This article is sponsored by our partner, NitroBrew.
Twenty years ago, the idea of a coffee cart might conjure up visuals of a mobile vendor slinging up scorching hot cups of coffee in the middle of Manhattan, complete with the iconic Greek Anthora cup.
Today, coffee cart companies serve everything from single-cup pour-over coffees to signature espresso drinks. Success stories like Drip Coffee Makers in Brooklyn—which began its legacy as a mobile cart operation before opening several brick-and-mortar locations around New York City—make coffee carts an attractive option for those interested in entering the specialty coffee industry without the extensive overhead and labor costs of a traditional coffee shop.
With a limited footprint, mobile coffee setups must be strategic about the products they offer on their menu. We spoke with mobile coffee business owners to learn more about the best mix of products that fit within a confined space, attract a fan base, and drive consistent revenue.
Constant Creativity in a Confined Space
Mobile coffee operations such as carts or food trucks have minimal space to work with. For example, this model from Simple Cart Systems is only 60″ wide x 36″ tall x 29.75″ deep. Much of this space is dedicated to plumbing, storage, and electricity, and—depending on the chosen layout of equipment—leaves only a few feet for coffee brewing and inventory storage.
Even with limited space, mobile coffee cart operators can still get creative with their drink menu. Here are some examples.
Nitro Cold Brew & Tea
Among the most popular coffee truck beverages is nitro cold brew. Nitro cold brew has seen a 904% menu increase over the last four years, indicating its rapidly rising popularity at coffee shops, events, and markets.
Traditionally, a nitro brew coffee system would require hefty nitrogen gas tanks to produce the creamy drink. But, with a system such as NitroBrew, which uses ambient air to infuse drinks with nitrogen on the spot, coffee carts, trucks, and catering services can offer nitro-infused cold brew, tea, and other beverages without large equipment taking up precious space.
“It wouldn’t have been possible for us to use bulky nitrogen tanks to provide nitro coffee for our customers,” Angela Vannett, owner of Pura Vida Grinds, told us. “We love that we can have all of the benefits of nitro without having any of the hassles of filling and loading nitrogen tanks.”
“Many mobile businesses are a one-person team, and having to work with systems that don’t need a lot of TLC is great for them,” says Sabitha Tata, chief operations officer at Nitro Brew. Flexibility is critical for mobile coffee businesses that need to conserve space and optimize labor needs.
Espresso beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos are coffee truck staples, especially in areas with cooler climates.
Razina Rintharamy and Ryan Batchelder, owners of Batchy Brew, a mobile coffee truck operating throughout Connecticut, say that hot and iced lattes are their business’ top revenue drivers. “It surprised us since we are surrounded by Dunkin’ Donuts,” says Rintharamy. “A lot of people in our area of New England only drink hot or iced coffee. But iced lattes are our best seller.”
Austin, Texas-based Creature Coffee Co. offers coffee catering services for private events with its portable coffee cart. The company’s mobile espresso bar can brew up a wide variety of espresso-based beverages, from a classic latte and cappuccino to signature drinks such as a S’mores latte.
“My advice would be to keep a minimal menu,” says Michael Craig, CEO of Creature Coffee. “Keep the menu minimal, so you don’t overload things, and then try to be as efficient with space as possible.”
One way to drive additional revenue while operating in a small space is through drink modifications. Extra fees for house-made syrups, flavored drizzles, and alternative milk—items you likely already have in stock—provide customers with the personalization they crave at a reasonable price.
Cold brew coffee is a simple and effective product for coffee carts and trucks to serve. Jason Ostrout, the owner of New England Coffee Guy, a mobile coffee cart operation out of New Britain, Conn., began his entrepreneurial journey by selling cold brew.
“There were farmers’ market events where I sold three or four gallons of cold brew in three hours,” Ostrout explains. “We sold about 12 gallons of cold brew at another event. Cold brew has been the main driver during the summer months.”
