Losing Your Job is Not the End of the World … Take It With You!
This series began with an overview of how small business vending can be viewed as a viable economic development strategy, especially in difficult financial times. This article continues the theme with an interview of a profitable mobile vending cart business owner based in Columbia, South Carolina.
Pushing Back Economic Downturns
Purely physical, real-world small business activities that could be game-changers for families are not being considered.
Economic development is not only in the purview of cities, states, international organizations, multi-national corporations, or Third World countries building infrastructure. Bringing the idea of economic development closer to home and our wallets, it can start with an idea, a little equipment, something to sell, a location, and a customer. The existence of profitable local business enterprises tells the real story. Whether formal or informal, if it feeds your family, pays your bills, and otherwise changes your economic circumstances, it falls within the purview of economic development activity.
Losing your job is not necessarily the end of the world. Many turn to the internet to find ways to make money online. As such, purely physical, real-world small business activities that could be game-changers for families are not being considered . . . or the lack of information about them relegate them to obscurity. But starting a small business vending operation might be the answer. Let’s find out how in this interview with Quinton Whipper and Gisela Kloess, owners of New York’s Famous Hotdogs (NYFH) of Columbia, South Carolina.
Avoiding A Dilemma
Three years ago, Quinton Whipper was happily working as a finance manager at a loan company. Under the umbrella of realignment, the company filed bankruptcy and fired Quinton a month before his hefty bonus — $18 thousand dollars — was due to be paid.
Wracking his brain for the next steps to take to keep his family financially secure and heading off despair, good fortune came his way through a cousin who presented him with an opportunity to try something completely different.
Trading his corporate suit-and-tie attire for an apron and plastic gloves, Quinton and his wife, Gisela, entered the street vending business. In conversations with Gisela and Quinton, they shared why they chose to start up a mobile vending business even though they don’t reside in metropolitan area and some of the unique challenges they’ve faced as entrepreneurs.
Columbia is the state capital and largest city in South Carolina. CNNMoney.com named Columbia as one of America’s 25 best places to retire, and US News & World Report ranked the city sixth on its 2009 America’s Best Affordable Places to Retire list. Even so, with a population of 129,272 (according to the 2010 census), as “big cities” go, it is a small city.1 So much so that you won’t see hotdog carts or food trucks on every corner. That was good news for for the Whipper-Kloess family because while competition is good for business, the less competition in a small market, the better the chances for gaining a foothold and ensuring profitability.
Mobile Vending Operations
We’re affected by the weather. During bad weather, customers will go inside a restaurant. But they will not stay outside in the cold or bad weather. — Gisela Kloess, New York’s Famous Hotdogs
Mobile vending is hard. In separate telephone conversations, both Quinton and Gisela admit that there are hurdles to overcome but are quick to also say the rewards outweigh the difficulties encountered. From an operational standpoint, the challenges are very similar to those faced by small business enterprises everywhere: start-up costs and ongoing cash flow, licensing and insurance, personnel, location, marketing, key differentiators and managing growth.
Licensing and Insurance
In a comment to Mitch about mobile vending cart costs for veterans in New York City, I mentioned how veterans have lower entry costs due to the significant break they get from the City because of their veterans status. Neither Quinton nor Gisela indicated that the city of Columbia, South Carolina, offered any such discounted licensing fees.
Many people want to know the answer to the burning question: How much does it cost? The standard disclaimer applies here: it depends. All told, their entre into the world of mobile vending cost them around $3,000 – a reasonable amount when compared to usual business start-up costs. That figure covered their state and local business licenses; purchasing the first hotdog cart; inventory including Sabrett™ hotdogs, condiments, and napkins; and insurance (almost a thousand dollars for $500k-$1m coverage).
Whipper-Kloess say earnings, on a daily basis, can range between $150 to $450. Remember, we’re not talking about 8- or 12-hour days; this income is for only a few hours of service, once a day. The potential income is greater when you factor in evening locations, special venues (like a State fair), and contract events (like a company’s employee outing).
The Whipper-Kloess family started with one hotdog cart and grew to have two carts and a food truck. Prior to publishing this article, Gisela said they were no longer running the food truck. Any mention of food truck in the article refers to prior operations.
As the operation grew, they faced personnel issues. Speaking about finding the right person or the right people to help them man the units and manage it all, Quinton cautions:
[Relying on] family and friends is a bad idea. [You run the risk of] a lack of professionalism. The best way to go [when you grow] is to find someone who has an investment in the success, a stakeholder.
Gisela added that it is important to be organized, in fact, “very organized.”
- the name
- the product: well-known NY-style frankfurter — “Sabretts™ are better for boiling, Nathan’s™ are better if grilled!”
- unique menu of healthy toppings
- incorporating internet technologies
- being more mobile than the other mobile guys
- using widely-accepted best business practices
- connecting local business with community and educational organizations
We’ll talk more about location and marketing a little further down.
Rolling Over Geographical Boundaries
As mentioned earlier, Columbia, South Carolina is not a huge metropolis. Although the competition is not extremely fierce, locations are still a premium commodity. This is partially due to unfriendly city ordinances and negative attitudes of restaurant owners. These situations alone necessitate innovative action on the part of pushcart and foodtruck owners.
A universal concern to small business owners who operate mobile vending units is the unpredictability of the weather and the small seasonal window through which their profits come. Painfully aware of the need to open that window as wide as it will open, you could say Quinton and Gisela don’t let any grass grow under their feet.
And Then There’s REALLY Mobile!
Spring Break on college campuses is one of those windows of opportunity. They took the photo above in Pananma City, Florida — a few hundred miles away fromtheir home base — after hitching up their hotdog cart and driving down to Florida during one university’s Spring Break. From the looks of it, New York’s Famous Hotdogs was the life of the campus party.
Maybe they’re a bit more mobile than the other mobile vending guys?
This is a key differentiator for this small vending outfit. Being ready, willing, and able to both go with the flow and do things differently is a game-changer, helping them leap over income-shrinking hurdles like strident city ordinances, unfriendly restauranteers and uncontrollable weather.
Blessed with huge helpings of personal determination and entrepreneurial mindsets, Whipper and Kloess use every tool at their disposal to set their vending business apart, including social media, social networking, and daily deals online. We’ll take a closer look at their approach in the next article in the series.
Share Your Thoughts
Here’s the running question: This question stands: Have you ever considered vending as an economic development activity to earn income, prime the small business pump for your family, neighborhood, and wider community?
Share what’s on your mind in the comments below. Thanks for reading and thanks to Gisela and Quinton for talking with me! Drop by the New York’s Famous Hotdogs FaceBook page to say hello.
Credits: Photos courtesy of Gisela Kloess and Quinton Whipper, New York’s Famous Hotdogs, Columbia, SC. Used with permission. All trademarks, service marks, trade names, trade dress, product names and logos appearing on the site are the property of their respective owners, including Sabrett™ and Nathan’s™ Famous Frankfurters, Groupon™, Living Social™ and DealChicken™.
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