As a coffee shop on wheels, mobile coffee carts bring caffeination to unexpected places. People often hire them for a variety of events, such as weddings or corporate parties. You’ll also find them at farmers markets, artisan fairs, and street fairs. This type of business provides a specialty product along with a unique experience, taking the place of a bar for daytime activities or at alcohol-free events.
Recommended: Read our full, in-depth How to Start a Coffee Shop Business guides, inspired by coffee professionals, they will help make your coffee dreams real, from sourcing beans to hiring baristas, choosing the best POS system, forming an actual company, and everything in between.
- Drip Coffee Carts: As the simplest option, drip coffee carts require minimal equipment. You can serve this type of coffee on a table as well as from a cart, which gives you options to save money on your start-up costs.
- Espresso Carts: These carts serve only espresso-based drinks, such as lattes and cappuccinos. While they require more equipment and a higher budget than drip coffee carts, espresso carts can generate more customer interest — especially in areas with a strong coffee scene.
- Combination Carts: These carts serve several types of coffee. It’s the most expensive option because it combines drip coffee and espresso drinks, which requires more equipment.
Determining which mobile coffee cart business will work best for you depends on your skill level, budget, and specific area of interest. To help inform your decision, this guide outlines the ins and outs of operating your own mobile coffee cart.
Learn how to start your own Mobile Coffee Cart and whether it is the right fit for you.
Ready to form your LLC? Check out the Top LLC Formation Services.
Start a mobile coffee cart by following these 10 steps:
- Plan your Mobile Coffee Cart
- Form your Mobile Coffee Cart into a Legal Entity
- Register your Mobile Coffee Cart for Taxes
- Open a Business Bank Account & Credit Card
- Set up Accounting for your Mobile Coffee Cart
- Get the Necessary Permits & Licenses for your Mobile Coffee Cart
- Get Mobile Coffee Cart Insurance
- Define your Mobile Coffee Cart Brand
- Create your Mobile Coffee Cart Website
- Set up your Business Phone System
We have put together this simple guide to starting your mobile coffee cart. These steps will ensure that your new business is well planned out, registered properly and legally compliant.
Exploring your options? Check out other small business ideas.
STEP 1: Plan your business
A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. It will help you map out the specifics of your business and discover some unknowns. A few important topics to consider are:
- What will you name your business?
- What are the startup and ongoing costs?
- How much can you charge customers?
Luckily we have done a lot of this research for you.
What will you name your business?
Choosing the right name is important and challenging. If you don’t already have a name in mind, visit our How to Name a Business guide or get help brainstorming a name with our Mobile Coffee Cart Name Generator
When registering a business name, we recommend researching your business name by checking:
- Your state's business records
- Federal and state trademark records
- Social media platforms
- Web domain availability.
It's very important to secure your domain name before someone else does.
What are the costs involved in opening a mobile coffee cart?
Start-up costs for a mobile coffee cart business are relatively low — around $16,000 — because, unlike coffee shops, you don’t require a physical space in which to operate. This amount includes licensing for one county, which can vary based on location so check with your local county or city administrative office. To further refine your starting budget, invest in only what you absolutely need. If you plan to serve coffee to go at your first few events, for example, don’t spend money on porcelain cups right away.
Here’s the essential equipment you’ll need to get started:
- Coffee Cart
- A Point-of-Sale (POS) system
- Espresso Machine*
- Drip Coffee Maker and Airpots*
- Serving Items (E.g., Pitchers, Stirrers, Cups, and Lids)
- Steaming Pitchers
- Handwashing Sink
- Water Pump for Your Coffee Maker
- Refillable 5 Gallon Water Jugs
- Drink Add-Ons (E.g., Syrups and Sugar)
*Depending on the type of coffee cart you plan to operate. If you only serve espresso, you don’t need a drip coffee maker. Likewise, you won’t need an espresso machine if you only serve drip coffee.
How does a mobile coffee cart make money?
