It can often be a road less travelled - the decision to bring your product to the people, rather than the other way around. But for two entrepreneurs in Malta, it was something they felt only added to their company’s profile, although it did come with a few bumps along the way.
“Keeping chocolate from melting in 40-degree heat was one of the first challenges of working with a food truck and not one I had fully thought through when I decided to set up my business,” laughs Sarah McGourty, co-owner of Miss Ellen’s Sweet Shop and Sweet Truck.
Sarah moved to Malta from Ireland four years ago with no intention of setting up her own business until she spotted a niche in the market. “We figured since ice-cream vans work here, a sweet van might be an option too. My mother had read an article in a newspaper in Ireland which said old-style sweet shops were doing really well again. She thought it might be a good idea to try something similar in Malta, since the Maltese have such a sweet tooth.”
St. Patrick's Day celebrations at Miss Ellen's Sweet Shop, Hamrun
But it took months of arguing with the authorities before Sarah was allowed to register her van which she lovingly calls ‘Henri’. “Ironically, when we couldn’t get the van on the road, it led to us having a sweet shop in Hamrun and Henri the van came later.”
Sarah and her businesses partner Sandro Grech have officially been up-and-running since January 2014 and have expanded Miss Ellen’s to include party events and decor.
Both the shop and Henri operate six days a week, although in Henri’s case, logistics can sometimes get in the way. “Being mobile is great as it’s a free-roaming advertisement, but there are also a lot of challenges, which include parking, parking, and parking!” continues Sarah.
“We always have to plan ahead and finding the ideal spot to base ourselves for a full day, which is not easy. You also have consider running costs like fuel and electricity for example and you need to have your own source with you at all times.”
And then there’s the maintenance of Henri himself, a 1954 Citroen H van.
“The fact that he is portable means you can bring him to clients, so we can use him for weddings, corporate events or birthdays and compared to the shop the running costs are lower. But from a negative point of view, he’s more than 60 years old so it can cost a lot to keep him in working order. Sometimes if he breaks down, we have to wait weeks to get him fixed again, which means we are losing money while he’s off the road.”
Having a novelty addition to the business gives Sarah plenty of fodder for social media. “We mainly use Instagram to let people know where Henri will be every day, but it also helps show off what we have available in the shop as well as give people an idea of the types of events we can cater for.”
And how has Sarah evolved her model to deal with that melting chocolate? “We usually put it in cool boxes until around May and then have to bring it inside for the Summer months I’m afraid,” she says.
Fresh Vietnamese food from Banh Mi
Joining Sarah on the roads of Malta is Jeremy Borg, who is the co-owner of Banh Mi, a Vietnamese food truck. He and his wife Emily have been behind the wheel since June 2018.
“I’d been a chef for 12 years and my wife is great at cooking her native Vietnamese cuisine, so we said we’d give it a go,” says Jeremy. “There was an absence of Vietnamese food here in Malta, so we jumped in head first and gave it a try.”
And just like Sarah, Jeremy says there are challenges. “If the weather is bad it doesn't only mean that we have no sales that day, it also means that we will come home with a loss, as we make our food fresh every day.”
The logistics of operating from a different location on a daily basis can also be challenging. “Very often we don't have a place to have chairs for our customers to sit down,” adds Jeremy. “You also need to be aware that there are places – such as Valletta – where food trucks are not allowed. You need a hawker licence to operate and there are rules and regulations you have to abide by, even within your licence, so choosing a location to park is a strategic game sometimes.”
But of course, it’s not all headaches. “There are a lot of advantages to moving around,” continues Jeremy. “For example, we can often cater to events in locations that don’t have a facility for food. Being outside all the time also allows us to be a more environmentally-friendly business as our van is equipped with solar panels and is completely self-efficient, which is perfect for Malta's (mostly) sunny weather. The menu is frequently updated so we can bring as many beloved Asian dishes to our customers as we can. We try and give value for money which can sometimes add a lot of stress, but to be able to work with the person you love, and trust so dearly is the greatest perk of this job.”