[image-1] “It’s 100 percent the cute factor. I’m not gonna lie.” Jay Bennett is frank about his customer’s attraction to his Drank Tank business. Selling cold brew, kombucha, and nitro cold brew from Charleston Tea Plantation out of the back of a baby blue 1964 Cushman Truckster draws customers as much for the novelty as for the beverages. An offshoot of the food truck trend, adorable drink-vending vehicles are a business approach more local entrepreneurs are capitalizing on.
[image-2] Theresa Wolf’s Chug-a-Lug Wagon is essentially the same idea as Bennett’s only in an Italian Piaggio Ape form. Seeing opportunities in the event market from her French Eclectic furniture staging business, Wolf knew that an adorable wine truck could be a big sell. So she had had a 1991 Piaggo Ape tricked out with a tap cooling system, glass cupboard doors, and a splash of charming white paint and gave it a roll.
Her instincts were been right. Wolf got mad love from High Water stars, even scoring a photo with headliner Cary Ann Hearst herself and now Bennett, who’s traded tiny truck notes with the Wolf, says Wolf’s left her Johns Island Farmers Market post due to demand, which in a mutually beneficial twist has cleared the way for Drank Tank to take her place.
And really it’s no wonder these itty bitty businesses are doing well. Science tells us that humans are defenseless in the face of cute.
According to a 2006 New York Times story, “studies suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex.” Which would account for the squeals of delight that accompany seeing one of these trucks in the wild. Based on a super scientific poll within the CP office, I can attest that a mere glimpse of a photo of a bespoke bev cart can trigger “oohs and ahhs” — even one that operates manually.
[image-3] For instance, Sweet Lulu’s custom built beer bike. Owner Karen Moran’s new pedal pub, which she lovingly dubbed Pedro, is a charming two-tap bike that can serve beer, wine or cocktails.
In addition to her Sweet Lulu’s mobile bakery and forthcoming bakery storefront at 49 Archdale, Moran added “Pedro” to her posse to take advantage of this city’s booming event market.
[image-4] And then, of course, there’s O.G. Sassyass Coffee’s Espresso-A-Go-Go. In 2015, Sheri Johnson and Mike Berndt introduced Charlestonians to the city’s first mobile coffee shop, a bicycle outfitted with an espresso machine.
The Starbucks vets ditched the corporate life to make macchiatos on their own, setting up their coffee bike at the Marion Square Farmers Market and on King Street, and three years into the biz Johnson agrees with Bennett that it was and still is all about the cute factor.
“The cute aesthetic 100 percent helps,” says Johnson. “I watch it all day long. I see people putting their cameras down because they don’t want me to see them taking pictures. I used to write on my sign, ‘Go ahead and hashtag that picture we just saw you take.’ It helps a lot. It will make people stop.”
But even with their successful business model, Johnson says they’re not about to build a fleet of espresso bikes.
“It’s been amazingly rewarding and also terrifying and hard every day. There are things we didn’t think about like how much we’d be at the mercy of the weather. When it rains we can’t work. We’re not a in a truck, we only have an umbrella. If its too windy we can’t work because our espresso blows away. We genuinely didn’t think that would be a factor or to have chase cups and sleeves down the street when it’s windy.”
And then there’s Charleston summer heat. “It gets so damn hot, our cups and lids literally melt. When we first started we got all compostable lids, but they started composting on the cart.”
That’s not to mention the general challenge of owning and operating an espresso bike. Unlike the Chug-a-Lug Wagon and the Drank Tank — which both go roughly 35 miles per hour but are generally towed to their respective locations — Berndt bikes the Espresso-A-Go-Go to all of their locations.
“We had it built with an electric assist but that broke so Mike has to huff it,” Johnson says. Some treks are so taxing, Sassyass has to take a day off just so Berndt can recover.
“We did a wedding at Edmund’s Oast and after Mike hit a pot hole and crashed the cart into someone’s SVU. Thankfully our insurance covered the minimal damage,” adds Johnson.
So yeah, cute can cost ya, but even with all the repairs and bruises, Johnson will be the first to tell you going twee has been worth it.
“It’s completely unlike either of us to throw caution to the wind and do something like this. I mean, we’re adult baristas, we’re not really go getters. But the fact that we made this happen is still mind boggling. Every day we meet someone new who not only is blown by the cuteness of the bike but by our coffee and that makes it worth it.”