Espresso and Pizza

Mike Smitka
by Mike Smitka

I don’t normally post about vehicles themselves, but I am endlessly fascinated by the industry, and constantly surprised to learn of new niches. On the finance side, I’m amazed at the variety of vendors that show up at conferences such as those sponsored by Auto Finance News. One of these years I’ll make it to SEMA (the Speciality Equipment Market Association), which by reputation has both the credible and the incredible. But back to my topic: once in a while I do find products – or rather niches, I’m not a “car guy” – that intrigue.

I have fond memories of the local Good Humor trucks, which once made the rounds of Detroit. Then there was the lunch truck at the Chrysler Mack Stamping plant, where I worked some decades ago. Perhaps they’re still in business, but of late I see few such. Yes, the funnel cake van is a fixture at community festivals here in rural Virginia, and at least one of the local BBQs sell their pulled pork from a truck. The vendors of sausages and gyros unload everything from a trailer to set up under a tent, while the Ruritans sell hot dogs and burgers from a modified trailer. Other than the huge step vans on Constitution Avenue in DC, today I seldom see truck-based vendors, and the ones I do see are very utilitarian in their setup.

In Japan the historic model is the pushcart vendor (yatai 屋台). Going back to the 1800s, the Tokyo (Edo-mae) variety of sushi started out that way, a snack food sold on the streets, low not high cuisine. Into the 1970s (but now largely vanished) you could find yatai in the evening outside train stations, selling noodles or yaki-imo (sweet potatoes kept in hot gravel) or tako-yaki (octopus “donut holes”). It was in Tokyo that the phrase “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” first took on meaning for me, because that was another staple of street food. Such are not unknown in the US; you still find pushcarts in Central Park and elsewhere in New York [by which I of course mean Manhattan]. When I worked on Wall Street (well, actually Pine Street) I was fond of hot pretzels. But in Japan the modern version of the pushcart vendor is likewise relegated to the grounds of the local shrine during community festivals (matsuri).

Then I spent a year in suburban Japan. There you encounter a modern version of the yatai of old, imaginative and entrepreneurial. These are (often) young couples in “kei” trucks (mini minivans) fitted out to be one or another sort of mobile restaurant. You encounter them in suburban parks and other places families frequent, or in urban plazas. [In most of Japan parking along the street is not an option. In the areas I frequented the police made no exception in the late evening, when streets were only occupied by the occasional taxi and by drunk sarariman tipsying towards their train home.]

Photo courtesy of the author

Entrepreneurial, imaginative. First, the imaginative. To be practical, imagination must be constrained, not given free rein. Keeping things small(er) is one such constraint, pushing creativity in much of the world in directions irrelevant to the US environment. In Japan you find many adaptations to narrow streets and small lots. There are the local restaurant delivery services. At one time that would have been a Chinese restaurant or sushi shop, but tastes have changed and now that niche is dominated by contemporary sorts of foods. In the US delivery is done by employees in their own car. Not so in Japan – it’s by company scooter. In Chiba (a city of 900,000 just east of Tokyo) that might be the local Pizza Hut franchise. [I was never tempted to sample their fare…] Similarly, the backhoe that as I write is digging a trench to improve my driveway’s drainage is small, but it’s a monster compared to the construction equipment at sites in urban Japan.

So I should not have been surprised at vendors in their “kei” minivans, laid out to take advantage of every cubic centimeter. I unfortunately don’t have a photo of my favorite, a “kei” that a couple fitted with a wood-burning oven appropriate for two small pizzas. Not a viable business? Actually, it was about right – they didn’t have much workspace to toss the dough and lay on the toppings, and with the very thin crust they used – something I’ve seen in Milan and Tokyo but not the US – a “pie” didn’t take long to bake. The wait wasn’t bad. Theirs was a one-off, a personal project, but it looked something like this:

My most recent encounter was with a mobile coffee shop. I had a chance to chat with the owner/barrista in between customers. He had designed the layout himself, and helped do the fitting. Water, propane for heat, a grinder, an espresso machine, a sink, a fridge … the whole works, and he roasted his own beans [his logo proclaims that: 自家焙煎]. He wasn’t however in the suburbs but instead near Tokyo Station, taking advantage of real estate laws that set fairly restrictive floor-area ratios forcing newer office buildings to include an off-street plaza. He had a rotating schedule of such locations where he’d negotiated access (presumably for a fee). While he had an awning and some seating, most of his business was take-out. That sultry summer day he was busy enough, though he’s inclined to take the day off in truly inclement weather. Here is the van, with the “master” at work:

Home Roasted BeansMaster at WorkService Counter

In my experience restauranteurs are quite finicky about their setup. This entrepreneur may have been willing and able to take a hand in finishing off his creation (see his 大月珈琲店 Facebook page for photos). However, welding and fitting are not part of the typical Japanese skill set, where “do-it-yourself” does not include even the most basic of household repairs. So with a little bit of digging I found several companies that specialize in such, including ZECC, Maku, Aian Cook [“Iron Cook”], and (winner of the best name) Mobil Cafe Mom’s: Production of Customized Car. The used car page on GooNet lists 104 “mobile retail” vehicles for sale, with prices from around $12,500 for a used truck to $25,000 for a brand new one, albeit none of these have appliances. An example from carsensor.net lists one with already equipped with sinks, plumbing and exhaust fan at $17,000. Yahoo Auctions Japan likewise lists numerous vehicles, so it appears to be an active segment. (I didn’t check Rakuten; in Japan eBay botched its initial entry and is not a player.)

Now I’m sure there are similar specialized firms in the US, and maybe on the West Coast mobile vending remains a lively business model. Yes, there are unusual promotional vehicles, such as the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile – there’s one on permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. But I’ve not seen such whimsical “mobile kitchens” outside of Japan.

Links to (Japanese) pages with photographs:

  1. Pizza Boccheno
  2. ZECC, which specializes in making “mobile retail” vehicles. Lots of photos.
  3. Pizza Ci Vediamo [note the Coleman brand tent!]

[Note: max “kei” dimensions are 3.4m x 1.48m x 2.0m with an engine of 360 cc – a Smart is too wide and has too big an engine.]

Mike Smitka
Mike Smitka

Mike Smitka is an economist at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He's been a judge of the Automotive News PACE supplier innovation awards since they began in 1994. His household's vehicles are a 2014 Chevy Cruze, a 2013 Honda CR-V and a 1988 Chevy pickup. Find his auto industry course at <a href="http://econ244.academic.wlu.edu/">Econ 244</a>; he also blogs with David Ruggles at <a href="http://autosandeconomics.blogspot.com">Autos and Economics</a>.

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  • Vulpine A sedan version of either car makes it no longer that car. We've already seen this with the Mustang Mach-E and almost nobody acknowledges it as a Mustang.
  • Vulpine Not just Chevy, but GM has been shooting itself in the foot for the last three decades. They've already had to be rescued once in that period, and if they keep going as they are, they will need another rescue... assuming the US govt. will willing to lose more money on them.
  • W Conrad Sedans have been fine for me, but I were getting a new car, it would be an SUV. Not only because less sedans available, but I can't see around them in my sedan!
  • Slavuta More hatchbacks
  • ED I don't know what GM is thinking.I have a 2020 one nice vehicle.Got rid of Camaro and was going to buy one.Probably won't buy another GM product.Get rid of all the head honchos at GM.This company is a bunch of cheapskates building junk that no one wants.
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