The inventive mobile businesses of Yorkshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 July 2020 | UPDATED: 11:57 27 July 2020
From pizza and prosecco trucks to a campervan cafe, it turns out there’s a lot you can pack into a van business. We talk to Yorkshire’s mobile marvels who are ready to hit the road again
The unrivalled freedom that comes with running a business from a moving vehicle was a huge draw for Suzie Hamilton, who set up Cobble Kitchen six years ago at the age of 25. ‘We can cater anywhere – as long as you can drive there (we have a generator and water supply), we can open up and become a cafe within an hour,’ she explains.
Having completed cookery school, Suzie realised that having permanent premises came with a lot of overheads and her boyfriend suggested looking into the option of vintage vans. What started as a van on wheels to take to events soon turned into a permanent residence Monday to Friday at Broughton Hall in Skipton. Before lockdown, Cobble Kitchen was serving lunch every day there, as well as doing events of all different types.
But since then Suzie’s little kitchen has played its own frontline role. ‘Our summer events all got cancelled one by one, so that was our two main revenue streams all gone within days. I come from a medical family so we were getting clear messages from the frontline about how serious this was and out of respect for them I wanted to follow the rules to stay at home – it wasn’t worth carrying on just for the sake of selling some sandwiches,’ she says.
It was hard adjusting so I looked for volunteering work to do and we did our best delivering as much as we could afford to the local food bank. But lockdown became the new normal and I realised that maybe taking a break wasn’t such a bad thing; we got our government grants and it put it in perspective of how serious this all was.’
A few weeks ago Suzie got a call asking if she would be interested in helping to start up a hot meal delivery service for the charity Age UK North Yorkshire.
‘They needed someone to cook and the meals would be collected and delivered by volunteers. It felt like fate,’ says Suzie.
‘I was starting to think about the future of the business and how we were ever going to get back to normal and be able to pay all the bills which were slowly creeping in. I couldn’t just sit and watch my business go down the plughole. This was the perfect opportunity to be able to go back to work, give some structure to my life and do something really worthwhile,’ she explains.
The initiative started at the head office of Age UK North Yorkshire in Darlington, where they have a cafe for older people which is a lifeline. Since its closure they have set up a delivery service which has been rolled out in Richmond, Leyburn and Skipton.
‘A lot of their clients have low mobility, limited kitchens or are simply unable to make themselves a hot meal. For some it is the only hot meal they will eat. I couldn’t say no,’ says Suzie.
‘People can order each morning via head office and I get sent a list at 11.30am of orders which I then cook and put in hotboxes and leave at the door for volunteers to collect and deliver. The project will be continuing as lockdown rules for over 70s look to stay in place for most of the year and I will keep on cooking for as long as I can. I am very lucky this got handed to me and I’m so enjoying it! I’m glad I could put my skills and kitchen to use for something so worthwhile.’
Suzie’s van has always been a space to express herself. ‘You can’t fail to be in a good mood in that van. I love writing the blackboards and picking up vintage oddities on our travels. There’s always a problem that needs solving too and a leak that needs fixing, so I’ve had to learn so many new skills.’
The van itself was a central part of Suzie’s business decisions. ‘My partner and I did a lot of research. The key part is that you have to be able to stand up in it so that narrows down the selection a lot, especially if you want a vintage one,’ she explains. ‘My family found a dealer in Wales of Citroen H vans, so we went for a visit and I ended up buying one, and then spent six months converting it on my parents’ driveway. We went for a DIY conversion, so everything was homemade or recycled as opposed to having it professionally fitted out.’
Although Suzie may not have envisaged this unusual career path, perhaps it was always written in the stars. ‘My dad is a huge vintage car enthusiast, so we grew up with loads of different and unusual cars on the driveway,’ she remembers. ‘We went on vintage car rallies all the time, so he still helps me upkeep the van. Marcel (my van) is an original 1955, so he is 65 this year and still looking like new!
‘The van has brought people together as well – all my staff are now my best friends, and my mum helps me out too which has given us lots of unforgettable quality time and memories.’
THE LITTLE SILVER BULLET BAR
Louise Reynolds and Nikki Carter are the owners of the Little Silver Bullet Bar, an incredibly cool Airstream trailer that roams its way around the streets of Market Weighton. Having always liked the idea of breaking into the sociable hospitality industry, Louise and Nikki set about making it a reality when they saw a gap in the market for mobile businesses in the street food market.
