How to Set up a Mobile Coffee Van

Does a world without coffee even turn? If this is something you’ve sometimes pondered then the likelihood is that you love your coffee fix. Perhaps you love it enough to set up a mobile coffee van business so everyone else can enjoy that cup of awesomeness.

Mobile catering is huge in a world full of busy people leading even busier lives. Whether it’s to wake up on the commute to work,  a cup of tea at lunch to keep the brain ticking over, or hot chocolate on a chilly day – coffee vans are an increasingly successful venture.

To help you make those first steps, we have put together our detailed guide on all you need to know and do, to set up a mobile coffee van.


What’s Involved in Running a Mobile Coffee Business?

Brits are big coffee lovers and many people like to visit a van for a quick, yet delicious cup of coffee. Although more convenient than going to a cafe, there’s no compromise on the overall quality which makes coffee vans very successful.

A big incentive to start up a mobile coffee van is the fact that the startup costs will be much lower than opening up a cafe.

Never underestimate the freedom involved in setting up your own business too. You become part of the fortunate percentage of the population who can decide their work and life ratio. That is – you can choose the hours and days you want to work and choose the balance in life that suits you. You don’t have to stress about profit and how to pay staff in those early days if you don’t want to. You may well start small with just you working in the van and that’s a sensible way to begin.

Finding the Right Niche & Trading Spot is Key

It’s important when running a mobile coffee business that you do plenty of research first to find your particular niche.

Ask yourself:

  • Where would a coffee van be appreciated?
  • Are there other similar businesses already in the area?
  • Can I add anything extra to make my business stand out more?

Setting up a coffee business can be hard work in the beginning, particularly while trying to suss out all the relevant legislation and red tape.

However, it can also quickly become a lucrative and enjoyable venture that becomes a passion. Best of all, there is so much more freedom involved in not having a permanent fixture. Licenses allow you to move around and engage with a much wider clientele.


Pros And Cons Of Running A Mobile Coffee Van

Now, we aren’t claiming it’s going to be a walk in the park, starting up any new business comes with its risks and disadvantages. It also comes with plenty of advantages which often far outweigh the disadvantages.


Make Your Own Pros and Cons List

If you’re considering starting a coffee van business, we recommend you make your own pros and cons list.

This will help you identify opportunities and threats to your fledgling business, and allow you to consider how you’d deal with them.

Here’s a few general pros and cons about running a mobile drinks business:

Pros:

  • You are your own boss, you make the rules, choose your hours and any additional staff.
  • Flexible work life balance that can fit with families and other commitments.
  • Coffee is on trend and it’s the reason there are so many coffee shops around – it never gets old. Us Brits are renowned for making cups of tea when things are stressful and there’s a reason for that!
  • You will meet lots of new people and get to be in the hub of the community.
  • You can make a tasty profit once you’ve set up and become known in your local area.
  • Start-up costs are generally low which is an attractive element.
  • Travelling around allows you to see new locations and widen your clientele list.
  • Once you start trading and become known in the area you will find you get great loyalty from customers who come back time and time again. They are important as they are the most likely to tell their friends about you.

Cons:

  • Owning your own business can be risky and stressful, especially in the beginning. It’s important to have a food support network in place or connect with like-minded business owners.
  • The coffee trade is a competitive one and you will find yourself up against the big guns. However, there is something more personal about mobile vans and usually less of a wait time too.
  • Although you can choose your work times, you might find it profitable to work early mornings as this is when the bulk of people will want a hot drink. Afternoons and evenings may not be so busy.
  • Signing up for festivals and markets may mean quite a bit of travelling which may incur additional costs such as overnight stays.
  • No two months’ paychecks will be the same. When you run your own business you need to know that you might have a great month money-wise and then a rotten one the next. You need to be able to budget for this and keep some savings for harder times. For example, your business might be far busier from autumn to spring when people need to warm up on their commute to work.

How Much to Set up a Coffee Van?

Of course, one of the first questions potential mobile coffee business owners consider is how much will it be to get set up and on the road? It’s encouraging to know, therefore, that generally speaking, start-up costs are low, especially in comparison to coffee shops in bricks and mortar.

Low Start Up Costs

You can be looking at as little as £3,000 for a coffee van package deal and on the higher end, anything up to £70,000 plus.

For those with a small budget, it pays to shop around and look for the best deal. Bear in mind that the best deal may not always be the cheapest package. Make sure you understand what equipment you need before you start your search.

The total cost of setting up will depend on the following factors:

  • What type of vehicle you opt for: purpose built or a renovation project.
  • How much equipment you need to buy based on your intended hot drinks menu.
  • If you will be offering food alongside coffee and tea, such as cakes.
  • If you intend to hire staff or work on your own.
  • Your location will to some extent have an impact on costs.
  • Which courses do you intend to do before starting out?
  • What coffees and tea do you intend to use and your suppliers.

How Much Can a Coffee Van Make?

Although this will vary based on location, a coffee van can be very profitable. So, if you are looking to make money at a pace to suit you then this might be the adventure for you.

It’s also worth remembering that coffee drinking isn’t a seasonal hobby – most people have a daily desire for the hot stuff. For this reason, whatever the time of year, you will have a line of customers. This puts you at a huge advantage compared to other mobile caterers such as ice cream.

Again, how much your coffee van can potentially make will come down to your type of business, costs, and location. Broadly speaking though, your profit margins have the potential to hit 95% which is why the coffee and tea trade does so well.


Steps to Start Your Mobile Coffee Business

There are a lot of considerations once you’ve decided to start up your mobile coffee business. Here’s a rough guide to the first steps you should take when getting your van up and running.

