The Portable Coffee Business

One of the latest NYC coffee trends is the pop up cafe — portable coffee shops or mobile coffee shop, often transported by bicycle, that pop up just about anywhere there’s a concentration of people who enjoy good coffee. Operations like Kickstand, operated by employees of Gimme! Coffee, take the quality coffee usually served in their brick and mortar shop on the road. Like most trends, pop up coffee shops are a new take on an old-fashioned favorite, in this case, the coffee truck — often called a Roach Coach — that used to make the rounds of the factory district and cater to the working class guys making a buck on the assembly lines.

Way back in my youth, the arrival of the Roach Coach signaled the start of the daily coffee break. The coffee was nothing to write home about — it was poured from the spigot of an industrial size coffee boiler and had been roiling around in there for a few hours — but it was hot, dark and strong. For Ralph, who also sold packaged sandwiches, cello-wrapped pastries and, in a move well ahead of his time, yogurt and fresh fruit, coffee was the bread-and-butter money. He could count on a percentage of profits from coffee and everything else was gravy.

In the late 1990s, long before the current pop-trend in pop-up coffee shops, my friend Peter was pedaling his bike around our little city, hauling a cart of his own design behind him. The little cart opened out into a little counter from which he handed out sample size cups of freshly roasted coffee brewed on the spot in a French press, and sold little vacuum-sealed bagggies of today’s roast from his own little micro-roasterie. Peter would be amazed at today’s coffee carts and coffee trucks, outfitted with everything a barista needs to turn out espresso, cappuccino and a full range of coffee drinks.


There are, of course, other types of portable coffee shops. If you commute from a suburban rail station, for example, you’re likely to see a portable coffee trailer pulled along behind a small truck or SUV. The compact coffee trailers have small refrigerators, two or more coffee makers, vacuum pots to hold brewed coffee and a few displays of cello-wrapped muffins, donuts and breakfast pastries. You might also see coffee pushcarts at the mall or in a local park or street corner.

While the trendiest pop-up coffee bars in NYC are run in collaboration with established coffee shops, the entry level into the business is quite low. Peter’s little cart cost him a couple hundred dollars to build, but if you have a few more dollars than that to spend, you can find used pull-behind coffee carts and pushcarts for between $800 and $2,500. If you’re adventurous, you can break in even cheaper, though it depends on your city’s licensing requirements.

The bottom line for operating a portable coffee shop is no different than any other business endeavor. If there’s a good market for it and you put the work into it, you can be successful with it. The low entry cost makes it a great way to break into a coffee business or to publicize an existing coffee business.

One of the biggest advantages to running a portable coffee shop or pop-up cart is that you can go where the customers are. You can easily set up shop outside the railway station for the morning rush, move to the business district to catch the business lunch crowd and finish up the evening outside a theater or at a concert in the park. You can bring your entire business with you to cater at community events, street fairs, job fairs, flea markets, home shows and trade shows. In fact, it may be the one coffee shop business where “location location location” are not the three most important factors in your success, because you can just pull up the brakes when the business dies down and move to a new location with a thirsty crowd.