Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Beth Baxter and I co-founded Camper Cafe, a mobile coffee van business. The idea for our business started with my partner’s love for vintage VW campervans. He had a rusty old shell of a T25 Campervan given to him, that he wanted to convert into a trailer for his motorbikes.
When I suggested that a better idea could be to put a coffee machine in the back and make some money with it instead - he agreed. That was 11 years ago and we are now building our 6th mobile coffee unit, supplying some of the UK’s biggest sporting events, working with huge international brands, on commercial and film shoots. Plus my partner also now owns a successful WiFi business off the back of it.
Although we never really thought about this ever becoming more than just a lifestyle business, we found we were turning so much work away from that in 2019 when the company was turning over around £150k from working only 70 days of the year, we decided that I should go full-time to see the potential.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started off in IT sales, before moving to a lead generation agency. I quickly worked my way up to become a Director of Sales and Marketing at the age of 24. I loved the job, working strategically with blue-chip companies on their new business generation strategies, whilst leading the sales and marketing team internally at the agency. I had a great relationship with the owner of the business (who remains a friend of mine) and could never see myself leaving.
We initially saw it as a hobby business, to earn a bit of extra money for holidays, etc whilst enjoying events. But we soon realized we had a real business on our hands.
Whilst I was at this company, we came up with the idea of Camper Cafe. It was the early days of what we now know as the vibrant and growing street food scene. We had only seen one other example of a mobile coffee van, and it had queues. We knew this was a relatively new concept and therefore one that we could help define, shaping the market with our concept. I had a background in sales and marketing, whilst my partner loved building vehicles and engineering technology. So he drove the van conversion whilst I took the lead on the commercial side of the business.
There was no way of validating the feasibility of the idea without building the business and getting it out there. Se we just went into it full-steam ahead, giving it our best shot whilst believing in our own abilities.
We started targeting VW events. It wasn’t as easy as I expected, given that there were barely any competitors at this point, I think people struggled with the concept of a need for proper coffee. We did get into a few VW shows on the merits of the van being a vintage VW though, and suddenly we had some dates to aim for!
Take us through the process of building out the van and storefront.
Will (my partner) had an idea in his head of how to turn the van into a trailer - way before we discussed the coffee business idea. He’s got a very bright mind for engineering, and he enlisted his brother, a steel metal fabricator, to work on the main bodywork of turning a van into a trailer.
He then replaced unsalvageable panels and welded repairs to make the van structurally sound and safely towable.
I started to address the equipment and coffee side. We decided we wanted to run the machine on gas as well as power and found a beautiful second-hand Italian lever machine that had been refurbished and was perfect for the job. Everything with our first unit was done on a low budget so we only invested around £6k on everything. Instead of money, we put many man-hours into the project, working on it pretty much every evening for 6 months. During this time I also fell pregnant so we had another time pressure, and it was pretty exhausting!
Finding great suppliers makes life so much easier, especially when running a business in addition to holding down a job (we were both working at this time). I recommend staying local where possible, so you can build a more personal relationship with them. Using your contacts for recommendations tends to result in finding suppliers that give better service levels and who are more loyal to you.
We still work with our same coffee supplier to this day, who has been a brilliant support to the business - making our life easy with fast deliveries and excellent quality to fit our brand and has also become a friend of ours.
We started with a simple business model of selling only tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and chai latte. We hand-wrote and made all of our signage and bunting so it had a very ‘boutique’ (some may say cheap!) look to it. Quite far from where we are today!
When it came to a name, our original choice was objected to by another coffee company, who quickly registered it for himself, so when we received a message to demand we do not use it or we could end up in legal proceedings, we decided to change it. We like a simple life and legal activity is not for us when we had no brand to start with.
We felt that with the name ‘Camper Cafe’ we could expand beyond the ‘Cafe’ element if we wanted to go down the line with other products. We thought the Campervan passion would stay with us.
We had a logo designed and we were away!
How did your first event go?
Our first event - a VW show called VDub at the Pub, was in May 2011, so we decided to hold an open day for friends and family a couple of weeks beforehand. We invited around 40 people over to join us in the garden so we could make coffee for them and test the van out and our coffee-making skills. This was our official launch (and we’re pleased to report it went well!).
At our first event with genuine paying customers, we created a coffee shop vibe with music, tables, and chairs to encourage people to hang about and drink coffee. It was a really successful event with customers appreciating the restoration, and commenting on how good the coffee was. We only took cash at this point and took around £450/day.
Our first summer was busy attending events across the UK, heavily pregnant and sleeping in a campervan which we used to tow our matching trailer unit around. It was quite a spectacle and got a lot of attention.
At that stage, we attended pretty much any event that would have us if it wasn’t too expensive. Low cost, low risk was our model. If we could make £1k from a weekend away and have fun whilst doing it, we were happy. We would pay around £100 for the pitch fee and take around £600/day when we started.
Every cost was coming out of our own pockets so we tightly balanced the pitch fees against the potential sales. In our second year, we decided to go a bit bigger. We agreed to spend 10 times the amount of our typical pitch fees on a larger event and got friends in to help us deliver it.
We realized that there would be a sweet spot to our business within the event market and we now have that really well defined. And we don’t spend that much now for a pitch fee!
