On the Road

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Ask for an example of a mobile
 business and chances are high you’ll get one answer: a food truck.
 And while these meal stops on
 wheels are the most plentiful of the
 U.S. businesses to enter the mobile
 arena in the last 10 years, they’re
 not the only ones capturing a piece 
of this growing retail and service 
niche. Mobile clothing stores, mobile entertainment experiences, mobile grooming for humans and animals, even mobile mechanics, are popping up in Southwest Florida and pretty much everywhere else. And there are no signs of the trend slowing.

Quite the contrary, says Stacey Jischke-Steffe, president and founder of the American Mobile Retailer’s Association (AMRA), which is based in Los Angeles (she’s also a mobile-business owner). Despite a number of licensing and other hurdles, Jischke-Steffe says there’s been an uptick of interest in the mobile model among would-be entrepreneurs, especially those looking for flexible schedules or start-up costs below that of traditional brick-and-mortar businesses. (The majority of mobile entrepreneurs AMRA surveyed in 2015 used personal savings as startup capital or borrowed it from family and friends; for many of them, a storefront was their ultimate goal.) There were 4,100 food trucks alone in 2015, as reported by mobile-cuisine.com, and Jischke-Steffe estimates there are an additional 2,000 to 3,000 non-food-related mobile vendors across the U.S.

This nomadic business tribe may be proliferating in the 21st century, but it’s nothing new. Peddlers, cheap-jacks, costermongers—whatever names traveling salespeople once answered to, they were an integral part of any town or city’s landscape dating back to a pre-industrial age. Medieval merchants trod European countrysides with packs full of notions, sundries and curatives. Traveling thespians orated their way through Elizabethan villages (and Shakespearean plays). The streets of New York City teemed with pushcarts as far back as the late 17th century, while chuck wagons began feeding cowboys in the Midwest and beyond in the 19th. In Austria, in the 1970s, Ikea brought goods to customers via train, exploiting a bureaucratic loophole in order to make otherwise forbidden weekend sales. And every American of a certain age remembers the era of Tupperware parties and the Avon Lady.

Today’s mobile businesses, though, struggle with a unique set of challenges unknown to their forebears, in addition to enjoying an array of very particular perks. Below, we profile three Southwest Florida vendors who are racking up sales on the Gulf Coast streets. 

In terms of a workable, contemporary model for mobile businesses, “It all starts with food trucks,” says Jeschke-Steffe. “That’s the platform we all originally looked to for reference. And now, almost every city in the country has figured out how to license them, and insurance companies have figured things out, too.”

That was certainly Karl Rosa’s experience when he and his wife, Sigrid, set out to open Doner Kebab in 2011. “You make a drawing of how you will build up your truck for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation [DBPR] in Tallahassee and when it’s done, they come over and give you an inspection and a permit. It’s very smooth,” he says. Getting insured was equally straightforward or, in Rosa’s words, “Nothing special.”

A doner kebab is a Turkish pita sandwich filled with rotisserie-cooked meat, similar to a gyro, that’s popular throughout Germany, the Rosas’ country of origin. When they decided to go into the kebab business, they traveled home to ask friends to share their recipes, then found a German bakery in the Fort Myers area to make bread for them. They bought their truck used, from a donut maker who’d already outfitted it with many of the fittings they required: electricity, freezer, sink. With their DBPR permit in hand, they took to the streets.

They soon discovered that one of the biggest hardships for a food truck was locating a good spot that brought in a steady stream of customers who were ready to eat. Parking curbside outside a company with 400 or more employees would often prove profitable during lunchtime; a bustling Friday evening outside a brewery, or a Saturday morning at the Cape Coral Farmer’s Market could yield anywhere from $450 to $2,000. But Rosa says by far the most successful experiences they’ve had to date have been food truck wars, the first of which hit Fort Myers last year. The organizers “were expecting 6,000 people; there were 25,000 people, with traffic and the highway blocked and a line outside our truck that started an hour before we opened,” says Rosa. “That was the perfect event.”

It was also a far cry from Doner Kebab’s humble beginnings, as only the second food truck in the area. (Nosh Truck was first.) “We were pioneers,” says Rosa. From the get-go, mobile seemed to Rosa more likely to provide consistent income than a traditional restaurant: “That costs a lot more money, and you have to pay rent and personnel.” In the end, it took three years for the Rosas to get Doner Kebab operating optimally. Annual revenue was in the ballpark of $120,000 for 2016.

Still, the Rosas have not coasted through their food truck experience without hurdles. They work seven days a week, find it nearly impossible to find suitable help, and never know from one day to the next how many sales they’ll make. “I can never say, I will go out and sell food for $300. In the same place, at the same time, every day is completely different,” says Rosa. Proving that even in a mobile category that Jischke-Steffe calls black and white, there is no such thing as black and white. 

Keri McDonnell credits a Labradoodle rescue named Rudy for her leap into the pet grooming biz. “I adopted Rudy, and started grooming him haphazardly. Then I had the opportunity to learn to groom professionally,” she recalls. “I’ve always been an animal nut, and eventually I thought, I’d like to do this fulltime.”

