Forget the Rent; Businesses Opt to Work on Wheels

The Flower Truck, Le Fashion Truck and Skullastic Bus meld creativity and four wheels to create some of LA's mobile retail economy

High rents and business-savvy creativity are pushing more retailers to take their shops on the road.

On any given corner across Los Angeles, you can find a flower truck lovingly called Lola or a 2006 silver Airstream bought by Julian Payne that houses the Original Mobile Barbershop Co.

There's a pink truck adorned with the name Le Fashion Truck in black script.

"We want to be in Venice one day and in Santa Monica one day and the Valley the next," said Stacey Steffe and Jeanine Romo, Le Fashion Truck owners.

Don Rich is a creative director at an advertising agency, but in his Skullastic bus, he is the "Headmaster." Rich creates unique, homemade school supplies and takes to the road with a mission.

"Ten percent at least of everything that we make every day goes back to schools,” Rich said. “One month we give it to a school in need. The next month we give it to a school that is doing something innovative.

"We made $18 at our first event and that evening I wrote a check for $1.80 to a school.”

Rich’s 1983 school bus was painted and restored by some of the same artists who worked on the movies, "Fast and Furious" and "Ghostbusters,” he said.

In this vast city of millions, business owners on wheels insist it’s all about being available just about anywhere.

"I think mobile retailing has an advantage because you don't have to wait for your customers to come to you. You can go to them," said Jenifer Kaplan, owner of the Flower Truck.

Kaplan runs the Flower Truck from a 1970 ice cream truck she found on Craigslist. Her initial investment, like other mobile retailers, was about $15,000 plus.

Kaplan rolled out last year while working a full-time job in retail.

"Obviously, I couldn't work full time and then pay rent on a space; I couldn't do both," Kaplan said.

She always checks with brick and mortar establishments before parking her truck. Kaplan, who sells individual flowers for as little as $2 to arrangements in disposable and apothecary vases for $10 and up, parks mostly on the west side of the city.

The Flower Truck is now an everyday affair for Kaplan, as is Le Fashion Truck for Steffe and Romo. Their pink wonder named Sammy is full of vintage and original clothing and jewelry by local designers.

"Back in about 2008, I started looking into places and I got frightened away by the long term leases, the high rent," Steffe said, citing one rental that wanted $5,000 a month.

Le Fashion Truck launched January of 2011.

The Original Mobile Barbershop is based in Sherman Oaks and launched in 2005 on a 15-city bus tour. It is one of the first on the streets and has three stations and five barbers on board.

"I think this right here gives the small-business man the opportunity to compete," Marlon Devon Hall, a barber for decades.

The owner and creator of the Original Mobile Barbershop Co., Julian Payne, said he came up with the idea in 1999, based on the constant complaint that people needed a haircut but couldn't find the time to travel to a salon or shop.

They have steady clients and drop ins.

"It's all about good people and word of mouth. We are starting to getting people as far as Studio City, Hollywood. We get people calling us for house calls," Payne said, adding the group recently signed a five-year contract to cut hair for the military in California. Cuts range from $15 for children to $20 and up for adults.

These are fully licensed businesses. They must get permits to sell in every city and do not fall under the regulations on city books for food trucks.

"In the city of Los Angeles, you are not allowed to drive up on the street and park on the street and sell items if they are not food," said Steffe, of Le Fashion Truck.

The challenges faced by the ladies of Le Fashion Truck led them to create the West Coast Mobile Retail Association (WCMRA) which brings together other shops on wheels to work together to stay on the road.

"We feel there's a lot of growth in this industry," said Steffe, whose shop sells items as low as $5. "We are looking for a lobbyist of some sort. Someone who can really come in and really understand our plight and believe in what we are doing.”

Rich and his Skullastic bus,, are part of the WCMRA group that tweets and posts on Facebook about events where they can all meet. The WCMRA includes nearly a dozen trucks in LA and others across the country.

"Knowing that I was in a direction for doing something good and good for the LA community, gas is cheap for the feeling you get from that," Rich said.
Other mobile retailers agree, describing business on wheels as the “epitome of the American dream.”

"Get out there get a great idea,” Payne said. “You don't have to break the rules but if you believe in it, other people believe in it and you will be successful.”

More Mobile Retailers:

Have a favorite business on wheels? Tell us in the comments below.

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