With its year-round tropical climate, myriad outdoor activities and a population thirsty for fine coffee, you would think Florida would be full of mobile java vendors.
But thanks to strict vending laws and a reluctance to work in the heat and humidity, outdoor food and beverage stations are limited to special events and selected areas.
One Largo man is trying to change that situation by operating the first, and currently only, mobile coffee cart in the state as one of the original franchisees of the BikeCaffe.
“About a year ago, I had an idea of buying a small restaurant,” said 34-year-old Mike Ash, who has been in the restaurant business since he was 14. “But after finding out how expensive it was going to be and realizing I would be stuck in one spot if it failed, I started looking into other options.”
Internet research combined with the growing food truck craze led Ash to a company called BikeCaffe. The concept is simple: A quad-style bicycle with a gourmet coffee machine attached combines the convenience of a food truck with the simplicity of a coffee stand.
“At first I thought it was expensive,” said Ash, who said franchise fees and start-up costs can run close to $35,000. “But then I realized it’s like owning a restaurant that you can take anywhere you want … so I decided to give it a try.”
Founded by entrepreneur Will Shakesheff in London, the American edition of BikeCaffe began in Colorado a couple of years ago and has since spread to a number of states. Ash was the first to purchase a franchise in Florida, and one of the initial five or 10 people to invest in the company.
“It feels pretty good, being the first one in the state,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to remain a secret for long.”
After purchasing the equipment and signing the franchise agreement, which Ash must honor for five years, Shakesheff himself delivered the components and trained Ash for three days on how to use the machines.
Before getting started, Ash had to get inspected by the Florida Department of Agriculture and apply for the appropriate vendor permits; in July he secured a spot outside of the BB&T bank building on the corner of Fourth Street and Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete, and he recently added the at the to his stops.
With nearly eight months of mobile vending under his belt, Ash says he is satisfied with his decision.
“I get a pretty good reaction from people, especially the first time they see it," he said. "It definitely helps bring people in. If it was just a normal coffee stand, I don’t think it would get this much attention.”
“If it ever fails, it’s not like I’m stuck with a brick-and-mortar location,” he added. “But I’m determined to make it work.”