Lockdown in Coffee on Wheels with Dave van der Aar

Recorded and edited by Audrey Coggins

The Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

This time on Lockdown Economy, Julia Skupchenko chats with Dave van der Aar, owner and head barista of Coffee on Wheels, a mobile espresso catering business in Amsterdam for a follow-up on their first interview, two months ago in June 2020.

Two months ago, Dave and I talked about business in the lockdown and how he dealt with the inevitable hardships and how he’s searched for new ways to run his business. I’m keen to follow up. How has it been, two months on?

Dave: One of the upsides of the lockdown is the free time I’ve had. I’ve spent a lot of it reading and learning. Of course, business-wise, it’s been very quiet. Corporate and event bookings are always quiet this time of the year because of the summer holidays. Now, compounded by lockdown orders.

Still, we had some small events from our regular clients that booked us. It has been really, really good to be able to see our clients and make coffee for them.

At the last interview, you mentioned that you had a collaboration with a cafe where you bring your Piaggio to the cafe and you serve as a barista. Did that continue?

Dave: Well, it actually ended this week, the collaboration. The holiday season has been very quiet on the street. So business-wise, after two months, it wasn’t a really viable business decision. I’ve also been presented with the opportunity to take over an existing espresso bar.

But ultimately, I held on to what I said in the previous interview, which is that you really have to do what makes you feel happy. For the short term, these opportunities might have been good, but in the long term, I realised that the setup and lifestyle would not make me happy.

Just before this interview, the Dutch government just released its latest precautionary measures for the Coronavirus lockdown scene here in Amsterdam. I know you watched it. What was your take on it and how did it make you feel as a business owner?

Dave: As larger groups have been banned since March 2020, we’ve noticed in the last two months, smaller groups have been booked; small weddings and birthday parties. Today’s announcement by the government is that it is not advisable to organise small parties at home and not to invite people at home for groups larger than six.

Courtesy of Coffee on Wheels

I’m not sure what that will do to companies and future coming months. However, in the short term, that will of course influence actions. People will decide to hold back and stop organising events.

However, I do think that if we adhere to the 1.5-metre distance and other hygiene measures then you ought to be able to enjoy meeting other people.

I understand that measures like these make it very difficult for business models based around events. How are you and your business partner dealing with what could be the future?

Dave: It worries us as well. But there are circumstances where people have to gather. Small events will take place.

For example, yesterday I had a small event at a school. It was the first day for school. The director of the school organised to have Coffee on Wheels onsite to offer parents a cup of coffee to welcome back in these insecure times. It worked very well and we had a lot of positive feedback. In this way, I believe it will be safe and it will be fine. It will not be as before Coronavirus started, yet I think events will still take place.

Courtesy of Coffee on Wheels

So you’re seeing booking for events that pre-Coronavirus, wouldn’t have been considered normal. Other businesses and organisations — like schools — are also trying to think outside the box!

Dave: Yes! Another example of this is an event Coffee on Wheels attended, which was an influencer event. Only 20–30 influencers were invited to have breakfast at a company wanting to introduce a new project. The idea is that the influencers are given breakfast and coffee and a small presentation. The influencers then post online what they had been shown and what they saw as advantages of the product.

At the end of September, I have another influencer event. So we are seeing a change in the events that are taking place. It’s still small at the moment but they are taking place. Instead of creating displays in stores, with the lockdown scene, companies are now looking to invite a small number of influencers to share their story.

New events post-Corona, conventions, where there are 500 people or more, these are not happening anymore. It’s not very encouraging. But it’s interesting to hear from you that now they invite an influencer from Instagram or LinkedIn to a small event and talk about the product that they want to promote. Then the influencer takes it to the online world. Where does the coffee come in?

Dave: The coffee comes in when the influencers arrive at the event. We welcome them with a cup of coffee or tea and a big smile. Then, they chat and mingle. Then they are served breakfast on a very long table, taking care of the 1.5-metre distance. Then there was the presentation and a Q&A session after. At the end of the event, there’s a possibility of having another cup of coffee to end the day.

