The allure of owning a coffee truck is undeniable. Whether it’s a full-time occupation or a side-hustle – owning a coffee truck is an exciting, badass way to make or enhance a living. When have you ever heard anyone upset about seeing a coffee truck on the horizon? It’s like a mirage in the desert for the parched coffee lover.
HOWEVER, in the interest of balance let me also say owning a coffee truck is hard, very hard – sometimes brutal. For the owner it’s endless problem solving and hustling. For the barista team it’s producing perfection in a cup in imperfect, challenging conditions. It’s not for the uncommitted or faint-hearted, specially in a cold climate country like the U.K.
But first, who am I to talk about coffee trucks? Let me introduce myself. My name is Anthony Duckworth, Owner of Dear Coco Street Coffee in London, and International Marketing Director for a global brand. I’m husband to Emma and father to Malia, Lani and Coco… the namesake of our business who boasts to her much-older sisters that it’s a love letter to her, not them!
According to a certain coffee publication, Dear Coco is a Top 5 Global Coffee Truck. This industry recognition humbles me every time I say it. We’ve become known to the local and global coffee community for delivering exceptional quality befitting the best brick-and-mortar coffee shops. We work with global brands on their customer engagement activations, and we partner with some of the world’s most prestigious events to deliver our bespoke quality at scale. On reflection it’s been an unbelievable 3 years since launching in 2021.
While all is this important, more valuable to me is the regard the business is held by our team, our customers and the local community. These are the people involved in our business day in day out, and without their support we’re nothing more than a popsicle stand. These are the people I designed the business for. These are the hearts and minds I want to win… and keep.
After a decade in the hospitality industry followed by 3 years owning and operating Dear Coco, I find myself sitting on an encyclopaedic level of insight. Insight that might benefit aspiring coffee truck owners. For those with zero interest in entering the brutal world of coffee trucks, these insights might simply prove informative to hear what actually goes into putting your coffee mirage in the desert.
Every December I buck the trend of small businesses globally and share an open-book look at Dear Coco’s financial performance – a level of sharing often reserved for global organisations. Why shouldn’t our customers and followers see our performance, they’re the ones who make it happen. I operate our business like I talk to friends while slightly intoxicated – no topic is off-limits, and everything comes from the heart.
So, in this spirit allow me to bring you under the hood of owning a coffee truck. Each phase of the process has been wildly abbreviated to hold your attention, and along the way I’ll tell you how some translate directly into the Dear Coco business.
Phase 1: So you wanna open a coffee truck?
The business un-plan!
I graduated university in Australia in 1998 with a Bachelor of Business. So, what I’m about to say will send my old lecturers into a tailspin! If no one’s going to read it, don’t bother writing a formal business plan!
Let me explain.
Writing things down in a fancy, professional format you lifted off the internet won’t make it happen. A blend of intuition, research, common sense and decisiveness is the secret sauce. Focus on building the business end-to-end in your mind like a storybook, obsessing over every detail. If writing things down makes you feel buttoned-up, or you need it to secure investment then by all means write a business plan.
But if it will be a 20-page document that never sees the light of day (like most risk assessments, for example), use Post It notes dotted around your creative space and get on with it! You’ll build this plane in the air no matter how you document the journey.
While planning Dear Coco I didn’t write a single thing down, except for revenue & cost of sales forecasts. This is how my brain manages projects – entirely in my head.
What’s your model?
Crudely speaking there’s three coffee truck models:
- “Convenience” – these are coffee trucks that drive around various locations. They go to where the customers are like commercial estates and high traffic locations. Picture an ice cream truck, but for coffee.
- “Deep Roots” – these are street coffee trucks that occupy the same pitch day in day out. They don’t move around, they embed themselves in the community.
- “Event” – these are coffee trucks built for the events industry. They primarily focus on doing private and public events at pre-determined venues. If they’re not booked for an event, they don’t trade.
Most coffee trucks will set aside some trading capacity for event bookings, but most trucks will largely occupy one of these categories. Depending on which business model you choose will determine the make and design of your coffee truck.
Dear Coco operates a “Deep Roots” model. We trade exclusively opposite 85 Strand on the Green in West London.
What’s your brand identity?
If someone asks you what you stand for and you have 20 seconds to answer – what would you say? Whatever it is, make it a representation of the best bits of you, and the story you want to tell through your business. The best small businesses tell a deeper story that customers connect with. Bringing this to life through your business name, visual identity and social media presence helps tell your story at scale.
Here’s my 20 second answer. “Dear Coco is a love letter to our youngest daughter Coco. Given the age gap between Coco and her older sisters, who are old enough to work on the business – we named it after Coco to make her feel loved and included to”.