  1. Research, research, research – and when you’ve finished, research again! We aren’t kidding – the more homework you do in those beginning early stages will set a precedence. You should know exactly what you plan to sell, where, and with what vehicle before you take any further steps.
  2. Come up with your brand. Once you know this, you will be able to research exactly what you need to legally run your business.
  3. Decide on your budget and take any steps needed to achieve this, e.g. discuss with the bank the possibility of borrowing a business loan.
  4. Decide on the type of vehicle you wish to purchase or hire. Some come kitted out, ready to use for your coffee business or you can opt for a renovation project. Shop around for the best deals and don’t be afraid to haggle a little – you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  5. Create a business plan. This will allow you to focus on your expectations and keep things realistic. Also, if you are borrowing money for this venture, you may need to show them your plan. There are courses online to help you write a business plan and support you in starting your own business.
  6. Register your business with your local authority, at least 28 days before you plan to open. This is a legal requirement but is free to do and can all be accessed easily online.
  7. Register with HMRC so you can file your tax returns.
  8. You’ll need to pay for public liability insurance too – hold out on paying for this until you are near to opening and it’s something you continue to pay annually thereafter. This will help protect you against any accidents and any claims made against the business.
  9. Get your food hygiene certificate so that you can show due diligence and compliance with all the food safety regulations.
  10. There will be other courses that will benefit you as well, such as health and safety and HACCP.
  11. Create your risk assessments. This involves thinking of any potential incidents and accidents that may occur along the way. You can add more once you are up and running and come across further issues that need logging.
  12. Make sure all appliances are tested. Once you’ve got your vehicle and it’s kitted out with appliances, be sure to get them tested if applicable. Make sure all equipment has a CE label on it to keep yourself covered.
  13. Advertise. Get your name out there, make a website, Facebook page, or insta account – if it’s not online it doesn’t exist! You can start these pages early on and you can drum up interest along the way with all your steps to opening for business.
  14. Apply for all the correct licenses you need to park on the streets.

Do I Need a License for a Mobile Coffee Van?

You will need to apply for a street trading licence if you wish to park up in city centres.

Different licences will be required for other locations such as villages and private land so you will need to contact your local council. They will also be able to give you a list of any streets where you are prohibited from trading on.


Trading On Private Land

This is often a much cheaper way of running a mobile coffee business because there is less red tape involved.

This extends to places such as offices and any events you take part in because it falls onto the landowner or event’s organiser to ensure they have the correct paperwork.


Trading In City Centres

This will be a pricier license to obtain but it is a necessary step to take to trade legally. A city centre will usually bring a bustling trade so hopefully, the business will soon pay for itself.

You will also need to ensure you have:

  • Public liability insurance
  • You’ve registered as a business with your local authority and HMRC.
  • Any equipment has been PAT tested as required.
  • Completed a food hygiene course.
  • Looked into other appropriate courses such as health and safety, HACCP and Food Allergen Awareness training.

Which Food Hygiene Course Do I Need To Run A Mobile Coffee Van?

Level 2 Food Hygiene Course For Catering

A level 2 food hygiene course is suited to those working directly with food and drink such as coffee van workers. It will cover:

  • The Food Rating Hygiene Scheme and what this entails
  • The laws surrounding food hygiene
  • Food safety responsibilities
  • Microbiological hazards
  • How to handle and store raw products
  • All other hazards surrounding food
  • Importance of food labelling and appropriate storage
  • Fridge and freezer temperatures
  • All aspects of food preparation
  • Personal Hygiene
  • Keeping the premises clean

Level 3 Food Hygiene Course For Catering

A level 3 food hygiene course is aimed at those in a management position or senior kitchen staff who manage a team below them. It is the one coffee van owners and managers should enrol in. 

It will cover:

  • Food safety regulations
  • Responsibilities of the staff
  • Due diligence
  • Responsibilities of the senior staff
  • Contamination and the 6 P’s
  • Food allergies
  • 14 Food Allergens
  • Labelling allergens
  • How bacteria grow in food
  • Food poisoning
  • Food deliveries and storage
  • Fridge, freezer, and cooking temperatures
  • Appropriate kitchen spaces
  • HACCP
  • Personal hygiene
  • Cleaning
  • Pest control
  • Supporting staff

Where Can I Park My Coffee Van?

One of the first considerations with a coffee van business is understanding where you can and cannot park.

It’s a big decision to make and you need to research your area well and know what competition exists. If you apply for a street licence then this enables you to trade from the city centre. You will not need such licences for private events such as fetes and markets as this will be down to the owner of the event to have such paperwork in place.

If you are wondering if you can trade and park on your own street then the answer is – not likely. By this, we mean you can’t run your business from your drive or street but you can park up at the end of the day just like you do with your car.

When it comes to trading from the roadside or lay-bys then you need to obtain permission for your local authority. The laws around lay-by catering differ vastly from region to region with some areas abolishing it completely.


Further Reading

FAQs

How do you power a coffee machine in a van?

There are several options available to you when it comes to powering your coffee machine in a van. You can opt to use a generator and mains supply or, alternatively, you can power it from an inverter. You need to consider the size of your car battery and how you will recharge it as required.

How much is a mobile coffee van?

How much you pay for a mobile coffee van will depend on the vehicle you choose, whether it’s kitted out or you are planning to renovate one yourself. You could pay £3,000 up to £100,00 so there is a lot of variation out there.

Do I need a sink in a mobile coffee van?

You need two sinks in a mobile coffee van – one for washing the equipment and the other for washing hands in. Most ready to buy vans have a twin sink already installed.

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