Since cold brew must steep for 18-24 hours before consumption, mobile coffee businesses can use the opportunity to strategically prepare for an event such as a festival or farmers’ market. Additionally, cold brew doesn’t require on-demand drink preparation, so coffee cart operators can quickly get cold brew coffee into the hands of event-goers, effectively optimizing the number of customers they can serve per event.
Currently, Ostrout brews anywhere from four to twelve gallons of cold brew per week for the many public and private events his coffee cart serves. As the season transitions to cooler weather, he plans to add hot lattes and espresso beverages to his menu.
While coffee drinks like lattes and nitro cold brew can drive revenue, they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea—literally. Innovative non-coffee beverages are vital to attracting a diverse group of customers.
New England Coffee Guy serves hot and iced teas at various indoor and outdoor events. Creature Coffee Co offers hot chocolate with all the fixings, including whipped cream, caramel drizzle, and marshmallows. Batchy Brew sells lemonade, hot chocolate, a variety of teas and tea-based beverages, and their signature, “Batchy Bomb,” which contains a Monster® Energy Drink and flavor of the customer’s choice.
Limited space doesn’t stop Creature Coffee from offering creative drinks and personalized experiences. “We do a lot of specialty drinks,” Craig says. “We’ll offer a s’mores latte, a pumpkin spice latte, and others. We make the syrups from scratch in-house.” He explained that Creature Coffee offers multi-colored latte art and designs via a Ripples machine for an additional charge as part of the overall event package.
Batchy Brew gets creative with seasonal drinks while also being mindful of the limited space available in the mobile truck. “Our Creme Brulee syrup, for example, combines three different syrups we always have in stock, so we don’t have to make space for that extra bottle of syrup” says Rintharamy.
After customers take a sip of your coffee truck’s sweet nitro cold brew or signature lattes, they’ll become spellbound by how great your coffee tastes. Why not extend the excitement and offer products for customers to bring the coffee cart experience home with them?
Ostrout sells branded bags of New England Coffee Guy whole bean coffee for customers to brew at home, with plans to slowly expand merchandise offerings as customers show interest. Creature Coffee follows a similar model, selling beans at specific events. And Batchy Brew has a vast lineup of merchandise, ranging from apparel to drinkware. “Our t-shirts, sweatshirts, and branded tumblers sell really well when we’re able to display them,” Rintharamy says.
Bringing the coffee cart experience into customers’ homes through whole-bean coffee and branded merchandise helps build a loyal community of fans eager to tell their friends and family about your coffee cart.
Where Creativity and Strategy Thrive
Creating the ideal product mix for your mobile coffee operation depends almost entirely on the total space available for inventory and equipment. “Sit down and think of what can fit into your space,” Rintharamy suggests. “Take exact measurements and be mindful. You may find you can only handle a one-group espresso machine instead of the two-group you desired.”
Batchy Brew specifically built their coffee truck to accommodate more equipment and inventory, but other mobile coffee operations are designed to use as little space as possible. With this in mind, Rintharamy advises other mobile coffee business owners to be innovative, yet calculated, with their menus and physical space. “I’ve seen a lot of people skip out on hot or iced coffee in favor of adding an espresso machine or offering americanos instead of drip coffee.”
“It’s all about being efficient with your space and having a thought process beforehand,” says Craig. He recommended finding ways to save on inventory needs, like using cup sizes with the same lid size to maximize inventory space.
If you still have questions about which products to offer, don’t hesitate to contact other coffee cart operators. “I have learned so much from talking with business owners and baristas. Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Ostrout says.
Mobile coffee operations may be limited to a small physical space but can generate significant revenue with advanced planning and the right equipment. All it takes is a few strategic decisions and a great coffee menu for your coffee cart to become as iconic as the Greek Anthora to-go cup.
Visit NitroBrew’s website to learn more about adding Nitro cold brew and other creative beverages to your mobile coffee business.
Anne Mercer is a freelance writer specializing in helping brands and individuals carve out their space in the specialty coffee industry. She is also the co-owner of Victus Coffee, based in West Hartford, Connecticut. Visit her website at annemercer.com. Cover photo courtesy of Batchy Brew