Let’s talk about money
How you finance your coffee truck is a personal choice. My advice would be to set an investment limit and stick to it no matter how important an over-spend feels. Think about how long you need (or want) to pay off the initial investment before you’re in-profit. Investing an amount of money that requires more than 12-18 months to pay off in-full might run the risk of over-capitalising your business. Remember, as owner you might be working for free while this investment is being paid off, so ask yourself how long you’re prepared to work for free.
I invested £40,000 of personal savings to build Dear Coco and paid it off in 5 months, operating 3
days a week. I didn’t pay myself a cent during this period.
The boring paperwork
Don’t lift a finger until you know what your local council will and won’t permit. Understanding what you need by way of street trading licence, planning permission, health and safety certificates, risk assessments, insurance, electrical / gas certificates will inform all subsequent decisions.
I did everything the wrong way with Dear Coco, I was impatient and overly decisive. I invested all our money and started building the business BEFORE I knew all the legal requirements. I got very lucky with some margin calls that went our way. But it was a risky, foolish approach.
Where to trade?
For “Deep Roots” coffee trucks like Dear Coco, pitch location will likely determine your level of success just like the location of a coffee shop. An immense amount of foot traffic is needed to capture enough passing trade to make a location viable. There will also be council and environmental conditions to adhere to, like footpath width and traffic flow.
My advice is to find a pitch you like, bring an armchair, a six-pack of beer (depending on the hour) and count people walking past. Do this over the course of a week.
I’d suggest that a single-barista coffee truck needs to sell 100+ cups per day on a weekday, and 150+ cups on a weekend to be viable, plus other retail sales. If you only appeal to say 5% of passers-by, you now get a sense for how much foot traffic is needed to capture enough customers.
Visit the competition regularly to assess what they do, what they don’t do, and where’s the gap. Coffee trucks can’t offer some conveniences that coffee shops do, like indoor seating, heating and bathrooms. You need to offer something they can’t to make the customer’s trade-offs worthwhile.
What’s the owner’s role?
Think about how intertwined the owner needs to be.
The owner should have an operational hand in the business, without a doubt. But whether the business can open without the owner available is a core consideration. This will inform the operations of the business such as where the truck lives overnight, who drives it to the location each day, where do suppliers deliver orders, etc. If these responsibilities sit with the owner, then the business will need to close when they’re away on holidays, or unavailable.
Dear Coco closes 3 weeks a year due to family holiday and corporate work commitments. Our home address is the business HQ so all deliveries come to the house. The business cannot run without my involvement as owner. This is a flaw and a benefit at the same time.
Phase 2: Let’s Build!
Dude, where’s my car?
Virtually any vehicle can be converted into a coffee truck. I’ve seen bicycles, vintage cars, London black cabs, VW Transporters, Piaggios, Citroen HYs. FedEX delivery trucks and everything in between being converted. Understanding your business model and choosing a vehicle to suit is a personal choice. But again, be mindful of investment required to either convert or purchase your preferred vehicle versus the earning capacity of the business.
Inside or outside?
Your vehicle type will inform how you serve customers. Some owners like the barista to be elevated and standing inside. Others like the barista down at ground level and standing outside with the customers. The climate of your city will help inform what’s appropriate to maximise customer engagement while protecting the barista from the elements.
The Dear Coco barista stands on the street at the same level as the customer, serving out the back of the vehicle. There’s also no counter between barista and customer. This puts us side by side with the customer to build intimacy. We’re in it together, experiencing the same thing – rain, hail or shine.
Once the vehicle type is identified, be obsessive about barista workflow. Working in a confined environment is challenging enough, so make it efficient for the team so they aren’t reaching over or passing behind each other. It’s as simple as working left to right, or right to left with lots of pivoting on the spot.
My advice is purchase the best equipment you can possibly afford, that suits the power source available. High-quality equipment not only produces the best product for the customer, but also attracts barista talent. The best baristas want to work with the best tools. If you have to prioritise, I’d suggest focusing on the espresso machine and grinder as the main priority, and maximising other investments to the best of your ability. Your choice of equipment will dictate your credibility in the industry, so it’s a worthy focus.
I prioritized installing a La Marzocco Linea Mini (at great expense due to its power requirements). But it’s the best compact machine that can handle 400+ cups per day. I refused to use a LPG powered machine.
Want a lift?
Understanding how far your vehicle can drive before it starts to struggle will help inform your vehicle choice. Ideally you can secure all your equipment and infrastructure within the truck, and not require a support vehicle. Otherwise the morning and afternoon routine involves a support person, which for a small business isn’t financially ideal…and tests relationships if you’re asking endless favours!
Dear Coco’s maximum vehicle speed is 30mph, and I limit distance travelled to 10 miles from home. Any further and I engage a transportation company to assist. Everything gets packed into large plastic tubs at the end of service and secured in the truck. No support vehicle is needed…this makes my wife very happy!
