The coffee culture has a habit of reinventing itself. The first generation of weak and bitter brew was eclipsed by experimental roasters such as Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley who developed a dark roasted, stronger tasting and altogether more nuanced bean while introducing the espresso based drink to millions. This second wave has now been so dominant that a high quality coffee shop is now a virtual requirement in any commercial retail development. Near the beginning of this century Oakland based Blue Bottle was experimenting with a light roasted bean to emphasize flavor and variety. They quickly moved on to selling from a mobile cart and soon a number of unique retail stores. Dubbed the third wave this movement not only emphasizes the provenance of the bean, quality of roast and brew, but also strives to create an experience around these elements. Small coffee shops around the world are exploring very personal and carefully crafted environments for their customers to get their coffee fix.
In parallel an equally important food culture has matured which has removed the obstacle of the brick and mortar and brought high quality eating to the streets. Parking lots, boulevards, breweries, and parks have now become activated urban food experiences thanks to the food truck. From a business owner perspective the allure of being a part of the mobile business culture is twofold. Upfront costs are a fraction of starting a brick and mortar and there is no landlord. Secondly they can serve a broader set of clients and have more flexible hours.
The third wave of coffee has so far made limited inroads into the mobile food market for a number of reasons, but the time is coming as customer’s expectations for mobile coffee will match what they get when they visit their favorite local coffee venue. While a few mobile coffee vendors have made a mark for themselves, current food truck infrastructure is simply inadequate. The first issue is the atmosphere, I don’t mean this just figuratively but quite literally.
Energy: Due to the energy intensive nature of a commercial espresso machine, grinders, brewers, and refrigeration most opt for a sizable generator to handle to electrical load. The fumes and noise acutely undermine the value of a quality coffee experience.
Aesthetics: Third wave coffee is very much defined by design principles which support the customer’s immersion into the craft of coffee. Go into your favorite coffee shop and you’ll find the equipment front and center. Food trucks by their nature are tall so interactions are limited and compounded by small windows which detach the operators from the customers.
Productivity: There are two dominant types of mobile coffee rigs. Bikes and mobile carts typically serve pourovers which severely limits the options and are low productivity. Walk up vans lack the natural setup of a full service coffee work space and tend to have customers clump around the barista.
As part of the coffee culture’s history of reinvention, we felt challenging the food truck service is an ideal challenge. With Sol Coffee we opted to strip a 1979 Toyota Dolphin Camper to its frame and tackle each of these issues to ensure a high quality coffee experience can translate to a mobile design with good productivity and be architecturally engaging using the coffee shop experience as the frame of reference.
Eliminating the generator is the first step. By optimizing the roof we added 1400 watts of solar panel which is more than enough to run the truck all day after an initial battery charge. We treat the experience like being at a bar so the entire back opens revealing the operation and covers the patrons. By removing the center frame we lowered the floor to provide for a more direct eye connection between the barista and customer. The lever pull double group espresso machine can run in three fuel modes to maximize production and also provides a very smooth shot and is visually engaging, similar to the first Blue Bottle cart. The work station is a U shaped counter layout allowing productivity to match a small retail operation. We have been able to handle 50 drinks an hour with minimal wait times. Lastly the truck’s design is unique and anyone who approaches it knows there is something special happening there.
The innovation and refinement of the Third Wave needs to be brought to the street with similar experiments, providing more opportunities for coffee operators to run a viable, environmentally sensitive, and forward thinking business while deepening the coffee culture.