Louise grew up in the hospitality industry when her father ran a few nightclubs and restaurants in the 80s. ‘I’m a bit of a foodie and I’d seen the way the street food industry was growing and thought it was something we could be involved in,’ she says.
Louise and Nikki wanted the van to really pack a punch and get people talking about it.
‘I stumbled across a company that imports Airstream trailers and does them up, and it all went from there. People love the Airstream and it’s very pretty, so we get lots of selfies taken next to it. It’s a prop to photos, and we can be flexible with the way it’s decorated so it can work with any colour scheme.’
The business initially started out as a street food van with the pair still work full-time alongside. When this got too much, and still wanting to continue their success and feed their passion for travelling, they decided to focus on being a mobile bar.
Today, the Little Silver Bullet Bar covers all sorts of events from parties or weddings, to corporate events and smaller festivals. ‘We don’t like to say that we’re purely a gin or prosecco bar because we can be flexible,’ says Louise. ‘We can do anything from real ales to specialist rums and we want to be as flexible as people want.’
Like many, their business was a casualty of coronavirus.
‘Obviously, things have been really uncertain during this time and a lot of the bookings we’ve had have been postponed’, says Louise.
‘We’ve just got to play it by ear. We’re open to being very flexible, we’re happy for changes in dates and anything that we can accommodate. You’ve got to muck in together as you just don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re looking forward to next year and hoping that we don’t come down with a second wave – trying to be open minded and go with the flow.’
She adds: ‘We might have to tighten our belt for the time being, but we just have a pause on life at the moment. It may seem like the end of the world for a lot of people and don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people have it much harder than I have, but it’s important to see the silver linings and you’ve got to keep hope – everything we got through in the past, we got through and we will get through this.’
They will return to their ethos of championing local produce and the Yorkshire community.
‘We’re in contact with a lot of local producers,’ says Nikki. ‘We are vegans as well, so we know a lot about different vegan wines.’
Louise and Nikki love the fact that the Airstream gives them freedom with their plans for the future of the business. As trends develop, they can move the business forward offering different products alongside the changing landscapes that they travel to.
Of course, the flexibility of premises and working location was a huge perk too. ‘I definitely think we love the flexibility of it, yeah, and being able to go anywhere and enjoy what we’re doing for a job is amazing,’ smiles Louise.
Bradford couple Rhiannon and John Lucas are founders of Flowing Events which incorporates Fancy Flutes bar in their small Piaggio Ape and a VeeDub Camper bar in an old VW Campervan.
It all stemmed from humble beginnings. Where the husband and wife duo used to only take their personal van for family holidays, now the vans in their life have turned into a fruitful business too – working perfectly alongside their love for escaping, adventures and the open road.
‘We were on a 15-hour drive back from Austria in our modern VW Transporter, and we started chatting about going back to reality and how we’d love to look at other things we could do that could give us a fun element to work and life too. I started looking at things we could do on a weekend and happened to fall upon these vans for sale (the dangers of Google and long journeys!),’ explains Rhiannon.
‘We went and looked at them and fell in love. The van life was already embedded in our DNA, we enjoy the outdoors and the adventure so to be able to take on a 50-year-old vehicle and use it to bring a smile to someone’s face really hit home to us as something we would love to do.’
But it was Rhiannon’s love and passion for old cars that really fuelled them to take the leap. ‘I’ve had classic cars historically,’ she says. ‘So, the classic campervan is exciting for me and I love that it’s useful, it’s doing something, and it get us out to events meeting people. I love that it puts a smile on people’s faces and that we are there to bring joy to others.’
It was this social element of mobile businesses that really appealed to the couple. ‘We are very social people and enjoy seeing people smile, have fun and we like to think that we can help that process,’ says John. ‘We go out of our way to make sure our service is the best that we can do.’
For them the lockdown has had a real impact.
‘Obviously we’ve had no events at all and our bookings have all postponed, says John.
‘But next year is looking quite good already – it has also really made people plan ahead so 2022 is actually looking really busy too, which is great! People are still really upbeat even about their weddings that have moved, so we’ve got lots to look forward to.
‘It’s given us the time to work on marketing and social media and raising our profile a bit. It’s also let us look at ways that we can utilise our equipment. We’ve got transportable beer equipment which includes a cooler and a keg, so if people just want beer on tap but not the whole van for something like a house party, then they can hire this in,’ he adds.
The quirky beauty of the vehicles draws people in.