Since launch, what has worked to grow sales?
Since we started the business, we have always been extremely hands-on. We initially saw it as a hobby business, to earn a bit of extra money for holidays, etc whilst enjoying events. But we soon realized we had a real business on our hands. Balancing growth against the control of the brand is challenging, as I’m sure it is for every Entrepreneur.
When it comes to marketing, we have focussed the majority of our efforts on SEO - assessing the keywords that people search for online when they look for a mobile coffee van (that is one of them!). Over time as the concept has become more mainstream, the keywords have changed - and become more specific. Building top keywords into the copy of our website have meant we have always ranked well and gained enough inquiries to build the business organically.
When supported by frequent social media posting, you can build credibility for your business and convert more inquiries.
Don’t be afraid to lose what you have - but not what you don’t have. If you’re the type of person that does it and loses it, then you’ll be the type of person that does something different the next time and makes it.
We also maintain a really high quality of coffee - we take a bit of pride in our coffee and so it has to be great. We were trained by a previous UK barista champion and got to really understand the science behind a good extraction.
When an international corporate client approached us in 2012 to brand the van and have us accompany their sales team around the country on a promotional tour, we put a quote in, not expecting anything to come of it.
However they came back and asked us to work with them, saying that we had dealt with them in such a professional manner that they had so much faith in our ability, they never even looked beyond us. We have worked with this company for over 8 years and we feel like a part of the family now. They report brilliant revenue gains from running between 2 and 4 tours every year.
With client retention, it’s about relationships and reliability. People seem to like us because we deliver on our promises, but we also get excited and absorbed into our client’s brands, offering them new ideas which come off the back of having marketing enthusiasm.
We’re currently building our 6th unit and have modified every one so far based on diversifying customer needs. Our 6th one will however be the same as our 5th unit as we seemed to reach a utopia with that one.
Our opposite skills as a partnership work really well, masking us a brilliant couple in business. I have a passion for working on brand activations with my background in marketing. Will has a passion for technology and engineering - he built WiFi in the vans for example so our clients can connect ipads for live capture of sales leads.
We also have a mini coffee van for film sets where space is tight, we have ones that can travel the length of the country and stop at numerous locations in a day. Our clients have individual needs that can be very demanding for a coffee van - there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that Will is brilliant at planning for.
We decided we should rebrand in 2017 to attract more corporate work, and spent our first decent money on a design agency, along with a professional signwriter to do our menu boards. We now started to feel like a proper company!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We were looking at numerous other avenues of expansion before Covid hit - e.g. versatile promotional vans, digital displays, etc to create really impressive brand activation experiences.
We want to offer the next best thing in experiential marketing on a smaller, more mobile scale. Coffee attracts people, but how do we engage people beyond this and make them more immersed in our client’s brands?
This is what we feel is the next direction for us when the market is ready to return fully to in-person experiences. We have ideas but the pandemic set us back a couple of years or so.
With regards to growth, we have some great friends that love supporting the business, and we have discovered the reward in introducing students into the work environment.
Events like Henley Regatta, The Grand Prix, etc encourage a younger breed of staff and they absolutely love the experience. We try to help them understand what strong mentoring and development looks like to understand what work satisfaction is to them.
Working in the business is hard graft, and not for everyone but it is very rewarding for those that choose to.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
If I had a dollar for every person that came up to me and said “I was going to do this….” then I’d be very rich. I get really frustrated and want to say to them, “Well, we actually did it!” but I bite my tongue and listen politely.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t be someone that says “I was going to…..” Just get on and do it. Like gambling, keep your risk manageable. Don’t be afraid to lose what you have - but not what you don’t have. If you’re the type of person that does it and loses it, then you’ll be the type of person that does something different the next time and makes it.
You need to take action in life to get results.
For me, it’s about always building the value of the business and taking calculated risks. Each year we try something new, it may be a new event, a new unit, or a new market. Some work, some don’t. But you’ve got to try.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I am lucky that my background is in marketing. We build a website in WordPress, and other than that we use social media organically but we don’t pay for much marketing. So Facebook and Instagram are our main social outlets.
We use Freeagent for our accounts. Apart from that, it’s all about SEO and organic traffic, and referrals. We try to keep the admin for the business light as we both get really bored with it!
For taking payments we use iZettle. We are now nearly cashless which feels sad but an inevitable future.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Being a marketer, I love to keep up with these trends and listen to the Dux-Soup webinars as they bring in really great guest speakers. I love to listen to new SEO ideas, content best practices, automation tools, and people that are great at what they do in the marketing world.
I measure a lot with Google Analytics - but it helps that this is also a bit of a specialism of mine.
When I was younger I tried to learn management styles from the likes of Ken Blanchard who I once heard live, and who made a lot of sense to me. Everyone has something to offer from their own experiences, you just need to take what applies to you. As I have grown older, I believe in my own style and focus on trying to have a positive impact on others as well as myself.
I generally love to talk to business owners and am very lucky to know a lot of those with whom I can chat about business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
As above, don’t be someone that says “I nearly did that”. Be someone that does it. Get out there and get on with it - today, not tomorrow!
Also, you have to enjoy what you do. Make it fun, and never lose that element. We sometimes have to step away to regain our passion, which is Okay!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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