On a recent Thursday afternoon in Portland, hot and sunny as summer gets, Charlie Wicker roasted in the back of Trailhead Coffee Roaster’s Accidental Café, essentially a tasting room for the bicycle- and outdoor-centric coffee business. A number of large fans circulated hot air through the high-ceilinged room, and as he emptied crackling beans from his Diedrich, Charlie admitted the set-up is not ideal. Trailhead will move to a larger, more ventilated space later this year, sharing their café and roastery with a chocolatier, but in the meantime he seems content, despite the heat.
Chatting with Charlie about his bike-delivered coffee, it becomes clear why. The spirit of his business—he started Trailhead in 2009—exists outside, on Portland’s bike friendly streets, in its parks, at local Farmer’s Markets, and at rural Oregon’s annual Cycle Oregon events. His passion for moving coffee sans engine, and brewing coffee outdoors, is in everything he does. Trailhead’s coffees are delivered by a custom delivery cycle that doubles as a pour-over café. The heart and soul of the company is on the go, out-of-doors, and pedal-powered. Charlie says he couldn’t envision his company any other way. “It’s almost like it had to be like that,” he muses.
As mobile coffee and tea slowly carve a genre into the food and beverage world, this sentiment is growing. Somewhere between food trucks and drive-through espresso stands exists a paradigm of coffee brewed on-the-go, with ease, in a fun and different way. Where mobile coffee carts were once considered gimmicky, temporary, or a means to an end (that is, a permanent locale), today beverage bikes, trucks, tuk-tuks, vans, Airstreams, and more make up a new kind of café culture, one not inhibited by permanency or walls. The attitudes of the industry’s mobile pioneers reflect the open-air quality of what they do: they want visibility, flexibility, and fun. They’re really excited, and they’re sticking with it.
“Coffee is much more than a beverage,” says Amyie Kao, who co-founded Oklahoma City’s Mariposa Coffee Roastery and its coffee truck, with her husband Daniel. “It has the power to shape the atmosphere of a gathering, the experience of a story, and transform a setting. Mostly, I think mobile coffee appeals to those with a sense of adventure, who are also fond of the outdoors and walkability.”
Mariposa was born out of a desire to aid the community in a time of need. When a tornado tore through Okalahoma City last spring, Amyie and Daniel were desperate to help in some way. So they brewed up coffee the following day and served it in the rain to firefighters and volunteers in the damaged part of town. They realized then that if they had a coffee truck they could serve the community whenever, wherever. Today they keep regular truck hours at their roastery and cater coffee at weddings and other events. The truck is their lifeline to the community.
In the United States, mobile coffee and tea are still catching on. In Portland, a city known for its food trucks, craft coffee, and eccentricity, Charlie’s custom coffee cycle—modeled in hardwood to look like a miniature teardrop trailer, with LED striping for nighttime rides—is business as usual. But throughout most of the United States, a driving culture keeps brew bikes and the like a second consideration, while coffee stands, cafés, and drive-throughs are much more the norm.
It’s not totally clear why mobile hasn’t caught on more widely. For Trailhead and Mariposa, a storefront wasn’t necessary to contribute to the local community and coffee culture, nor was an exorbitant amount of capital. In coffee-crazed cities like New York and Los Angeles, where rents are skyrocketing, opening a brick-and-mortar shop is becoming harder and harder, as is making it a success. Novelty inevitably comes into play, with shops competing for the newest brewing style, the most sustainable beans, or the quirkiest theme. Mobile cafés don’t require as much start up money and because they can go anywhere (location is important and changeable), they choose their market and sell when the selling is good.
In Europe, mobile cafés are a more natural part of the landscape, found near iconic landmarks dotting ancient grids. In England, where specialty coffee and tea are quickly taking root, mobile cafés fulfill a need for coffee on the go, easily accessible on foot, by bike, and in places cafés either aren’t allowed or won’t fit, like town squares and grand parks.
“I want to show people that you can create something and be passionate about it in the hospitality industry.”
Olivier Vetter, company director of Bean About Town, which has strategically placed coffee carts across London, agrees mobile coffee is a comfortable entrance into the coffee world, but is even more attracted to the ingenuity of mobile cafés. Each of Bean About Town’s locations is unique—the company teaches passionate individuals how to manage a cart, tuk-tuk (rickshaw), or Citröen van, then gives them the reigns to get creative. Locations in high-profile areas like the St. Katharine Docks and Kentish Town have been extremely successful. “I want to show people that you can create something and be passionate about it in the hospitality industry,” says Olivier.
Lasse Oiva and Amos Field Reid saw the rise in mobile and decided to take the concept one step further. They invested their design and technology expertise and drew on their love of cycling to create Velopresso, an innovative coffee-vending trike that became available for purchase last month. The UK team spent three years developing the ergonomic, pedal-powered vehicle with help from English coffee machine manufacturer Fracino. Unlike many mobile cafés, Velopresso requires no electricity, just a cylinder of gas to heat the boiler in the espresso machine. Everything else—grinding, pumping water, and getting around—relies on the driver’s pedaling. Several pre-production models sent to existent coffee companies, one in Montreal, one in France, and one in London’s Convent Garden area, are up and running smoothly.
The sophistication and style of Velopresso is indicative of a mobile trend not to skimp on high-end features, and give the same attention to a truck or bike as one would a new café. Likewise, the mission of Velopresso, to make a vehicle that can go anywhere where electricity is scarce, from Italian piazzas to parks with motorized vehicle restrictions, is an impressive one that encapsulates the sense of freedom that comes with owning a business that moves. Some in mobile coffee might come off as restless spirits, but in truth, they’re rooted to their businesses, despite the nomadic nature of them. They’re entrepreneurs who don’t like office hours, enjoy open spaces, and are mindful of their carbon footprint. Some mobile business owners are looking to save away for a permanent store, but a growing number want to see just how far mobile can take them.
“If you’re in a bad mood when you’re drinking coffee outside, something isn’t right.”
David Simon’s Black Magic Coffee cart, which can be spotted at farmers markets, weddings, fundraisers, and local events around the Boston area, was a life-changing venture for the former healthcare professional. To an e-mail question asking about his future goals for Black Magic, David replied, “A coffee truck perhaps? We can’t sit still for long.” Charlie of Trailhead is sure he will never switch from custom cycles. Though many have told him he will eventually have to invest in a motorized delivery vehicle if the company’s growth keeps up, he doesn’t see why. “We’ll just augment the fleet with more and more bikes,” he says.
Owning a café isn’t easy. Things break: plumbing, lighting, sound systems, and machinery. Utilities spike, rents go up, furniture sags and requires replacing. There is an undeniable goodness in being able to provide a comfortable haven, a “third place,” for those thirsty and in need of a break. But there is something to be said for stripping all of that away, too. Charlie’s custom cycle is his car, his café, and a way to tote his two young children around town. It’s a fresh-air way of life that would be difficult not to enjoy. “If you’re in a bad mood when you’re drinking coffee outside,” he says, “something isn’t right.”
—Regan Crisp is Fresh Cup’s associate editor.