Cart life

Running a mobile coffee wagon is many people’s dream, but what is the reality? Caffeine abandoned its heated office and comfortable chair for three days to find out. Photo Leanne Bracey

Since the launch of Caffeine, we’ve fielded emails and phone calls from people asking for advice about opening a coffee business. Some of those queries have been specifically about operating coffee carts. It seems a lot of people have romantic notions of serving sleepy commuters on crisp early mornings and getting home in time for lunch. Or are trying to work around increasing high street rents.

But what is working on a coffee cart really like? In the interests of journalistic integrity, we decided to find out for ourselves, working with Lukaz and Mike on the Flat Cap coffee carts in London’s Borough Market.

Wake-up call

A 5am alarm isn’t a normal part of our daily routine – that’s usually reserved for early holiday flights and being woken by the kids on Christmas Day – but for the next few days, we’ll be joining the surprisingly large number of workers who are up and out of their houses at this ungodly hour. It seems if you want a career in mobile coffee service, you had better get used to early mornings.

We don’t actually get our (packed) train until 6.30am, but people who operate coffee carts at or near train stations, like Daniel from Blueprint Coffee in Whitstable, need to be there even earlier. “I set up at 5.30am and finish at 9am or 10am in summer,” he says. “We serve a couple of hundred drinks across three hours, so it’s very busy.” El Cerrato, manager of the Brighton station cart for Small Batch Coffee Roasters, agrees. “Brighton station is busy from 6am when we open through to 2pm when we close, so the time flies. Before you get cold or bored, you’re normally packing down and finishing.”

We arrive at Borough Market at 7am to set up. It’s rather more involved than simply opening a door and switching the lights on. For a start, we have to wheel the two barrows from the other side of the market where they’re held overnight. Negotiating a heavy wooden cart with an espresso machine and two grinders weighing in excess of 100kg over cobbles takes technique. And it doesn’t always go to plan, as the self-styled Anarchista Barista from Black Chapel Coffee in Wandsworth reveals. “I let a £2,000 coffee bar with a La Marzocco FB80 roll down a first-floor parking ramp – it almost fell in the dock outside the ExCel. I got in front of it and it almost ran me down.”

With our water bottles filled, milk retrieved and coffee dialed in, we are ready for business by 8.30am.

Storm brewing

Our first day is pretty quiet. Whether this is because people are trying to cut their caffeine habits in the New Year or aren’t feeling as flush after the Christmas financial binge, trading is definitely down according to Mike. This is a blessing for us novices in some ways, but the problem with not being busy is the constant reminder of how cold you are.

Almost all baristas who have worked on carts say the weather is the biggest challenge. El started on the Brighton station cart in October 2014 and while she’s enjoyed it, she recalls some unpleasant days too. “Obviously working outside has challenges. The wind is not my friend! Learning how to make coffee in gale force winds was quite a challenge and often necessitates hastily constructed cardboard barriers.”

Mikel from Mouse Tail agrees that wind is the most difficult weather to contend with on a cart. “I’ve seen five grown men struggling to hold down a marquee, rain flying horizontally and hundreds of pounds flying off with the wind. My thick Estonian skin can take -2°C and the rain doesn’t really bother me, but the wind definitely stirred things up. I have to park the van in the right direction if I know it’s going to be windy, otherwise I’d have espresso and cups flying around everywhere. Pouring latte art in the wind is definitely pretty challenging.

Nicole Ferris from Climpson & Sons thinks it’s so tough, it should be a new Olympic sport. “Wind Tunnel Latte Art competition. Basically, it’s a honed skill when you have the wind whipping through while you are trying to create the perfect dairy doodle.”

Thankfully, while it is outdoors, Borough Market isn’t as exposed to the elements, the surrounding stalls and the train tracks overhead providing shelter. Lizzie Bain of Ozone Coffee Roasters remembers a time when she worked a coffee cart in Wellington, New Zealand. “I got really fat from eating muffins and drinking hot chocolates just trying to stay warm. Anyone from Wellington knows Tory Street is a notorious wind tunnel – one day the whole side of the cart just got ripped off by the wind. Luckily no one was hurt.”