Let’s talk about power!
Probably the most talked about topic in coffee trucks. Crudely you have three main options – generator, mains power or solar/battery. LPG can also be used to fuel some espresso machines. The holy grail is mains power given its stability and consistency, but it’s not available everywhere you might trade. Generators are portable and functional but come with drawbacks such a noise, odour and the propensity to stop working given how long they run. Solar is great in theory but often the power load required to fuel the entire coffee truck is too much without the support of batteries. Designing your overall operation to run off single-phase power (versus 3-phase power) gives you more flexibility with tapping into standard power sockets at trading locations.
Our initial generator (£4,000 cost) only lasted 8 months due to workload. I subsequently invested £6,000 and 6 months to get mains power installed along the street at our trading location. This was a gamechanger.
Coffee equipment needs purified, filtered water. It not only protects the equipment from developing scale, but the taste is better for the customer. Some trucks have water filters built in, other trucks filter the water as it enters an on-board water tank. The design of your vehicle will dictate the best approach, however my advice would be to ensure easy access to any on-board water filter to allow hassle-free changing.
Dear Coco uses a hose reel to pipe water into a 70 litre on-board water tank. We purify the water through a BWT water filter before it enters the tank.
Choose your coffee roastery wisely
This will likely be your most important relationship. If you serve specialty coffee, you’ll likely have access to a full-service roastery. This roastery will not only supply your beans, but other products like your espresso machine, grinder, barista tools, chocolate products, alternate milks, etc.
But the most important service they will offer is training and end-to-end support. If your machine breaks down mid-service – call them. If you hire a new barista and need training – call them. If you take an event booking and need more equipment – call them. If you feel overwhelmed and need a hug – call them!
All other suppliers will be informed around this core relationship. If you serve commercial grade coffee beans, you likely won’t have access to this kind of relationship. So you’ll need to ask your friends for those overwhelmed hugs!
Phase 3: Ready to Launch!
What’s on the menu?
Space limitations mean most coffee trucks offer a small, bespoke menu. Focusing on 3-4 core things and doing them exceedingly well should be the focus. You can’t be everything to everyone, nor do you have the space for multiple grinders, endless alternate milks and arrays of food. Pick what you want to be famous for and do it above-expectation.
Dear Coco focuses on 3 core things: specialty coffee, bakes, little sweet shop. That’s it, 3 things done to the best of our ability.
Training a barista to operate a one-person business is totally different to coffee shops. Its like asking a guitar player to suddenly play lead guitar, drums, vocals and tambourine all at once. There’s nowhere to hide. There’s no “I’m hungover today so I’m gonna hide on shots!” The barista is the end-to-end experience. Training someone to deliver exceptional quality while building customer rapport in challenging conditions is not a skill every barista naturally brings. Training, ongoing support and hiring top talent are crucial.
There’s only so many people that can experience your coffee, so boosting your story at scale can help win new customers and event clients.
Broadly there’s two styles of social media feeds on Instagram – “Curated” or “Raw”. A Curated feed might focus on fewer posts, high-quality imagery, thoughtful text and emotive storytelling. A Raw feed might focus on behind the scenes, real-time, from the frontlines imagery with short, snappy text. Here you might see the barista team throwing shakas behind the machine while the Head of Coffee plays air guitar!
Whatever your social media style, building an emotional connection to your business with vulnerable, authentic storytelling can be powerful. Vulnerability is not a repellent, it’s a magnet that can translate into revenue if done authentically.
People travel from all over London, and sometimes abroad to visit Dear Coco because they feel emotionally connected to the business. Our social media approach also opens up opportunities for me to boost our profile with podcast & media invitations.
Before officially opening, doing 2 or 3 days of soft testing can be powerful. With the support of your coffee roastery, quietly introducing yourself to the local community with some low-key trading days will help iron out the kinks before setting customer expectations in place.
What’s in a name?
Most baristas remember people by their coffee order. Ask customers their names and commit them to memory. Nothing makes someone feel more welcome than being greeted by name. This exceeds expectations and creates relationships.
For the first 5 months of Dear Coco, I wrote down every customer’s name with a description of the person in my iPhone notes (for example, Nick – nice Aussie, cool beard). When Nick re-appeared in the queue I’d sneak a look at the list and greet him by name. It was powerful.
Build the team… at the right time
When the time comes to hiring a team, setting the culture from the top is everything. When hiring, ask yourself if this person will lift the culture (if so, hire them), maintain the culture (if so, develop them) or erode the culture (if so, walk away from them). They need to care about this business almost as much as the owner, so choose wisely and be generous with your recognition and reward.
Phase 4: You’re Open!
No Dickhead Policy!
