have come a long way in their roughly 20 years in existence. Early on, carts were nothing more than "boxes on wheels" rolled out onto a city sidewalk. Today, carts have evolved into elaborate "kiosks" that support a range of functions and offer a variety of finishes that are right at home in upscale office buildings, hotels, and malls. With espresso gaining popularity just about everywhere you look in the U.S. alone, carts have become a highly efficient and attractive solution for many specialty coffee retailers.
Twenty years of manufacturing experience has brought about a growing array of cart styles and features. The surplus of options can make the task of choosing an espresso cart daunting, however sorting out the important details before you buy will only help you achieve success in your cart operation. We’ve provided some guidelines on what to look for in a cart as well as what to avoid in your search to help you get the most out of working an espresso cart.
Acceptance Is Everything
First on your "to do" list as a potential cart buyer and business owner is to consider the local approvals and permits you will need to operate an espresso cart at your desired location. Your local elec trical and health department jurisdictions will be involved in appraising your cart based on its ability to meet certain health and safety standards. Espresso carts are classified as "portable food vending units" by most health departments and as a rule, jurisdictions across the country have coordinated their codes so that requirement and restrictions are very similar. Exceptions to this rule include areas of Southern California that have unique requirements that cart owners should heed closely.
The process of seeking health department approval is the most critical phase of any cart project. To simplify this procedure you can look for a cart that meets standards most health departments will accept. Manufacturers of most commercial products offer equipment that has already been tested and certified to meet nationally recognized standards of UL (Underwriters Laboratories) and ETL (Electrical Testing Laboratories) which dictate product safety and electrical trustworthiness, and NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) that ensures adherence to sanitation and food safety standards. In a growing number of localities one or more of these certifications is required to operate a cart. Although some jurisdictions may not require these certifications now, they may in the future. Having your cart meet these standards may make it easier for you down the road when you decide to move to another location with different health department standards or if sell the cart to someone who will need to have it re-inspected in your current jurisdiction with updated requirements.
Be sure to consider that all the equipment that runs on your espresso cart will also require approval. The espresso machine, grinder and blenders, should be similarly marked with the appropriate ETL, UL and NSF certifications stickers stating they meet the same safety standards. Health inspectors can easily identify products that adhere to these certification standards and are more comfortable granting approvals for them.
When dealing with the health department, make it a priority to handle this process personally. Since approvals are based on property and equipment for which you will be responsible you’ll want to be involved every step of the way. You should deal with your health inspector to gain his/her confidence and eventual approval. Do not rely on a cart manufacturer to do this for you by telephone. Have the manufacturer provide thorough specifications that you can present to the health inspector prior to initiation of construction or payment of more than a deposit. You personally need to hear the inspector’s comments since you will be the person standing in front of the cart during final inspection and sign off.
Form Follows Function
Due to the similarities in health department requirements throughout the U.S., most espresso carts follow the same basic format: 3-feet by 6-feet footprint plus two 18-inch folding wings. They contain a small refrigerator centered between water utilities on one side with electrical plus storage on the other side. Inside almost every espresso cart, no matter what it looks like on the outside, is one of these 3-feet by 6-feet production modules. Most manufacturers who have been in the business for any time have evolved the most efficient layout for these basic utilities. Tinkering with this basic layout usually results in a negative trade off. For example, if you add more cup holders you lose almost all your discretionary storage space. Cup holders are only 1/4 as space efficient for storing cups as a rectangular cabinet, so you’d be losing more than you would gain. These types of space and operation considerations have typically been efficiently engineered by experienced manufactures to make the most of a compact space. If this is your first cart venture, stick with a good looking standard design rather than trying to design your own layout. After a year or two of cart operation select the two or three things that matter most and try to improve those only.
With cart layouts being about equal across the board, you should look for models that offer two things: structural integrity and high quality components. We’ll discuss the components a little later, but first let’s talk about structure.
The Nuts and Bolts
The quality and reliability of the cart structure is crucial to the cart’s longevity. Espresso carts are "mobile" by nature and often require moving. Even if your cart doesn’t move often, be warned that it will take a good deal of abuse. It will need to stand up to being tugged, scooted, bumped, rolled and leaned upon on a daily basis. Keeping in mind that all this prodding is endured while supporting a couple hundred pounds of equipment on the countertop alone, it’s no wonder why you need a very strong cart structure.
You can determine the structural strength and integrity of a cart by looking at its construction materials. While early cart designs were primarily constructed out of wood, today’s carts require metal-based construction. Wood is certainly a less expensive way to make a cart, however it will not always offer the durability or spill-resistance of metals like stainless steel or even aluminum. To get the most of your metal cart, make sure it has welded fittings rather than bolt-together components, which can loosen up over time.
The second category to scrutinize carefully on any cart is the quality of its components. Common cart components include a refrigerator, a sink, a water system and an electrical cabinet. While all espresso carts will have these, it is important to understand what you’re getting in each. The refrigerator should be of ample size to store your daily milk supply and capable of maintaining its temperature on busy and/ or warm days. Many UCR’s (under counter refrigerator) available are simply not designed to be in the tight confines of an espresso cart, which offers little ventilation for both intake and exhaust. Either "cold wall" construction or "full front breathing" refrigerators will provide the most efficient and reliable service. The sink should have two compartments and be easy to use and accessible for a busy barista. The cart’s water system, which will consist of fresh and waste water tanks, should be easy to fill and empty since this will likely be done several times per day. A commercial quality water filter will also come standard with the water system. The electrical cabinet should be separate from any other cabinet and house a breaker panel that will accommodate all the power needs for your cart. All the outlets, needed to run your equipment should be conveniently located inside the cart and will be routed to this panel. Make sure your cart has both enough electrical outlets and electrical capacity for growth either into a larger espresso machine or additional components.
Focus, Focus, Focus
There are plenty of other features you can opt for in an espresso cart like extra cup holders (as mentioned above), large capacity grounds dump box, stainless steel or solid surface tops and signage. Before you get started picking out any extra features for your espresso cart, decide what product you are offering first. Space will be severely limited so dedicate it to what you do best and what your customers want. Why devote 20% of your counter space to a granita machine if 92% of your volume is hot drinks? Don't cover the counter with a selection of 10 different bakery items only to keep running out of 3 selections because you don't have room to keep them in stock. A common mistake many cart seekers make is trying to do too much from their espresso cart. Overreaching your cart’s purpose results in crowding of its precious counter space with accessories and products that make for an inefficient workspace and overtaxed power supply. Cart operators will make business easier for themselves and better serve their customers by accepting the fact that a 6-foot espresso cart is not a reasonable substitute for a full service café. Focus on a few popular products you can make with consistency and excellence.
Roll It Away
A commitment to excellence and loyalty to your core products is a practice that any coffee retailer can benefit from. As a cart operator you will have the unique challenges of "traveling light" while maximizing sales on your relatively small piece of real estate. Finding a strong, approvable cart to support your operation will put you well on the way to coffee success. So roll it out there and get brewing.
Russ Myers is general manager at Michaelo Espresso. He has worked in every facet of the espresso equipment industry from technical service to account management and currently oversees day-to-day and financial operations. Russ has helped to develop Michaelo Espresso’s cart and kiosk program by maintaining a commitment to the use of first-rate materials, and durable construction methods.
Douglas Pratt, national accounts manager at Michaelo Espresso, has been working there since 1992 and has become an authority on carts and kiosks as a result of his experiences providing solutions for his diverse national clientele. Doug has managed various kiosk installations for high profile accounts such as Nordstrom, Seattle’s Space Needle, and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, Marriott International and Army Air Force Exchange Services.