A Retail Spin on the Food-Truck Model

New York City artist Luz Azul

New York City artist Luz Azul also took his show on the road this year; his colorful Marco Art Truck is both a "point of sale" and a rolling billboard advertising his availability to do painting events--he can roll up with a big canvas with the outline of a painting that children can color in or he can sell coupons good for one of his own limited-edition pieces to be auctioned for charity. "It's a great vehicle, literally, for my creativity," he says.

Marco, as he is known, owned galleries on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for 15 years until he felt driven out by development. He bought an old ice cream truck on Craigslist last November "for a couple of grand" and then put it together piece by piece, bartering and calling in favors to acquire new tires, suspension and electrical systems and to cut in a new window before launching May 1. The exterior features his design done in weatherproof vinyl by a sign company. He refuses to say how much he spent beyond describing it as "G money" (that is, thousands).

Still, he describes the process of getting the truck ready to roll as painful, because of the level of detail involved and, now, the uncertainties. "You have no idea what you're getting into--it's like buying a house," he says. "Would I do it again? Probably not." Sales "really depend upon the day, the crowd, the weather, the time of day, whether it's a weekday or weekend, but on a good day it might be a couple of Gs, on a bad, 100 bucks." He sells small prints and silkscreens from the truck, but his paintings generally command $2,500 to $10,000, depending on the size and complexity.

Coincidentally, Marco started selling his work on the street, back in the late 1980s, just down the block from where the Cookies-n-Cream truck now parks. But now Marco is on the move, two to three days a week. He does not have a vendor's license because the city does not require one for street sales of paintings (or, for that matter, for photographs or sculptures). He intends to run through the holidays, then either put the truck in "dry dock" or take it on the road to Miami.

Like any mobile vendor, Marco could not succeed without social media. He tweets his location, from Lincoln Center to Park Slope, and is on Facebook. "You gotta hustle," he says. "Unlike a store, where you sit and hope someone comes in, you can go to the people." So he parks, throws open the side window, sets up paintings on the sidewalk and soon lures over "people walking by who go, ‘Whoa--art! cool!'"

He also notes that he is selling more than an object, especially if he is painting: "It's interactive--I get as much from my customers as they do from me."

And that is part of the allure for the Cookies-n-Cream team, too.

"We go to the people as opposed to the people coming to us," says Ladejobi, a twentysomething who goes by Scrills and works in commodities during the day. "People enjoy creativity; it's like we're giving an experience, not like a mall T-shirt."

The truck's name comes from the partners' fondness for sweets and their goal of having fun while running their sideline business. Johnathan Sinclair is a producer for BBC documentaries while Peterson (P Loch) Lochard is studying for law school in the spring. Their last enterprise, a hip-hop television station on the Internet, failed for lack of backing.

By contrast, they have customers offering to invest in the truck. Not only that, they can afford to decline, having recouped 70 percent of their startup costs in the first two months of business.

Their online store, BakedinNY.com, sells tees and collectible toys designed by artists for $35 to $200. And they stage a networking party every Friday night on the Lower East Side, with free admission and music.

"We sell cool," says Sinclair, who wants to a build a Cookies-n-Cream culture like Google's or Starbucks'.

Along with giving every buyer Internet fame with a photograph on their website, they throw in a bottle of water, juice or energy drink. They boast that most of their products are made in the U.S., which helps with sales, and that they have turned down offers to sell their tees in stores.

"You can't find them with 30 or 40 brands in a store. This is cooler," Scrills says.

Doing business on the street on weekends feels more like a party, they say, than an extension of the workweek. Sinclair, a DJ who goes by Jon Blak, puts together the soundtrack and hopes to build a franchise with trucks in Miami, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Quebec or Toronto. "People ask when the truck's coming to their town," he says. But for now, they're holding out because they're enjoying having total control.

And, of course, as Scrills says: "If we took a dollar from every tourist who takes a picture of the truck, we'd be millionaires by now."

Regina Schrambling is a writer in New York City.

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This article was originally published in the November 2010 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Four Wheels and Style to Burn.

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