For many local mobile food and beverage businesses, the fantasy of moving up to a brick-and-mortar is akin to dreaming of the culinary major leagues. After finding some degree of success with a food truck or farmers market stand, it’s not uncommon for a business to transition into a larger, more permanent location that encourages its possibilities for growth.
That’s the passage that Suzy Salwa Phillips, founder of Gypsy Queen, took when she opened up her West Asheville storefront in 2015 after six years in the food truck scene. It’s also how French Broad Chocolates, which started selling its signature chocolate bars at local tailgate markets in 2007, has evolved into a 14,000-square-foot factory with three area storefronts.
What’s more unusual, though, is when a business has already established a level of success with a brick-and-mortar storefront, and then decides to jump ship for a mobile setup.
Raising the bar
Cask & Canter, a rustic-style mobile bar created from a 1970s vintage horse trailer, is the handiwork of Celeste and Chris King, who formerly owned the Burger Bar in the River Arts District.
Their new full-service bar has the space to fit two bartenders (as long as they’re on the smaller side) and is equipped to serve beer, chilled wine and custom cocktails. After selling the Burger Bar in 2018, the duo opened Cask & Canter in 2019 as they began to think more seriously about sustainability and off-the-grid living. They were also looking for a way to continue bartending without, as Chris puts it, “24/7 bar life.”
“Our carbon footprint has always been a thought. We are pecking away at eliminating our carbon footprint and eliminating as many dependencies as possible,” says Chris, who has taken a lot of inspiration from the tiny house movement, which advocates living simply in smaller spaces.
Besides needing a car to pull it, the energy dependence for the trailer is almost zero, he explains. The lights and fans, which currently use electricity, are well on their way to becoming completely solar powered.
Celeste adds that they also focus on limiting single-use plastic by composting cups and materials whenever possible, and they hope to eventually use the fresh herbs and produce from their new property, Hidden Tiny Farm, where they began homesteading and building tiny homes in 2016.
In addition to the environmental perks, the couple enjoy the freedom that comes with making their own schedule. And since the mobile bar generally frequents weddings and other private events (or stays on their own property), the responsibility of obtaining a permit generally falls on the event planner or venue.
“We didn’t know how to not be in the service industry,” says Celeste. “We wanted flexibility. This is great because you can choose. If you want to block a week off to go on vacation, you can.”
Chris explains that he also feels liberated from the emotional and legal responsibility that comes with running a bar that stays open late into the night. “The idea that something could go bad at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning always weighed on my mind. I was always expecting a phone call at 3 a.m.,” says Chris. “To let go of that anxiety and not have that responsibility anymore was a big deal.”
The cons? Hands down, insurance.
“Insurance is our biggest cost,” says Celeste. “It’s pretty similar to what it would be for a brick-and-mortar. Serving alcohol out of a vehicle and having people working from the inside of it makes the insurance pretty crazy. The costs are still way more viable than paying rent on a brick-and-mortar, but insurance takes a big bite.”
Ruth & Ranshaw, a Fairview-based mobile bakeshop owned and operated by sisters Clair and Colleen Baxter, also opted to reframe itself with a nomadic approach. In 2013, the pair opened a popular brick-and-mortar bakery of the same name off Charlotte Highway, quickly building a strong customer base, growing their staff to 15 people and catering for about seven weddings a week.
“We did that for about five years,” says Clair. “Then I got pregnant, and my sister got pregnant, and then I got pregnant again. In two years, we had three kids and realized this wasn’t feasible, so we scaled way down, closed the shop and stuck to wholesale orders.”
When they found enough stability to jump back into the business, the sisters decided they weren’t interested in doing another brick-and-mortar. Instead, they started selling their legendary cinnamon rolls, buttercream-frosted cakes and other goods at pop-up events and tailgate markets.
They bake the goods in their certified home kitchen, make deliveries out of their personal SUVs, and when it’s time to set up shop, they simply bring a table, canopy and a few chairs with them, rendering insurance generally a nonissue.
“The pop-ups have really been a turning point for us,” says Clair. “It gives us flexibility, and we can just shout out on social media what our location is going to be, especially around the holidays when people are looking to purchase things.”
However, Clair doesn’t take for granted the loyal following the original storefront generated for their current business. “Because of the brick-and-mortar, people know us, and it makes it easier to move in reverse,” she continues. “We don’t have to prove ourselves as much, and because of our social media and client base, it makes it easier to talk to the people we already know and give them opportunities to show up. That’s a huge benefit that we wouldn’t have if we were going from mobile to brick-and-mortar.”