The inventive mobile businesses of Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 March 2020
It turns out there’s a lot you can do in van business. We talk to those who have pushed the boundaries when it comes to working on the road.
Ailsa Bee Photography
Diversifying in competitive markets is crucial to surviving in business, something Ailsa Bee, founder of Knutsford-based Ernie the Photo bus, was certain of. She knew she had to set herself apart from the crowd.
I started looking at vans. I was full of drive, fire and enthusiasm for the idea, but also worried I was being a bit mad. But then I read a book called Big Magic, and it talks about ideas being living things, that they choose us, and if an idea comes to you, you have to act on it before it flies away and chooses someone else. So, I found Ernie. He's a Volkswagen LT28 and had spent his life as a school minibus in Poole. I needed the van to be quirky, otherwise it just wasn't going to grab attention. Ernie is a big beast, rare, and bright orange!
Photography doesn't have to be complicated. A nice background, good light, a relaxed person or the ability to make them so, and that's all you need. I'm not the kind of photographer who has a studio, big fancy lights and lots of equipment. Sometimes I arrive to work somewhere and people say, how long will it take you to set up? I sling my camera over my shoulders and that's it - I'm ready.
You can book Ernie by the hour; I do parties, lifestyle and branding photography. I turn up, take 10 minutes to set up and then I'm ready for people to come in. I have silly props for the photobooth work and I can also do instant retro style photos for people to take away. For business photography, I arrive at the company, staff come out to me and in a few minutes their headshots are done and dusted. I go to festivals and VW shows too, offering instant prints and selfie frames. The fun is in the variety, the freedom. It appeals to the free spirit part of my personality, the feeling I can just get in and drive off whenever I like. I couldn't just work in one place and see the same faces every day. I love seeing people's faces when they see Ernie for the first time.
Having always thought the idea of driving around in a cool old van selling good quality coffee would be a fun way to make a living, Knutsford's Mark Lee-Kilgariff decided to swap the stress of a career as a probation officer for Tatton Perk, his environmentally responsible barista coffee service on wheels.
I used to sit in Moor Park in Knutsford watching my two girls play and always thought how nice it would be to get a decent cup of coffee and how great it would be to run a little coffee van at the park. I'd seen mobile food trucks in the US and was excited at the quality and diversity of what they offered. Our experience of food vans in the UK is pretty poor - greasy roadside units, with cheap food and poor hygiene. I liked the idea of challenging that by making the Tatton Perk van smart, high quality and with a 5-star hygiene rating. I thought that being able to move around to find the best pitch would be a huge advantage over having a fixed bricks and mortar premises, too. If a pitch doesn't work, I can find a new one (within reason).
The freedom is great. And there's financial benefits to the freedom too - though you need to be entrepreneurial and ahead of the game. My van is a handsomely restored Peugeot J7 from 1976. I saw pictures of it on eBay in a barn in rural France - full of rust holes and looking very sad.
I've been amazed at how generous and kind people are. What's really touching is when customers write about how a visit to the van lifts their mood a little, how their drink is a highlight of their day and how they appreciate the chats we have as I fix their drinks. My van is gorgeous and always smells amazing. After two years, I still smile when I see it. I also love the sliding driver's door - I always feel very cool driving with it fastened back.
Big Dub of Love
We bought the van about 12 years ago and we used to camp in her; we used it for family holidays. But when we had our daughter Bella and opened our West Kirby café Hardy's Kitchen, our time was full and opportunities to travel in our little camper became less. After a bit of a light bulb moment, we decided to convert the Dub into a street-food truck. We did our research and found the best company in the country to complete the transformation.
When we opened our café and created the website, I described the business as being made with a big pot of love, as Matt and I created it from our love for food, entertaining, parties and friends - and each other. When we had the van converted, we didn't want to restrict our menus by having a name related to one food type so Big Dub of Love came about, and it tied in nicely with those starting moments.
We run Hardy's Catering and, as part of this, Big Dub of Love can go out on location to those customers who want something cool, with incredible street-food. The van helps the business make a name for itself, it turns heads and is always a talking point.
What's lovely is we've come full circle. We love getting to travel around the country again. We love getting to meet and chat to people. It's great fun and we have a fantastic time.
Silver Bullet Hairdressing
When it comes to changing perceptions Cameron Stananought, the founder of Silver Bullet Hairdressing, is leading the charge in his American Airstream which he takes to events across the UK.
Our salon is inspired by the 1920s-50s, as the level of professionalism and client care was second to none then. I wanted to take this pop-up shop concept on the road, but make it a luxurious one.
My dad thought about an Airstream and Silver Bullet was born. The seed was planted when we were having dinner at my parents - we are quite a creative family and always having business discussions. It took a year to build Silver Bullet, including shipping the original Airstream over from America to renovate. It was 12 months in the making and we had to keep it quiet - I've learnt if you've got a good idea, don't speak too loudly about it.
We launched a year ago and our mobile salon goes around the North West and nationwide to events. As well as doing the hairdressing myself, we also hire it out. If a footballer's wife wants her own hairdresser, they can have them in the Silver Bullet at a private event.
Silver Bullet has changed people's idea of traditional hairdressing. It's the beauty - you look at the exterior and see a silver caravan, but look inside and see a hair salon and a cocktail bar. It makes a beautiful backdrop and is highly Instagrammable. It's always fun. We were in a field once in Anglesey. It was amazing to get creative and brilliant to take my skills as a hairdresser to the most bizarre location for a hair salon to be.
We're not putting up any boundaries for what we can do. New ideas crop up every day.