Being a food entrepreneur can lead one to make decisions that some would call crazy and others would see as simply the risks one takes to build the business.
Bridgett Blough, who drove into Kalamazoo five years ago in her big blue food truck, the Organic Gypsy, and built a reputation for handcrafted and thoughtfully sourced local food is now pioneering the caravan bar trend that has taken off in Australia and New Zealand by adding a trailer she calls Dotty (a take off on the trailer's origins as a Scotty
) to her business offerings.
She calls the caravan the "alter ego" to her first food truck--it's a trailer made to serve sweet treats, artisanal beverages, and when it's in party mode a place from which to serve adult beverages.
The latest addition to her fleet originated from Blough's idea to serve sweets out of a smaller vehicle. That led to a lot of late night online research. "I was trying to glean information from other people's ideas," she says. "As an entrepreneur, you don't need to reinvent the wheel all the time. There are other people with good ideas all around the world. This is what's awesome about the Internet; you can do lots of research sitting there on your computer and learn about a lot of different options with no cost other than a little bit of your time."
What she discovered was the caravan bar was a hit Down Under. "It's really common for these to pull up and serve at parties," Blough says. "It's all about being outside and it sets the ambience of the whole party. It's like when you have people over at your house, people hang out around the food and the drinks. So this is where people hang out. It's the whole party — around the trailer."
She found a lot of images that showed cool parties with lots of ambience created by trailers (or caravans as Aussies and Brits call them). "That's when I got in my head that I wanted it to be really beautiful."
This is where it starts to get a little crazy for those who are risk averse. In her searches, through Craigslist and eBay she found the kind of trailer she was looking for, a 1965 Scotty, in Ohio. "It was small and I liked the blue stripe on it. I decided, 'I need to go buy this.' So I got there at dark and bought it. It was kind of a wild thing to do in one day. I called him and he said that he had had over 20 inquiries about this trailer. It had been for sale for less than a day so I knew if I was serious about it I had to go buy it. So I just went down and bought it."
The camping vehicle from 1965 was in rough condition and Blough could not stand up straight inside it. "It was in pretty bad shape because it's really old so we pretty much gutted the whole thing."
With the help of General Contractor
Mike McKim (who is Blough's boyfriend) and Allen Spencer of South Haven's North Shore Custom Woodworks
(a company that specializes in kitchens) the trailer became what Blough had envisioned. Now, after cutting off the top to raise the roof, three people can work in it comfortably and the custom woodwork adds the distinctive touch she wanted.
"I wanted it to look very clean, very nice," Blough says. "I hadn't taken it out very many times when I had people coming up to me and saying, 'I don't want to buy anything, but I want you to know that is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. They get it. They understand the vibe of it."
As much as people are responding to the looks of Dotty, they are also enjoying the sweet treats and beverages that they can buy there. Blough says she's found that people don't mind paying $5 or $6 for an artisan beverage and her sweet treats have been selling out each time she has taken the trailer to the Farmers Market.
From a marketing standpoint, it's proven to be an easier sell than some of her more nutritious offerings from the Organic Gypsy food truck. And that made her wonder about the future of the food truck. Then she started hearing from her loyal customers. "I've gotten a lot of people that send me emails and they're like, 'When is your food truck going to come out? We want our gypsy hash.'" Her gypsy hash is a favorite organic breakfast at the market that features seasonal vegetables.
"It's been reassuring for me that there are people out there that do believe in the healthy, local food that we serve — and they still want that." She has come to see that for people who generally eat well, whose plate is mostly full of vegetables the majority of the time, there is no harm in going to the Farmers Market and having a pastry and coffee once a week.
So, Dotty has been to each of the Kalamazoo Farmers Market since it opened in May. Ultimately, the plan is to have both the food truck and the sweets trailer at the market and other events such as Lunchtime Live, the city-sponsored food truck event that begins June 9 and this year is expected to attract at least 15 food vendors. It's an event Blough is fond of.
"It's probably my favorite event because it feels like it's a Kalamazoo event. It feels like the true authentic kind of urban food truck city experience right here in Kalamazoo. And it's a total mix between mamas pushing their babies in carriages and men at work. There's the whole gamut of people, so I love Lunchtime Live."
More than caffeine and sweets
There's more to Dotty than serving coffee and pastries. "Most of the caravan bars just go and serve cocktails and I also do that, but I made it into the dual-purpose of cocktails and coffee," Blough says.
Dotty can be reserved for private parties complete with bartenders, ice, glasses and special touches like garnishes that "set the bar higher," as Blough says. The way it works is those planning a party obtain the alcohol and it is served from Dotty. No special liquor license is required for private events. "When we come we don't serve, a Jack and Coke. We are crafting cocktails made out of locally sourced ingredients."
Dotty is definitely an attraction when she's on duty. Blough says she recently watched the way people interacted with Dotty when she took the trailer to a private corporate event. Though there was a second bar serving the same drinks people would stand in line, sometimes as many as 40 at a time, to get a drink from the caravan bar.
"It's part of the whole experience, and people, so far, seem to really appreciate the thought and care that went into it. That was cool to just sit back and just watch that happen."
The addition of Dotty to her fleet has meant Blough has had to make changes to make her business run more efficiently. "Now I get up early in the morning. That's one of the habits I've changed. Getting up at 5:30 in the morning and working on the books till 8. That's the way I triple my efficiency for the day."
The Farmers Market and Lunchtime Live events are the most visible, but they are only a part of her business. The two trucks have their respective catered parties, and there are pop-up dinners about once a quarter. She has her own version of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs. She offers salads with greens from local farmers in the spring and soups in the fall. Blough also feeds families every week.
"Every Monday and Wednesday we deliver dinners. And they don't know what they're going to get ahead of time," she says. "If you really want to eat local, it is not about this exact menu we're going to have. It's about being open to what is available from our farmers and that changes day to day."
The decisions that went into getting Dotty roadworthy were not always easy and some financial pain was involved.
"For me, being an entrepreneur is about being all in," Blough says. "It's 100 percent. Everything that I had went into that Dotty trailer and it's like a fierce commitment. It's all the way to the bitter end. You are in it to win it. And when it feels that way, it is inspiring enough for you to roll out of bed and get the work done and make it happen.
"And I think any entrepreneur will say that about any project that they really believe enough to invest all their money in and put all their time into. That this is just a truth, because I think if you don't, you just don't make it. Yeah, there were a lot of choices that were hard to make, painful to make financially, but the full package has been done really well. I do think it is already paying off."
Dotty will be open for business at Lunchtime Live
off Bronson Park from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. this summer, as well as other events.
Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.