‘The vans get people talking over a drink and the fact that there is history to the vehicles draws people in even more, from enthusiasts to the general public,’ he explains.
‘The VW Camper is a 1969 early bay model and it was originally converted by Stella Artois to launch one of their products in the UK.
‘We’ve been all the way up to Glasgow with it and down to Norfolk, we love the freedom. It’s a completely different way of travelling because the old van can only drive 45–50mph so it’s very chilled out but nice to go back to basics. You get the horns a lot in appreciation for the history of the van.’
FIRED UP PIZZA CO.
Rob Norbury called on his skills as a craftsman -and grafter - to ensure that Wakefield-based Fired Up Pizza Co. became a unique buziness. Originally a joiner and builder by trade, Rob combines the two and on weekends, you’ll find him all around the county serving woodfired pizza, a business he set up with a challenge in mind.
‘I’d like to say it was because I love pizza,’ he laughs. ‘But it was more the process of cooking wood fired pizza and the fact that it was a bit different that I found interesting.’
For Rob, perhaps the biggest draw to this career path was the hands-on, creative element of getting the vans on the road. He loves to do the conversions of the vehicles himself. It’s clear in the design of his vans. Rob really wanted the oven to be a big feature for people to enjoy – he knew that this could help him stand out in the wedding market and Instagram world.
‘I wanted it to look different, so we started with the van with the wood front and I shopped around for a nice white pizza oven. After the first year, we were getting enquiries for dates that were already booked up, so I asked my wife if we should get another one. She said no,’ he laughs.
‘But I’d spotted a cheap horsebox on eBay and decided to buy it! I converted it all myself and kept in mind that a lot of our weddings are in barns or fields, so the horsebox matches that rustic look.’
This wasn’t enough to calm Rob’s creative juices though. ‘I spotted a 1970s French fire truck on eBay,’ he smiles. ‘It was a horrible red colour and had rust everywhere – it needed a lot of work, but it was pretty cool.
‘I did a lot of the bodywork and picked a pizza oven out that matched our original ones. When I got the vehicle, there was a logbook inside the glovebox from when it was used as a fire engine, and it was stamped with an old ink stamp – the logo on the side of the van is that blown up.’
The high-standard finish that Rob has achieved, and the interesting history are also talking points and draw customers in. ‘We had a wedding last year where the bride’s dad and grandad were firemen, so that was a really nice link,’ he tells me. ‘The van is a conversation starter, totally unique and people like to hear about the history of it.’
Artisan pizza, especially in the wood fired form, has had something of a boom over recent years and Rob loves the fact that they were a part of it from the beginning.
‘When we started, there were only two well recognised businesses doing something similar in the area,’ he says. ‘It means we’ve got a name and people recommend us. Some of the other vans will recommend us if they can’t do it which is nice – there’s a community aspect to it.’
I wonder what Rob loves the most about his pride and joy. ‘We’ve turned up to teepee weddings in the middle of nowhere with the best view you can imagine,’ he beams.
Coronavirus has taken its toll for now, but Rob knows it’s not forever. ‘It’s completely wiped out all of the trade for the pizza vans this year, but luckily I don’t owe anything on it and don’t really have any overheads when it’s not running – I’m just not making a wage for myself. That’s been a massive lifesaver.
‘We’ve been focused on working well with everyone around us as best we can to postpone everything for next year. So next year should just be double what it was, so a very busy year!
‘We haven’t charged any brides anything extra to move their dates around for next year, which has been important to us. ‘I’m excited to get going again. I don’t see the point in stressing about it, as there’s really nothing anyone can do about the situation.’
The Gin Wagon
Particularly on-trend with the recent gin movement, this unique vintage van is a 1974 Bedford horsebox that serves tipples to people in and around the Sheffield area.
The Pie Pod
Award-winning Pie-jackers will bring their very tasty artisan pies to your party or gathering in their super cool retro silver bullet trailer and serve them up with mushy peas and mash.
Known as the North East’s original VW Photobooth for hire, this is a great option if you want to add a fun and very Instagrammable prop to your party.
The Lost Flip Flop Coffee
It doesn’t get much more Yorkshire than this converted Land Rover coffee van. Found serving high-quality, freshly ground coffee around the East Ridings, this Land Rover 110 Pick Up is pretty fun.
Specialising in Neo-Neapolitan style pizza, this York-based mobile van looks fantastic and its produce tastes second to none too!