Even though the weather is mild for early January, it isn’t comfortable – working at a desk every day doesn’t prepare you for being on your feet for 10 hours, and we come home with pains in places we didn’t know we had. Getting used to someone else’s equipment has caused a swollen hand and what feels like the beginnings of RSI, and it proved seriously tricky to use a commercial espresso machine and steam milk on a bigger set-up. These things pump out a lot more steam than the average home set-up. And after all that, the cart at Borough Market has to be packed down, cleaned and wheeled back into the lockup.

And that was just day one.

Star struck

One thing that makes up for the weather is that, on the whole, the customers are pretty nice. There’s some cheerful banter and regulars are greeted like old friends. “Customers make your day and we have some really sweet ones,” says El. “I’m a sucker for celebrity-watching and am lucky that’s I’ve got a few among my regulars. The amazing and always happy Dave Lamb – the voice of Come Dine With Me – gives me a hug every time he visits and it makes my day. David Dimbleby is another regular. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to chat with him just because he has such a presence, but hearing him laugh was gold.”

In Borough Market, the majority of the customers are tourists, which leads to some interesting observations. For one, we realise during our second day that we serve a lot of espressos – more than you’d expect in a British café. For another, Italian customers aren’t used to brown sugar. Despite such cultural differences, we find that all customers really want the same thing – great coffee (in this case, a crowd-pleasing natural Brazilian espresso from Notes). “So many people pass through, but when one of them comes back to say that was the nicest coffee they’ve had, it really makes you smile from ear to ear,” says El.

Another aspect of having a cart in Borough Market is the relationship with the market traders. Working at the best coffee stand, you make a lot of friends and soon realise the art of bartering is alive and well. Climpson cart manager Davide Ventura backs this up. “After a couple of weeks, you get to know everyone working around you and that allows you to build relationships and create your market family.” Next time you’re in a market, ask the coffee guys where they eat – it’s likely to be the best there is. In our three days at Borough Market, we ate like kings.

Can we fix it?

By day three, we’re in the swing of it – we’ve finally hit on the right clothing and footwear to keep us warm and comfortable, and Lukaz is very pleased with some 13-tog socks he’s ordered. Unfortunately, though, the machinery is having an off day. This happens, and the best baristas are those who can adapt to the situation. “Occasionally in very cold weather, the plumbing underneath our bar freezes over,” says Matt Ho from Tottenham-based Craving Coffee. “The only way we’ve found to counteract this is to boil a kettle of water and draw the warm water through the flojet to defrost the pipes. It can be quite a challenge to be up and running in time for our first customers.”

Mouse Tail’s Mikel worked for some time from a Piaggio Ape. “I never knew what I was walking into when I entered the garage in the mornings,” he says. “Every couple of weeks I had to replace the spark plugs on the little scooter. You’d often find the machine wouldn’t heat up, or the pump wouldn’t function. Almost every day I’d be put on the spot – I learned to think fast and improvise.”

Thankfully, most things can be fixed by a switched-on barista, but sometimes it’s more serious. On a rainy Saturday in 2013, Edy Piro of Terrone & Co in Hackney arrived at work to find a blackened box where his container used to be. “A neighbouring shack had caught fire overnight and the blaze had spread to ours. Inside, we found a tangled mess of plastic and a completely destroyed grinder. But thanks to the kindness of the coffee community, we were lent a new grinder and machine, and were able to reopen the following week.”

At the end of our final day, we head home surrounded by the lingering aroma of coffee and spend the next few days scouring the United Baristas website for secondhand espresso machines and grinders. We may have caught the bug, so look out for Caffeine serving coffee at a market soon… when it’s warmer.