At Texas Coffee School, our students open all kinds of coffee shops in all kinds of places. But some of them, like Elizabeth Estabrook, open coffee shops that can go all kinds of places. Lady Sunshine Coffee is a coffee truck that Elizabeth operates out of a sunny yellow VW Vanagon. Hers is one of many mobile coffee businesses our students have opened in recent years. In an interview with Elizabeth, she shared her story of starting a mobile coffee business. She also shares:
- A day in the life of a coffee van owner
- Tips for coffee truck businesses
- Her “why” for her coffee business
Read on to learn more about Lady Sunshine Coffee.
And, sign up for a course on Coffeepreneurship® to help you launch your own coffee business. Check out dates for our 3-Day Coffee Business Master Class here.
Starting a Mobile Coffee Business
Elizabeth Estabrook was sitting in a job interview for an HR position, but even the company interviewing her could see her heart wasn’t in it. While most of her career had been in the corporate world, she spent her high school and college years working at Dunkin’ Donuts. And from an early age, she’d always dreamed of opening her own coffee shop.
Instead of leaving that interview with another corporate HR job, she left it to write her coffee shop business plan. Of course, that business plan revealed a few challenges to the traditional brick and mortar coffee shop she had envisioned. Her primary challenge was the cost per square foot for commercial spaces in Massachusetts during the height of the pandemic.
So, it was quite serendipitous that she and her husband, who’d been searching online for a VW Vanagon for years, found one on Craigslist. Even more so that the van’s seller also operated a mobile coffee company of a 1964 Scout. He fully supported Elizabeth’s idea to convert the van into a mobile coffee business.
Though a mobile coffee business might not have been her original plan, Lady Sunshine Coffee seemed to be destined for that yellow van. Elizabeth’s dream had always been to sell quality coffee in a non-pretentious way. She wanted to make it accessible–both physically and financially–to everyone. What better way than to bring it directly to her customers–in the happiest, sunniest delivery method possible?
A day in the life of a coffee van owner
Lady Sunshine officially opened in the Spring of 2023. This summer, it’s Elizabeth and the van working a mix of small curated markets, private catering events, or employee engagement events (like teacher appreciation days or company culture events).
Every week, she posts the van’s schedule on social media. As a new business, she’s working on building exposure to her brand with some consistent locations, as well as building out her private event business. She uses resources like the Boston Business Journal’s Book of Lists to curate connections with new partners. She’s also a member of multiple food truck groups, including the South Shore Food Truck Association, where she’s found a lot of support.
When it comes to the logistics of serving coffee out of a van, here’s a breakdown of a typical event day:
- Elizabeth rents space out of an ice cream shop where she does her prepping, storing, and gray water disposal.
- The night before an event, she organizes everything and pre-heats her machines.
- On the morning of, she packs ice and milk in coolers, then drives to the event to arrive an hour early.
- Once there, she turns her machines back on and starts grinding coffee.
- Breakdown after the event only takes 10-15 minutes. She puts everything in sanitizer before she leaves so it starts sanitizing while she drives, then unpacks and puts it all away.
Spreading positivity to others through coffee
Whether your coffee business is a drive-thru, a cafe, or a van, for your business to thrive, you’ve got to know who you are and why you do what you do. For Elizabeth, this has been clear from the start. She set out to spread positivity to others through coffee, and that’s just what she does at Lady Sunshine. That positive message has influenced every element of her brand: the sunny name, the yellow van, the nostalgic snacks on her menu, and the upbeat quotes she sticks onto every cup of coffee.
“I truly believe my purpose on Earth is to be kind to others and walk each other home,” Elizabeth shared. She offers that kindness not only to her customers, but throughout her entire supply chain. Elizabeth is intentional about collaborating with companies that support and empower women. She shared a few of her favorites with us:
“I’m not saving the world with the coffee I’m buying, but I feel good about the brands, the missions, and the people who are producing it,” said Elizabeth.
Coffee Truck Business Tips
We asked Elizabeth to share what she’s learned so far to share with other aspiring coffee truck (or van) business owners. Here are some of her coffee truck business tips:
As a food truck, it’s important to know that your business brings value to the table. Especially if your business is new, it’s easy to think that you’re the one benefiting from being invited to pop up at a location. But remember: you’re bringing customers, too! Especially as you develop your loyal customer base, you’ve got a mutually beneficial business relationship with the events, locations, and organizations that invite you to park for the day. In other words, know your worth!
Adapt to your audience
Elizabeth’s getting wise about the coffee preferences of various pockets of Massachusetts. Depending on the demographic and the event, she can stock up on the products she knows she’ll need (and reduce waste on those she won’t.)
For example, some crowds will line up for “medium regulars” (that’s New England-speak for cream and sugar), while others will want cold brew and oat milk. And if she’s at a market for families with kids, she brings extra whip, treats, and adds iced cocoa to the menu.
When you’re a mobile business, you have the freedom to choose where to be each day. Elizabeth has spent the past few months creating relationships with farmer’s markets and businesses. At one point, she thought she’d found the perfect spot to pop up–right outside a garden center. Despite the spot having lots of car traffic, not many cars stopped for coffee. So, how do you know when a spot’s going to be worth your time? Elizabeth created a rule to follow:
“I will visit some place that invites me to pop up three times before I make the decision of what to pursue in the future. If you’re not getting traction by then, it’s not the right place for you.”
Perhaps the greatest advantage of a mobile business is that it gives the owner some agility. Elizabeth loves that she can adapt, pivot, and be creative with Lady Sunshine without taking on the same risk she would in a permanent location. She has the ability to choose her location, edit her menu, and decide how many days a week to be out. Of course, this doesn’t come without careful planning and curated relationships. She’s relied heavily on her HR background to build a network of both public and private event opportunities for Lady Sunshine.
“I have experienced severe burnout in the corporate world. Could I work every day, yes! Do I want to? No. When I do work, though, I hustle.”
Starting a Mobile Coffee Business or Coffee Truck at Texas Coffee School
Is there a coffee truck calling your name? We help entrepreneurs launch all types of coffee businesses–even if they’re on wheels. Attend our 3-Day Coffee Business Master Class to learn everything you need to know about owning a coffee business.
Some photos in this article were taken by Greg Derr and originally published in The Patriot Ledger.