Opening a Mobile Coffee Cart

There are many benefits to opening a mobile coffee cart. First, a cart can be a low-risk entry point for aspiring Coffeepreneurs®. It’s a way to test your business concept–a way to learn processes, grow your brand, experiment with recipes, and get to know your customer base. 

A mobile coffee cart is also a way to pull traffic into an existing non-coffee business. Or, it can be an extension of you coffee shop, allowing you to cater events or expand. No matter how you plan to leverage a mobile coffee cart, we outline the ins and outs of opening one in this article. 

At Texas Coffee School we help entrepreneurs get their coffee businesses off the ground in our constantly 5-star-reviewed 3-Day Coffee Business Master Class. Learn everything you need to know about opening a mobile coffee business or traditional cafe when you sign up here

Our featured image for this article is from our former students at That’s Amore!

That's Amore coffee cart

Source: @thatsamorecoffee Instagram

Getting Started with a Mobile Coffee Cart

How much does it cost? 

In 2024, the full start-up cost for a quality mobile coffee cart can average between $7,500 and $15,000. Compared to other options (coffee kiosks, trucks, vans, drive-thrus, brick and mortar shops, and more), a mobile coffee cart is the most affordable way to begin your journey as a Coffeepreneur®. (Sure, we’ve seen it done for a little less in certain configurations or scenarios.) 

What equipment will you need? 

A good mobile coffee cart set up is, well, mobile. You’ll need to be able to easily transport it, deploy it, and break it down after events. You’ll need plumbing, electricity, water, and ice–and of course a method of efficiently brewing and dispensing coffee. 

There are a few options for custom carts available, including carts with a solid frame, or carts than can be disassembled to fit in a trunk. Some companies offer modular systems you can easily install for electrical and plumbing solutions. Be aware not all carts are created equal! Some are more sturdy and built for longevity over other less costly options. (We cover this topic in-depth in our 3-Day Coffee Business Master Class and provide printed resource materials, recommendations, and tools for how to open a mobile coffee cart business.)

As for coffee, you could purchase an espresso machine, which would allow you to make just about any hot or cold espresso drink you’d like to offer. Or, you could use a more cost-effective (and service efficient) method with cold brew concentrate. Storing cold brew concentrate in BIBS (bag-in-box) and installing a dispensing system like the Marco POUR’D would allow you to use cold brew concentrate as the base for your cold drinks rather than espresso, and it can also dilute it perfectly to a ready to drink format. (We talk about this cold brew method here.) Finally, if you don’t have access to the right type of water filtration system at a commissary or commercial kitchen, Third Wave Water creates pre-measured mineral packets you can add to a 5 gallon jug of distilled or reverse osmosis water. It makes great tasting coffee and helps your equipment last longer. 

What drinks should you offer on your menu? 

As you’re getting started, we recommend creating a very smart but simple menu with just a few items or signature drinks. You’ll need to be able to make drinks quickly and consistently. You might consider offering drinks that can be made in advance at high volume. On site, you can pour and garnish rather than making drinks one-by-one to order.

If you have a staff, you’ll need to make sure they work efficiently at stations, just as they would in a traditional coffee shop. That way, they aren’t crossing paths and getting in each other’s way in your small space. Plus, it helps with overall efficiency.

Coffee Cart that says Affogatos and Espresso

Source: @royalscoffeeco Instagram

Business Strategies for Your Mobile Coffee Cart

Just like opening a traditional coffee shop, finding the right location(s)/events and understanding your ideal audience is paramount to the success of your business. Even though you are mobile, you still need to create your brand and concept with a general audience in mind to ensure your marketing and user experience lands you more business. (We teach it all in our 3-Day Coffee Business Master Class, as well as how to write a business plan.) 

Of course, the beauty of a mobile coffee cart is that you have more room to experiment with less risk. You can test for the best locations/events, menu items, types of events, and times of day as you grow. Our former student, Lady Sunshine Coffee, shared great tips for generating business in her coffee van in an interview here. We’ll share a few more of our business strategies for mobile coffee carts below: 

Stand out

A mobile coffee cart might be a small business, but it still needs to be a strategic one. You don’t want to be a coffee cart that’s indecipherable from any of the others out there. Rather, your concept that’s unique to your own passion, values, personality, and ideal customer. A simple rule to follow–come up with a concept that’s simple, self-explanatory, significant, and creative

Find the right locations/events

You have the freedom to test many types of locations and events as a mobile cart. Farmer’s markets, weddings, baby showers, baby gender reveals, birthday parties, greenhouses and nurseries, neighborhoods, campuses, retail shopping areas, office buildings, apartment buildings, and many more. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be strategic in choosing. We often teach the concept of focusing on the types or events/locations you enjoy most and are most profitable. Elizabeth Estabrook of Lady Sunshine Coffee shared that she pops up in a location/event three times before determining if it’s worth her time or not. You may want to try on the “three-time rule” as well. Also, make sure to get the proper permissions or permits before setting up shop. 

Consider catering and events

Mobile coffee carts are also great for catering. A catering or event contract drives in guaranteed customers in a way that popping up in a location doesn’t. (You might charge a prepaid flat rate for the event or sell individual drinks.) Weddings (late night espresso and affogato stations!), conferences, business meetings, concerts, or school and sporting events can be great places to start. To grow your business and brand, you’ll  build relationships and leverage your existing network. 

Build up your brand with great marketing

When you’re mobile, digital marketing and aesthetic are beyond essential! Your audience needs to know where to find you each day, and/or why you are the right choice for their event. Use social media to grow your following and keep them informed about where to find you and what you offer. It’s also crucial to develop a recognizable brand. From your name to your aesthetic to your menu, create something memorable and recognizable as you grow. 

Use a mobile coffee cart to generate revenue or traffic for another business

Already a business owner? Whether you own an existing coffee shop or something completely different (like a real estate office, event center, retail store, salon, tattoo studio, or motorcycle dealership), you could use a mobile coffee cart to drive revenue to your existing business. A mobile cart is an easy way for a coffee shop to expand its reach. For other businesses, a coffee cart is a novel way to offer added value to your existing customer, drive foot traffic, add revenue, or elevate your brand. A mobile coffee cart might be a great way to experiment with a hybrid model (adding coffee to another business).

Don’t stay small forever

A mobile coffee cart is an amazing starting point for new entrepreneurs. But once you’ve established that it’s work you want to continue to do, it’s time to grow. Use a mobile cart to find your footing and your customer base, then keep moving forward. Does that mean more carts? Larger catering gigs? A fleet, truck, kiosk, drive-thru, or brick and mortar cafe? The sky’s the limit! Use the fundamentals you’ve learned with your cart to take your business to the next level. 

Open a Mobile Coffee Cart with Texas Coffee School

Our students open coffee businesses of all shapes and sizes. No matter how big (or how small) your coffee business is, set yourself up for success with the best and most success proven coffee business education available. You’ll leave our 3-Day Coffee Business Master Class fully prepared to begin your journey as a Coffeepreneur®. Sign up today

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