Mobile coffee cart owners can operate their business in several ways: by selling cups of coffee, by renting their cart to clients with an open bar business model, or by offering a combination of both. The first option works well if you plan to operate at a farmers market or other event for which you personally rent a space and then sell coffee to attendees. The second option involves a client hiring your cart at a flat rate to provide an open bar service. The client pays for your time and product instead of individual attendees, and you can charge a set price by the hour. Finally, the third option involves some combination of renting your coffee cart to local companies and selling cups of coffee at farmers markets or other events.
Your sales volume will depend on the season, but this is a year-round gig for the most part. Summer, for example, will likely be your most profitable season because it typically features many weddings, markets, and fairs. Winter may be your next busiest season if you network enough to secure bookings for company parties. The in-between seasons likely will require diligent budgeting as you focus on promoting your business, booking future events, and working existing bookings.
How much can you charge customers?
To calculate what you should charge your clients and individual customers, consider the amount you invested or owe (e.g., if you took a loan to start your business) as well as your monthly expenses. For example, say you plan to pay $1,333 each month in order to repay a $16,000 loan within a year. If you also plan to book four events per month, you’ll need to make at least $333 per event to cover just your start-up costs.
If you plan to charge by the hour, consider setting a minimum time limit to ensure you can make enough money at each event. For events at which you’ll sell coffee by the cup, research the prices your local competitors charge. If the coffee shops in your area typically charge $3 for a shot of espresso, for example, you’ll know that’s a reasonable price point for your customers.
How much profit can a mobile coffee cart make?
After your initial investment, you can expect several ongoing business expenses. These include the cost of your product ingredients (e.g., coffee, milk, and syrups), water jugs (e.g., refillable five-gallon jugs), transportation costs like gas and insurance, and employee wages if you have any staff members.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Your profitability will depend on how many events you can book each month. The more events you book after you cover your monthly expenses, the more profit you can make.
You can boost your profits by booking bigger events, offering more items like food or tea drinks at an additional cost, or stocking in-demand coffees and other products to drive interest. If you only serve espresso drinks or drip coffee, another way to increase your profitability is to sell both to help attract more customers with an expanded set of offerings.
Want a more guided approach? Access TRUiC's free Small Business Startup Guide - a step-by-step course for turning your business idea into reality. Get started today!
STEP 2: Form a legal entity
Establishing a legal business entity such as an LLC or corporation protects you from being held personally liable if your mobile coffee cart is sued.
Form Your LLC
Read our Guide to Form Your Own LLC
Recommended: You will need to elect a registered agent for your LLC. LLC formation packages usually include a free year of registered agent services. You can choose to hire a registered agent or act as your own.
STEP 3: Register for taxes
You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
In order to register for taxes you will need to apply for an EIN. It's really easy and free!
There are specific state taxes that might apply to your business. Learn more about state sales tax and franchise taxes in our state sales tax guides.
STEP 4: Open a business bank account & credit card
Using dedicated business banking and credit accounts is essential for personal asset protection.
When your personal and business accounts are mixed, your personal assets (your home, car, and other valuables) are at risk in the event your business is sued. In business law, this is referred to as piercing your corporate veil.
Open a business bank account
Besides being a requirement when applying for business loans, opening a business bank account:
- Separates your personal assets from your company's assets, which is necessary for personal asset protection.
- Makes accounting and tax filing easier.
Recommended: Read our Best Banks for Small Business review to find the best national bank or credit union.
Get a business credit card
Getting a business credit card helps you:
- Separate personal and business expenses by putting your business' expenses all in one place.
- Build your company's credit history, which can be useful to raise money later on.
Recommended: Apply for an easy approval business credit card from BILL and build your business credit quickly.
STEP 5: Set up business accounting
Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
Make LLC accounting easy with our LLC Expenses Cheat Sheet.
STEP 6: Obtain necessary permits and licenses
Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
STEP 7: Get business insurance
Just as with licenses and permits, your business needs insurance in order to operate safely and lawfully. Business Insurance protects your company’s financial wellbeing in the event of a covered loss.
There are several types of insurance policies created for different types of businesses with different risks. If you’re unsure of the types of risks that your business may face, begin with General Liability Insurance. This is the most common coverage that small businesses need, so it’s a great place to start for your business.
