Driving sales: Mobile businesses roll into WNC

by Alli Marshall, amarshall@mountainx.com
Rich Rennicks, richrennicks@gmail.com
and Gina Smith, gsmith@mountainx.com

Food trucks are a known entity: Those mobile dispensaries of cheap, tasty meals drove into downtown Asheville (and our hearts) in 2011. And with revised city ordinances, a dedicated lot on Coxe Avenue and regular appearances at local festivals and music venues, food trucks have only increased in number.

But sandwiches aren’t the only thing that can fit into a truck, and businesses on wheels are on the rise in other parts of the country. The lifestyle website refinery29.com recently showcased a number of drive-up stores in San Francisco, including a floral design company, a gift shop housed in a VW Vanagon and a mobile clothing boutique.

In fact, fashion trucks are already well on their way to rivaling food trucks. For proof, look no further than fashiontruckfinder.com. As its name suggests, the website organizes motorized apparel shops by location. The “Southern Fashion Trucks” category alone lists more than 60, nine of them in North Carolina. Topping that list is Sadie Mae’s Boutique (originally Betties Mobile Boutique), launched in April by Celeste Adams — one of a number of local entrepreneurs who are taking retail startups beyond brick-and-mortar.


Celeste Adams at Sadie Mae's a mobile boutique she built inside a 1972 Travelaire camper. Photo by Shara Crosby
THE WHEEL DEAL: Celeste Adams at Sadie Mae’s a mobile boutique she built inside a 1972 Travelaire camper. Photo by Shara Crosby

Have shop, will travel

“I started looking for a camper and, in the process, found out there were thousands of fashion trucks. I had no idea!” says Adams. She’d planned to start a food truck business but found it to be cost-prohibitive. Learning that others had paved the way for the boutique on wheels “solidified, for me, that what I was doing made sense.”

With help from Chris Crenshaw at The Rabbit Hole auto repair shop in Arden, Adams turned a 1972 Travelaire camper into a rolling storefront stocked with fashion accessories from such local designers as SIRENbags, Seed & Sky jewelry and Serious Leather (Sadie Mae’s best-seller, according to Adams).

“All women walk in and say, ‘It’s so cute,’ and every man asks me what I’m pulling it with,” Adams says about her boutique. Tourists, meanwhile, are sometimes confused by the movable enterprise. “They think it’s an art installation. I have the camper, which is painted really cute, and AstroTurf and flamingos and lights, so maybe it’s overwhelming,” she says. But locals are already embracing Sadie Mae’s, which has set up near Short Street Cakes, plans to do private shopping parties, has put in appearances at yard sales and at the Asheville Tattoo & Piercing Expo, and recently served as a makeshift gallery for an Adam Strange art show.

And Sadie Mae’s success may prove contagious: Adams has already met with other mobile vendors (including Flow Skin Care & Massage, a mobile spa based in Brevard) about doing a group event. Flow is the brainchild of April Daniel, a licensed aesthetician and massage therapist who wanted a studio space that would enable her to offer affordable services. That vision came to fruition in the form of a 1970 Airstream Overlander, which Daniel converted with the help of her partner and an IndieGoGo campaign. The business “has a semipermanent home on 5 acres of homestead … surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest,” Daniel’s website explains, adding, “One of the unique beauties of the Flow studio is that we have the ability for mobility.”

Dream big, start small

The itinerant business rings like a fad, but avatars of it have existed at least since the invention of the wheel. In prior times, most commerce was conducted from carts and wagons (think produce, ice, horseshoes, snake oil). We’re only a generation removed from the milkman and the vacuum cleaner salesman, and the ice cream truck’s siren call still provides the soundtrack to summer.

Jamie Beasley of Mountain BizWorks cites Valet Gourmet, Balloon Fairy Magic and Home Cleaning Professionals as local portable enterprises that have gotten loans or other assistance through the nonprofit. “For a lot of people, a mobile business is a transition,” he says. “A lot of people doing food trucks really wanted to open a restaurant.”

What Mountain BizWorks looks for in a potential loan recipient, says Beasley, is the right combination of determination and flexibility. “Loans are harder to get than people think, and it’s generally easier to get a smaller amount of money,” he says. “In the world of startups and having difficulty raising capital, it’s common to think, ‘How can I scale back my idea a few steps to make it more attainable now, so that I can build up to the dream that I had pictured?’”

Mountain BizWorks closed a loan last month for Heavenly Touch Mobile Detailing and has also worked with Libreria A y M, a Spanish-language mobile bookstore offering Christian books and worship items. The owner of that endeavor, says Beasley, “has now also expanded into a West Asheville location near the Emma community.”

Shannon Tuch from the city of Asheville’s Development Services Department remembers two requests for mobile business permits within the past year: one for a nonprofit delivering produce to underserved areas, and the other for a bookmobile.

And while getting a permit for a food truck can be complex, other mobile ventures present fewer obstacles. “We’re issuing a temporary-use permit that’s renewable every year,” says Tuch. “We list all the different sites they visit and pick one site or home office and use that as the home address. We’re trying to keep it simple — we’ll definitely work with businesses wanting to get started in Asheville.” — A.M.

