista for your business. “Hire someone who is personable,” suggest Bob Bezuhly, “it’s like being a bartender without the alcohol.” The location and design will draw them in, but the quality of the products and the personality of the individual who is delivering them is what brings them back. It is crucial that your coffee cart or kiosk will allow the operator to perform all the necessary duties quickly and efficiently, without feeling constrained by space, or lack thereof. “In a lot of six-foot carts, you have to walk around the corner just to look the customer in the eye,” states Tim Langdon. “Carts from Coffee Cart Biz eliminate this problem — it is important to interact.” To truly define “one-stop shopping,” Burgess Enterprises has collaborated with their sister company, The Seattle Barista Academy, to offer their clients training, consulting and tips on how to run a successful coffee business. The Seattle Barista Academy and Burgess Enterprises will not only provide you with an exceptional cart or kiosk, but will also make sure you are prepared and ready to begin making and selling coffee. You can also visit Robert Burgess and the Seattle Barista Academy at the Tea & Coffee World Cup/AMERICAS Miami, January 9-11, 2008, where they will be offering courses in latte art and etching, barista fundamentals and advanced barista training.

Front view of Coffee Cart Biz Rendering.
While each major cart manufacturer offers a variety of function-optimizing packages, most take unique approaches as to how go about fulfilling their goals. Coffee Cart Biz, for one, has focused on water setup. “Our tanks for fresh and waste water are completely portable,” says Tim Langdon. “Because the tanks are portable they can be quickly disconnected and filled anywhere. Also included in the standard price of one of our carts is a water filtration and softening system and we offer an oversized water pump (3.3 gal/min as compared with 1.6 gal/min).” CMC Espresso emphasizes that although their carts and kiosks may be updated to increase functionality and to keep up with ever-changing trends, they “try to keep their price in line to bring the same high quality product,” explains Bob Bezuhly. “People are often caught off guard about the price,” he continues, “but there are very few options out there that fall into our price range.” For CMC Espresso’s clients, a fully equipped, well-made cart at a fair price is a match made in coffee heaven. “Ergonomics and operational flow” are being emphasized at Burgess Enterprises, according to Robert Burgess. Their expertise allows them to study recent trends, customer service and operations, to provide their customers with the “latest and greatest.”

Millrock also believes in functionality as the most important aspect of their equipment. “Our work in developing carts and kiosks begins by working with the operator to understand the ‘day part’ potential for his site. Is it primarily morning traffic? Or is there all day potential,” says Stackhouse. He continues, “This approach to cart and kiosk design, with emphasis on maximizing the sales potential of the day parts, results in solutions that are uniquely qualified to take maximum sales advantage and build a strong customer potential.” Shaun Weston, president and CEO of Millrock also agrees with this sentiment. “We envision solutions for their questions: ‘I’m a cart with only two feet of counter space, how do I expand my day parts to have pastries and sandwiches with Grab N’ Go beverages?” Weston states. Features such as their Under Counter Refrigerator (UCR) “allows Millrock to lower their counters, bring the espresso ergonomics into human form and reintroduce the barista to the customer,” says Weston.

Whether investing in a cart or kiosk, remember to consider all aspects of the business venture before jumping in. Expect to deal with the health department in getting your cart approved (or have your cart manufacturer act as your liaison.) Prepare to spend a hefty total in customizing and designing, keeping in mind that the money that you put in will most likely help with the money you get out of it. Examine your location possibilities closely and chose a staff that will keep your customers engaged. The correct equation always produces right answer, and one good cup of joe.

Tea & Coffee - October, 2007
Theta Ridge Coffee

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