Another notable insurance policy that many businesses need is Workers’ Compensation Insurance. If your business will have employees, it’s a good chance that your state will require you to carry Workers' Compensation Coverage.
STEP 8: Define your brand
Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
If you aren't feeling confident about designing your small business logo, then check out our Design Guides for Beginners, we'll give you helpful tips and advice for creating the best unique logo for your business.
If you already have a logo, you can also add it to a QR code with our Free QR Code Generator. Choose from 13 QR code types to create a code for your business cards and publications, or to help spread awareness for your new website.
STEP 9: Create your business website
After defining your brand and creating your logo the next step is to create a website for your business.
While creating a website is an essential step, some may fear that it’s out of their reach because they don’t have any website-building experience. While this may have been a reasonable fear back in 2015, web technology has seen huge advancements in the past few years that makes the lives of small business owners much simpler.
Here are the main reasons why you shouldn’t delay building your website:
- All legitimate businesses have websites - full stop. The size or industry of your business does not matter when it comes to getting your business online.
- Social media accounts like Facebook pages or LinkedIn business profiles are not a replacement for a business website that you own.
- Website builder tools like the GoDaddy Website Builder have made creating a basic website extremely simple. You don’t need to hire a web developer or designer to create a website that you can be proud of.
STEP 10: Set up your business phone system
Getting a phone set up for your business is one of the best ways to help keep your personal life and business life separate and private. That’s not the only benefit; it also helps you make your business more automated, gives your business legitimacy, and makes it easier for potential customers to find and contact you.
There are many services available to entrepreneurs who want to set up a business phone system. We’ve reviewed the top companies and rated them based on price, features, and ease of use. Check out our review of the Best Business Phone Systems 2023 to find the best phone service for your small business.
Recommended Business Phone Service: Phone.com
Phone.com is our top choice for small business phone numbers because of all the features it offers for small businesses and it's fair pricing.
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What happens during a typical day at a mobile coffee cart?
On days when your coffee cart supports an event, you’ll focus on serving your customers. This includes setting up your cart, making coffee, and providing excellent customer service. On the other days, you’ll need to focus on networking and promoting your business in order to find more events to which you can bring your cart.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful mobile coffee cart?
Running a successful mobile coffee cart requires business owners to excel in four areas:
- Coffee Knowledge: This is the most important skill to have before starting this type of business. You’ll need a strong understanding of how to extract espresso, steam milk, and build drinks as well as the ability to operate other coffee equipment, such as drip coffee makers.
- Adaptability: You’ll also need a high degree of flexibility to operate a business with a schedule that shifts every week and requires you to solve problems as they arise at events. Troubleshooting skills are essential when you’re on the go.
- Customer Service: This will take up the majority of your time and energy while you operate your cart. Whether you’re serving the client who hired you or their guests, you’ll need to provide a consistently outstanding customer experience.
- Networking: This is how you’ll find and book all the events you work. As such, you should feel confident in your ability to network with potential customers.
What is the growth potential for a mobile coffee cart?
The growth of your mobile coffee cart business depends partially on your availability and your networking skills. If you can book events consistently, your business will grow. As your cart’s popularity and brand recognition increase, you may consider turning your business into a brick- and-mortar coffee shop.
Take the Next Step
Find a business mentor
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Learn from other business owners
Want to learn more about starting a business from entrepreneurs themselves? Visit Startup Savant’s startup founder series to gain entrepreneurial insights, lessons, and advice from founders themselves.
Resources to Help Women in Business
There are many resources out there specifically for women entrepreneurs. We’ve gathered necessary and useful information to help you succeed both professionally and personally:
If you’re a woman looking for some guidance in entrepreneurship, check out this great new series Women in Business created by the women of our partner Startup Savant.
How and when to build a team
Starting out, this business won’t require much labor as long as you can set up your cart — and then take it down — alone. For high-volume events, such as a farmers market, you’ll need at least one other person to help you balance taking orders, handling payments, and making customers’ drinks. You should consider adding an additional person to your team once you start to book more events.