Western North Carolina’s (and the nation’s) mobile food trend continues to roll along: Darren Stephens of Mills River believes he may have found a new market niche with mobile pizza kitchens.
Nearly two years of research and development and about $60,000 pumped into the Asheville-area economy have yielded a compact, wood-fired oven that cranks out a tasty 20-inch pizza in just 90 seconds, says Stephens. At long last, he says he’s ready to take Amazing Pizza Co. on the road.
“It was just an idea that I really got driving into work one day, and then a month or two later, I was laid off,” Stephens recalls. Unemployment provided the impetus to pursue the venture more seriously, he says.
Ideally, the success of APC’s initial fleet of kitchens will build brand recognition and demonstrate the viability of Stephens’ business model. At that point, Stephens hopes to sell the patent-pending ovens to restaurants and to franchise the fully equipped mobile kitchens to potential pizza purveyors.
The impediment currently preventing business-to-business sales is the National Sanitation Foundation’s lengthy certification process, says Stephens, although APC is finally closing in on this important milepost. Not only is NSF certification required in some states, but Stephens believes that NSF’s approval will boost the legitimacy of his designs and help “push our product to the next level.”
For now, Stephens and his wife Elena — chief financial officer and marketing coordinator for APC — are temporarily leaving Asheville to launch their first mobile kitchen in downtown Charlotte, N.C., a move he says is necessary “to show hard numbers to investors and to ourselves.” Stephens prefers data from a large metropolis since he plans to target similar cities as the company grows.
Since he knows the kitchens will require agility to target hungry customers, Stephens points out the pragmatism behind operating from a trailer rather than a truck, remarking, “If my truck breaks down, … I rent another truck for about $70 per day, and I’m back up and running. No loss of revenue.”
Stephens has also arranged his kitchens to maximize employee comfort and minimize inefficiencies. The type-A strategist reports that everything “from lighting to trashcan placement” has been considered. And yes, the 950 degree pizza oven comes paired with a formidable air conditioning system.
After traveling the country to study the nuances of each test market, Stephens hopes his meticulous planning will impress prospective investors. His alternative investment strategy is a crowdfunding campaign, which has a $350,000 goal that would cover various operating expenses and get several more kitchens up and running.
Stephens also hopes to take advantage of Asheville’s highly skilled workforce by opening a factory in Mills River in the near future. Although excited about the Charlotte experiment, Stephens and his wife look forward to a time when Amazing Pizza Co. will operate from Asheville. “I have all plans and intentions of being around the Asheville area for good,” he says. “I travel all over the world, but this is home.”