So it was only a two-hour event. And this seems to be the way events are going now.

Do you use these events yourself to get connected to the influencers?

Dave: Yes, well, at one of these events, I overheard one of the influencers mention that he had a plant-based diet. That really struck a chord with me: this summer, I’ve been reading and learning a lot about taking care of our planet. I’ve been trying to incorporate that into our personal lives and also in our business.

Normally, when we make a cappuccino, we use cow milk. We offer alternatives, but they were normally hidden in the cart. Now, we display it in the front. We tell our customers that plant-based milk is not only better for the world, but it tastes also really good and makes you feel happy. We would like to inspire people to make those kinds of decisions.

To answer your question, I now follow that influencer who had that plant-based diet and he is now also following me.

Maybe it’s the start of a collaboration! Maybe they’ll see that you’re doing something that fits with their values and you both help each other out.

Dave: Yes that’s how it works.

I really admire how even though the business is slow and it’s very unclear whether there will be more events, you and your business partner still have the mind space and the generosity to think about the planet and how to be healthy. It all fits really well into the UN Sustainable Goals which our Think Tank is working towards.

Dave: The interview on Youtube two months ago was very well received by our clients and readership. A lot of people watched the interview. They liked that we were not focused on becoming a bigger company, but a better one. It was really inspiring to know that our values are impacting our customers to make more informed and better decisions with their personal goals.

That’s great to hear. It’s also a good place to hear about ideas from entrepreneurs. What about your customers? What are you hearing from them regarding these strange times?

Dave: Well, my customers when they’re at the Piaggio, the mood is really casual and really relaxed. When you do look up from the coffee making, you do notice that people do try to keep to the 1.5-metre distance.

Clients are still very cautious with booking events with us; questions of safety and responsibility. But what we are seeing at the events is that people are still really happy to be in small groups.

It’s such a change from everyone’s environment. It’s such a tough time to be confined, that people are looking for air and other people to mingle with.

Dave: Yeah and we see that a lot of people are working from home. When they meet again, they stay a bit longer than usual to speak with people. It’s different to speak with people in person than speak like this on the screen.

Is there a message you want to convey, as an entrepreneur?

Dave: Well, this time during the lockdown and also in the past 2 years, I realised, with my two small children, we have to take care of our planet. We have to look to the future, we want to give it to the next generation and the next generation. It only helps when we all take care of it. We all have a footprint on this world and I really hope to inspire people to do that. Not only personally, but also business-wise. To make our footprint as small as possible. Not make usual choices but look outside the box.

For example, I really hope people start to realise that eating meat is no longer sustainable. It’s like smoking. Drive electric cars. You can really make a difference by not stepping onto the aeroplane for meetings abroad.

The next big thing that you can do is stop eating meat. If you really want to eat meat, try the plant-based meat! I never thought I’d do it. But after one and a half years, I don’t want to go back anymore.

We are reaching more and more people with these interviews concerning entrepreneurs and this lockdown period. What is something you need help with? Maybe someone is listening that is able to connect with you.

Dave: I need help with spreading the word. Above all, it’s confidence from our clients in booking us for events. You can do it in different ways. I’m open to ideas. Perhaps Oatly or any plant-based milk company to boost their products and to help me to change.

Yes! Becoming an Oatly (or similar) ambassador is actually a great idea!

Coffee on Wheels is available for small parties or corporate events in and around Amsterdam. Dave and his team is ready to service your event needs in Amsterdam, Baarle-Nassau, Den Bosch, The Hague, Amersfoort, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Utrecht.

The advantage of Dave’s set up with his small, compact and very lightweight Ape Piaggios is that they can be driven anywhere — churches, offices, courtyards, parks, and schools.

The UN-registered nonprofit social initiative that helps small businesses and self-employed professionals to overcome the challenges of the pandemic.