So, six years ago, she left an almost 20-year career in the hospitality industry to start Unfurgettable Pet Grooming—as a storefront. Eighteen months later, she decided mobile would be “a great next step to taking service to our clients.” So, she re-strategized and in February 2013, McDonnell took Unfurgettable on the road.

This change required an investment of $100,000, which largely went toward purchasing a top of the line, custom-built rig; it’s outfitted with a bathroom, a water hookup and a generator. It’s large enough to accommodate clients who bring in more than one dog at a time. But McDonnell saved on a slew of other start-up costs: “I was able to move small wares like brushes, combs, shampoo, clippers and shears from the salon to the mobile unit,” she says.

​Jischke-Steffe is quick to point out that, contrary to prevailing notions, running a mobile business isn’t necessarily cheap. She says the average AMRA member has monthly overhead of about $2,000; monthly costs for her own L.A.- based business, Le Fashion Truck—a clothing and accessories store on wheels—run around $3,500. McDonnell, too, balks at the idea that mobile is less costly than stationary. “I have many of the same expenditures as a brick-and-mortar boutique, and on some occasions, I have additional expenses. I still have vehicle payments, there are licenses, reinvestments in my business and health insurance, not to mention fluctuations in gas prices”—the latter of which she finds especially irksome since, with her generator hooked up to her rig’s fuel tank, she only gets five miles to the gallon. She also bought a second rig in 2014, which is operated by her husband, Brad.

Insuring Unfurgettable is also an expensive and complicated endeavor. “Many companies have no idea how to insure a pet-based business,” says McDonnell, although to date, she’s tracked down two in the Gulf Coast area that have “figured it out a little.” She’s found that insurers can be fickle. “If there’s been a hurricane, they decide they’re going to raise rates across the board, regardless of whether you have a claim,” she says.

“Funnily enough, we’re seeing a regression of companies that were previously insuring mobile businesses that are now dropping them,” says Jischke-Steffe. “The biggest issue for them seems to be the liability that comes with people”—or in McDonnell’s case, animals—“entering mobile stores, which you don’t do in food trucks; you just go up to the window and order.” She also points out that there are no national industry standards; what and whether a company will insure varies from state to state.

All in all, though, McDonnell has found creative ways to turn myriad challenges into revenue, ramping up her gross from $45,000 in 2013 to $85,000 in 2016. For starters, she sticks to a tight geographic route within the city of Naples, and sets up grooming schedules to focus on a single neighborhood on any given day. The pets of all her clients are repeats, on the calendar for two-, four-, or six- week maintenance visits in which their nails are trimmed, their paw pads and ears are cleaned, and their fur is clipped. McDonnell is able to charge more as a mobile business than she was as a storefront, because she offers a premium service that meets the needs of a busy, active clientele. She plans to supplement her current spa offerings with certified pet first aid and CPR instruction.

“A lot of people have a hard time supporting local businesses like salons, because their working hours are the same as salon hours,” says Jischke-Steffe. “But these kinds of mobile businesses are super convenient; they’re the ones that are going to keep growing.” 

Scott Keller started booking portable laser battles before he’d even bought a lick of the equipment he needed to run them.

“Back in 2006, no one really understood what we were doing,” he recalls. “There’s a boom of rock walls and trampolines and gaming trucks now, but the only mobile entertainment out there when we started was bounce houses.” After booking two gigs, Keller quickly snatched up 16 guns mounted with red dot sites and a field’s-worth of bunkers of the sort used on paintball courses, and towed them to his first event—a birthday party—on a trailer he hitched to the back of his Honda Accord. His clients later said that what he provided was even better than they had expected.

A survivor of the Florida real estate crash in the mid-aughts, Keller was hunting around for a new line of work when a childhood friend floated the idea of group battles geared specifically toward adults. “Laser tag is for kids,” explains Keller. With no desire to go back to work as an employee, he originally envisioned opening up as a stationary facility, only to discover that rents were prohibitive. “I had a couple of mentors who in the first few seconds of  Soon after settling into laser battles, Keller began expanding Tropical Extremes’ menu. First came Hydra Battle, with squirt guns and an inflatable maze for participants to run through; then a Nerf-style Dart Battle aimed at children; Archery Battle, featuring soft-tipped arrows; and finally, Skeet Battle and infrared target shooting. Each addition requires significant reinvestment, as do the necessary and inevitable equipment replacements for longstanding games—what Keller calls the “constant little stuff” that eats into profits. He saves money by training staff to take care of the equipment and by doing a lot of his own repairs. A sudden propensity of clients trying to book last minute is wreaking havoc with his ability to schedule events, he says, and because of this, “I can’t grow.” Keller has no plans for expansion on the horizon.

Although based in Naples, Keller and his team travel a wide circuit in order to hit high-paying clients—some as far afield as Maine and Colorado. A good month for Tropical Extremes is one in which it provides entertainment for 35 events—or better yet, 20 larger, better-paying ones. Keller says he can accommodate between 16 and 200 laser battlers, and thanks to an efficient staff of three full-timers and up to 12 part-timers, set up two or three events in a single day.

His greatest pride is in providing good income for his staffers. “In a community where there’s not a lot other than tourism, we’re bringing revenue back down into the county,” he says. 


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