Speed reading

Julie Wade, a longtime bookseller at Downtown Books & News, first had the idea for Snake, Rabbit and Snail in 2009. During a casual conversation with a friend, she mentioned that opening a used-book store specializing in children’s books would be her dream job. “If you’re still thinking about an idea three months later, it was a good idea,” she reasoned, so she began taking concrete steps to realize the dream. And like many Asheville entrepreneurs, Wade began with a class at Mountain BizWorks.

After the birth of her daughter, Wade applied to A-B Tech’s business incubator program, which later awarded her a small grant to help develop a business plan. Additional A-B Tech classes followed, and the vision gradually morphed from a traditional fixed business into a mobile enterprise that could bring the books to the people who most need them while minimizing startup costs.

That budget-minded approach is a key aspect of Snake, Rabbit and Snail. About a year ago, Wade bought a trailer. Gradually, windows were added, shelves were built, and an artist friend painted the logo on the side. Wade, a single parent, says there’s not that much for kids to do in Asheville that doesn’t cost a lot. That perspective suggested other niches for her business, such as hiring out the bookmobile for children’s parties and special events, and offering storytelling as an added attraction.

Inside the Snake, Rabbit and Snail bookmobile. Photo by Shara Crosby
Inside the Snake, Rabbit and Snail bookmobile. Photo by Shara Crosby

As her business plan slowly came together, Wade delved into fundraising and began accumulating books. A Kickstarter campaign helped spread the word about her plans while raising some seed capital. Obtaining a business license proved to be a hurdle due to the unique nature of the enterprise, but after multiple meetings, city officials finally granted it in early June.

Snake, Rabbit and Snail debuted outside The Odditorium in West Asheville during the venue’s community yard sale this spring. A few weeks later, Wade set up shop at the Montford Music and Arts Festival. “So many children came to the bookmobile. It made me so happy to see them sitting and reading,” she posted on her Facebook page. Initially, Wade plans to set up at a number of locations whose owners have given her permission to use their parking lots. And while those locales, she concedes, might not be “exactly ideal for maximum child awareness,” it’s one way to get the word out.

Right now, the bookmobile is a regular for-profit business, enabling Wade to learn her trade and test her ideas. But that may change at some point, she believes, and she’s currently taking a class on nonprofit management. “The main goal is to get books at a reasonable price — preferably as cheap as possible — into the hands of kids from all walks of life,” she says. “There’s a lot that’s down the line; I just need to get started.” And if the business model is still evolving, Wade says she’s guided by a simple belief: “I really just want kids to have books.

Snake, Rabbit and Snail will be at Asheville City Market, 161 S. Charlotte St. on Saturday, July 19. Info at snakerabbitandsnail.com — R.R.

The road to success

When Debbie Barry moved to Asheville from New Jersey in 2011, she had it in mind to start her own business — hopefully something that would help her and her husband, Bob, transition to retirement. Remembering the fun she’d had hosting weekly homemade pizza nights with friends and neighbors when her three kids were young, Barry decided that artisan pizza was her calling.

But having owned and operated a parent-child program in years past, Barry also understood the ins and outs of being a small-business owner, and the idea of being tied to the inherent stresses and demands of a brick-and-mortar restaurant seemed less than appealing. She wanted to be able to enjoy the beauty of Western North Carolina; she wanted freedom; she wanted flexibility.

So Barry decided to aim for something a little more … out there.

A MOVEABLE FEAST: “We wanted to be able to be outside and to chitchat and meet people. We didn't want to be enclosed,” Debbie Barry says about her business, Mama Dukes Wood Fired Oven. It centers around a custom-built, wood-burning brick oven on wheels. Photo by Tim Robison
A MOVABLE FEAST: “We wanted to be able to be outside and to chitchat and meet people. We didn’t want to be enclosed,” Debbie Barry says about her business, Mama Dukes Wood Fired Oven. It centers on a custom-built, wood-burning brick oven on wheels. Photo by Tim Robison

“We wanted to be able to be outside and to chitchat and meet people. We didn’t want to be enclosed,” Barry says about her business, Mama Dukes Wood Fired Oven, which she rolled out — literally — during the watery Greening Up the Mountains festival in Sylva in April of last year. “It just rained terribly,” she remembers.

Undaunted by that soggy first experience, however, Barry’s still all about the open air. Unlike most mobile restaurants, her business isn’t confined within a van or bus. Instead, her convivial setup centers on a custom-built, wood-burning brick oven on wheels, spreading outward via an assortment of canopies and folding tables that she assembles to create an outdoor kitchen-prep area.

With the signage up and the homemade dough and fresh, colorful toppings laid out, the whole thing looks and feels like a portable food festival. And the arrangement, she says, makes it easy for her to move around and interact with customers.

The lack of walls also lets the heat from the 900-degree oven dissipate — a key point that Bob, who moonlights as her oven guy during weekend gigs, particularly appreciates in the summer. The couple’s youngest daughter, who now lives in Charleston, S.C., often drives up to help out on weekends as well, keeping it all in the family.

On weekend evenings, Mama Dukes can often be found at Highland Brewing Co., but the roving eatery also caters events and turns up at festivals, wineries and craft fairs — Barry’s favorite — all over WNC and as far away as Atlanta. The business, she says, is rolling along nicely, and she wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

As for the moniker, it too traces back to her family. “The kids came up with that name,” Barry explains. “That was their nickname for me, because I always had my dukes up for them. … I always went to battle for them growing up.” — G.S.






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