Lots of coffee trucks don’t have a physical front door, we’re out in plain view. As a result, some people think we’re “on their turf”. Priority #1 is protecting the barista and having a firm No Dickhead Policy. We can’t kick customers out and close the door, they need to visit the truck with respect or not visit at all. Tolerate no one.
Be uber focused on winning the morning coffee routine of the local community. This is the most protected and lucrative coffee service of the day, and the hardest one to win given it involves a gamble from the customer to break their routine. Once you have it, keep it through exceptional product and service.
The Credibility Stock Exchange
Consistency in coffee trucks is everything. If customers aren’t sure you’ll be there they won’t take the risk. They’ll head straight to their brick-and-mortar cafe. On those unruly days where the weather is horrible and you’ll make no money – turn up and show commitment anyway. This trades your stock on the Credibility Stock Exchange and you’ll win over the long-term.
These are a great way to expand your reach and diversify your revenue streams. Finding the right number of events to take without causing too much disruption to your normal trade is key. For non-event trucks I’d suggest no more than 10-15% of your trading capacity assigned to events is about right – but your call. Dear Coco limits ourselves to 4-6 marquee events per year, strategically chosen to maximise revenue and brand impact, while limiting disruption to our street coffee customers.
Over-pay your baristas
Coffee trucks are hard places to work, especially in cold climate countries. Baristas should be rewarded for the challenging conditions and operating your business single-handedly. The minimum wage in the U.K at time of writing is £10.42 per hour. Dear Coco pays our baristas £13.50 per hour to acknowledge these challenges.
Be my guest
Running a lean team is important to manage costs. But having a small brigade of “Guest Baristas” who work in other coffee shops is helpful. They are fully trained in your business and can fill roster gaps if the owner can’t work the open shifts themself. Barista agencies like Baristas on Tap or Need A Barista don’t suit given the nature of a single-barista operation and no colleagues to work alongside to learn the ropes.
Become a Meteorologist
Learning the impact of the rain and wind, and how to minimise its impact is vital to protecting your team and equipment. Angle the truck into the elements to protect the barista, close service doors while still being operational, ensure out-of-sight goods are upsold by the barista. Whatever you need to concede to protect the barista, do it. But a well-trained barista will help minimise the financial damage of battening down the hatches.
Give a shit!
Be part of your community. Support local initiatives. Embed yourself in the community. Don’t let the fact that your venue has wheels and rolls away at the end of each day sever the roots you put down. Locals will support you if you add something to community while still extracting money from it.
Phase 5: The Daily Grind
A coffee truck owner largely operates in the shadows, doing invisible effort away from the spotlight. Being self-motivated to do the small, unglamourous jobs every day is what separates the good from the great. Be undeniable, do the work and you’ll be rewarded with riches and street cred.
Be active on socials
Post regularly and religiously. Be open and vulnerable about the realities of business and life – sugar coating is for the uncourageous. If your storytelling needs you to stray away from coffee and talk from the heart about a broader issue, be you.
Dear Coco curates 5 posts a week on Instagram, plus daily stories to keep the algorithm working in our favour and followers engaged. I’m also a contributing author for FLTR Magazine to deliver long form content to a broader audience. Vulnerable storytelling and creating emotional connections is how we roll.
Cheer each other on
Fellow coffee truck owners wind up becoming colleagues in a lonely category. You will be alone, but don’t feel lonely. Use social media to cheer each other on. Visit them if you can and show your support – you’ll make their day. More broadly, be part of the coffee industry and be curious. Without day-to-day colleagues to learn from its important you find other sources of knowledge.
Maintain a winning culture
No matter the challenges faced, and there will be many – make your culture immovable. Whether its team or customer culture – never move the line when faced with adversity. Be generous in times of hardship, supportive in times of chaos and calm in times of panic. How you behave in moments of crisis is how you’ll be remembered.
Budget for the unexpected
Mark my words, you WILL face unexpected challenges that mean you’re going take a financial haircut. Concede defeat and budget for 2-4 week zero revenue per year. This will take the panic out of the situation when it happens.
Dear Coco budgets for being open 49 weeks a year.
Know your numbers
There’s money to be made in coffee trucks. Margins are very different to a coffee shop, and if done properly can result in a healthy net profit for the owner. But with this financial upside comes the risk of significant lose given how exposed coffee trucks are to elements outside our control, such as weather and equipment damage/failure.
Allow me to bring you behind the curtain into our business and share Dear Coco’s financial performance for 2022. For comparison, net profit for many brick-and-mortar cafes might range from 5-15%, Dear Coco achieves 40% net profit.
My parting words. BE OBSESSIVE! Obsess over the details.
Dear Coco Street Coffee
Location: Opposite 85 Strand on the Green, London W4 3NN
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 8am – 3pm