Everything’s ‘ground’ to a halt

According to Wikipedia ‘A pandemic is an epidemic occurring on a scale that crosses international boundaries, usually affecting people on a worldwide scale’
That sums up our current situation pretty well I’d say.
Apparently the leaders of the world knew about such risks and had made provision. I, on the other hand, had not.

Maybe it’s just me, but I was too busy spinning all the various plates life had given me to make ‘provision’ for a worldwide pandemic. Starting a new coffee truck business had taken up my whole focus. And of course on top of that were all my family responsibilities. I was aware of the term of course. And knew it was being talked about in the press, but it really wasn’t until the week before lockdown that I started to see it as something that could actually affect me, my business and local community so acutely.
Things were going great for me. I’d launched Sussex Coffee Trucks and had built quite a local following. I’d finally got my license through for the National Trust car park on top of Ditching Beacon and had really started to build momentum.
The car park was getting busier every day. More and more people were hearing about this great new coffee truck serving delicious drinks and cake right on the South Downs Way. Things were getting very busy actually with me selling out of most things every day and even running out of water and milk on occasion. I remember one day in particular that despite running out of everything I still had a queue just for black coffee and tea from what little water remained in the coffee machine boiler! It was crazy and I couldn’t have been happier.
The weekend before lockdown I did event support for the Moyleman off road marathon. Providing coffee and cake for all the 300 runners at the start. And then there was a kind of finish area party at Harvey’s Brewery in Lewes. There must have been 1000 people there all dancing and chatting in the sunshine. It was awesome and was my busiest day ever!
Absolutely unthinkable to imagine at the time that it would be the last large scale gathering I’d witness for many, many months.

The call came on the afternoon of 23rd March. It was my contact at National Trust. I was busier than ever but I’d been dreading this moment. She told me she had some bad news. That they had decided to close all their car parks to help enforce the social distancing policy the government was recommending. She said that I could expect an announcement from the Prime Minister later that day and that a lockdown was imminent.
It was a huge shock and I struggled to comprehend what I was facing.
My business had been killed. Shot dead just as it was starting to flourish. Schools were closing. Travel was limited. Total lockdown. Impossible.

And so it all began. Our kids (6 years old and 2 years old) no longer had to be dropped off at school and nursery. They were to remain home and be looked after by their parents.
My wife is a physiotherapist so her hours remained intact, so I found myself the main carer overnight. We started home schooling as best as we could and had our daily routine of exercise, school work, play and a walk around the block.
My wife would do some running. I’d do some cycling. We hung out in the garden and compared notes with all our friends and family on the impossible nature of our lives, all the time thankful for our health whilst listening to the news reports in horror of the increasing daily death toll this disease was having on our country.

After a couple of weeks of this I was getting very restless. It dawned on me that I was in possession of the perfect vehicle to help raise moral at my local hospital. Who wouldn’t be cheered up and encouraged by a free coffee? The idea was born but I wasn’t clear how I could pursue it. Who should I contact to ask permission? And would they see it as a help or a hinderance? I fired off lots of emails and used local Facebook groups to ask questions and track down names and numbers, and finally got a meeting set up with the boss. I drove down in the coffee truck and met with the crew. I explained my situation and how I simply wanted to help the NHS at this difficult time. They were extremely thankful and a plan was put into place. My friend Kris from Lindfield Coffee Works supplies me with coffee and I reached out to him with the idea and he was super excited by it. “It sure beats standing outside clapping” he said, and he was right. Kris very kindly offered to help out with coffee supply and even said he could do a few shifts too.
So all of a sudden the plan was ready to roll out. I ordered up all the bits I needed. Cups, lids, bags, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, flavoured syrups etc and started to try and figure out a plan for milk. This was the biggest problem really as supply was limited. The only way I could get enough was to drive around from shop to shop, garage to garage, collecting as much as possible. With everything in place I gave the truck a nice clean and was ready for the first shift.

The first shift was a Saturday. I arrived in plenty of time and started setting up. Word had gotten round about this free coffee offering and in no time a few people started approaching to see what was going on. I explained that it would take me around 25 minutes to set up and get the boiler up to temperature and people happily waited in anticipation.
By the time I was ready for service I already had a queue! A respectful, socially distanced one as you’d expect.
The first customer was served at 10:30am and I had a solid queue until 16:20 when I finally ran out of milk and even coffee! I’d been incredibly busy and served over 350 drinks on the first shift! Everyone was delighted and morale had been visibly boosted. Such a great feeling and I felt incredibly proud to have made it happen, with a little help from my friends.

If you would like to donate to my fundraiser click here

Why start a coffee truck?

Freedom. I guess that’s the word that sums up my new business and the model that attracted me in the first place.
To be free to focus on what’s important to me.
In life. In business. In the community. In nature.

Having run a bike shop and cafe in Brighton station for almost 5 years I had first hand experience of the realities of small business in modern times.
I was drawn into starting that business for the same reasons. Passion really. For cycling and good coffee, and for bringing people together through sport and friendship. It was an incredibly exciting time and very satisfying. I managed to carve out a unique business in a busy market place and became really well known and loved for creating a safe place for cyclists of all abilities to come together and have their bikes fixed or upgraded. The cafe side was a nice bolt on to the bike side of things and drew people in from all walks of life. It was a wonderful time and we had great success over the years growing from being pretty much a ‘one man band’ to having a few full time staff and a loyal following.
However, what I struggled with was the scaleability of the business and the negative economic effects that had on a small premises with limited space. To consolidate, the busier I got, the less profit I made, and with rising annual fixed costs as well as ludicrously cheap online bike parts being sold, we could only make money on labour. And we couldn’t turn over enough bikes to pay the bills.
Acknowledging this took me about 18 months if I’m honest. It was similar to being in a relationship you loved but knew, deep down, wouldn’t last. I didn’t have a plan B and just ploughed on with it until the end of the road.

I closed N+1 in November 2019 I was keen to acquire another local cafe and pursued this until the opportunity was lost. I found myself just before Christmas with dwindling capital and absolutely no idea what to do next. I started considering getting a job and conforming. I reached out to a few companies but wasn’t overwhelmed by their response. It seemed that having been successfully self employed for over 12 years didn’t exactly make me a great candidate!

Then, one night my wife Jenny and I were talking. Trying to figure out the next step. What about a coffee van we thought?
It was literally a light bulb moment. It shed light on an otherwise desperate future. So I started researching and it all started to come together. I can’t really put my finger on why it felt so right but I think again it comes down to the freedom of it. The idea of investing into an asset like a coffee truck rather than channelling that money into rent, rates, staff and alike was also a major attraction. Once set up and trading I knew that my running costs would be relatively low in comparison to running a cafe or shop. Plus, I had the confidence in knowing that if the idea didn’t take off I’d have an asset to sell giving me a sense of security and safety to pursue the idea full gas.

So that’s what I did. And despite currently being in a nationwide lockdown, I’m so glad I took that step. I only managed to trade for around 6 weeks before having to put things on hold due to the pandemic, but the growth I experienced in that time and the love and support offered from everyone truly blew my mind. I literally couldn’t make the coffees fast enough and the feedback was excellent.
And the cherry on the cake (or should I say the chocolate sprinkles on the cappuccino) was being able to have Ditching Beacon as my home and office. A beauty spot like that is such a pleasure to hang out in. It’s an amazing spot with incredible views and genuinely it’s own weather! And the people are absolutely spot on. Everybody that finds themselves up on the Beacon share so much in common and I couldn’t be happier there. I hope to be back as soon as I can but in the mean time I’ll be thinking of ways to improve on what I’m already doing and would welcome your thoughts and feedback.