Lockdown in Coffee on Wheels with Dave van der Aar

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Jenna Gyorfi

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.

In June 2020, Julia Skupchenko spoke with Dave Van der Aar, owner and head barista of Coffee on Wheels. Dave is used to working in a high paced and high-stress environment, but that was before he combined his two passions — coffee and hosting. Dave’s philosophy since starting his business five years ago has been to keep it small, keep it simple, and keep it personal. By holding on to this idea, Dave and Coffee on Wheels have become creative in how to weather the lockdown and the current environment where enjoying a good cup of coffee with other people, for the moment, has become a thing of the past. Dave’s confidence in his company is summed up in his own words, “Coffee Connects.” In a world where connection seems more difficult to do, Dave is figuring it out. Read below to learn more about Coffee on Wheels!

What is Coffee on Wheels? Why don’t we start with the idea and the business?

Dave: Coffee on Wheels Amsterdam was founded about five years ago — end of 2015. We are a mobile espresso catering business. We bring joy, happiness, and an excellent cup of coffee to any location in and around Amsterdam, but also throughout the Netherlands.

Julia: I can subscribe to that idea of joy and happiness because we had a chance to work together in the past. You came to more than one of our events and it made it classy and fun at the same time. I recommend you for events!

You started five years ago and your business has a lot to do with events, meeting people, and being out with people; tell me how did the lockdown affect you?

Dave: As soon as we went into lockdown, our agenda ran empty. All the meetings and appointments were cancelled. It made us quite nervous because we did not know what was going to happen. Then again, we are a small company -it’s me and my other barista and my partner. So as soon as the lockdown happened, it was quite easy to cut some costs.

So if we compare catering coffee/ tea for different events and your competition is perhaps bigger companies that offer more stuff, how does that compare? Was there an advantage to being a small company?

Dave: I think yes and no. What we realized after the first two weeks, is that we got something back — a lot of free time. We love to spend time with our family and much more time with each other. And that’s what I chose.

Before I started Coffee on Wheels, I was working in the hospitality industry/ hotel industry. They were long days and always very stressful. After ten years, I had a burnout. After the burnout, I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to start my own business and that was the best choice I ever made — being an entrepreneur, making your own decisions by yourself, and choosing to have less stress and more free time running a small company. That’s what life for me should be.

So the lockdown became an opportunity for you to spend more time with your family and have free time. I know you never say no to a potential customer! You are running a pretty busy business.

Dave: Yes, sometimes it’s really busy. Somebody can pick up the phone or we receive an email to be there the next day at six in the morning. Being a small company, it’s really easy to make quick decisions because we run everything from beginning to end. We are in personal contact with our clients. We know them personally and I think that’s the advantage for being small.

It’s good that you mentioned the clients. How are they doing? You are taking a break because they are not in the position to order your services, do you know how they are doing?

Dave: Yes. After the first 2–3 weeks, when the dust settled down, I thought, “What am I going to do?” The first thing I wanted to do was to call my clients and ask how they are doing and how their business is doing. How do they see the future? The answer I got back was that everyone was in the same position — all the events are cancelled and marketing budgets were cut. But they really appreciated the phone call — the personal touch.

I did not ask them for business, I just wanted to let them know that we are going to survive this crisis. We are a healthy company so we are going to be there in the future. Of course, we wrote protocol on how to cater our coffee business in a safe way and we sent it to them. It pays off because the last week and a half, I already received new bookings, which are really small, only 20–30 people but the first few bookings are coming in!

This is good news that a business in the events industry is receiving orders! Can we talk about before the lockdown, when you went from the hospitality industry to Coffee on Wheels? What was the thinking behind the coffee and the idea of Coffee on Wheels? Tell me more about that.

Dave: I just told you how I burned out from the hospitality industry. During my burnout, I realized what I didn’t want but also what I really wanted to do. My two passions are coffee and being in touch with clients. I call it hostmanship. That makes me happy. To combine those two, I could have started working in a coffee shop, but I got the opportunity to start my own business. As I said before, that was the best decision I ever made.

How did the idea of wheels come into play?

Dave: It was one of the options that I got and this was the only option for being my own entrepreneur. It was quite easy because you start with a small van with a coffee machine and grinder insider. I started with that. That was quite a small step and risk. It was a risk but a small risk to take and it turned out really well. I didn’t have staff anymore or had to tell people what to do. That’s what I needed in the beginning. Then the business started to grow every year. We bought another van with two espresso machines inside for bigger events. We bought two mobile espresso bars so we can also go into offices. The business grew.

When we look around us, success is usually measured by how much revenue you do, how many employees you have. We wanted to grow and grow — which is the standard. But for us it is different. We call it minimalistic entrepreneurship. We keep it small, simple, and very personal. Then we can do what we love most, which is exceeding experience, bringing joy, bringing happiness, and bringing a good cup of coffee in a personal way. Therefore, clients book us again and again. So we have trust in the future that clients will come back.

Courtesy of Coffee on Wheels

That’s a great message to many entrepreneurs out there. Sometimes they underestimate the value of the one-on-one connection. Will you have any kind of event where you just come with your van somewhere in Amsterdam in the coming months? Just for yourself? Just for the entertainment?

Dave: Not right now because when we didn’t have any events, we started collaborating with a small coffee shop in Amsterdam. They are closed three days a week and we drive the van in front of their doors, so the coffee shop is actually now open seven days a week. We sell coffee on the street three days per week, which is not generating a lot of revenue, but it helps on a monthly basis. I also see it as we are still doing what we love. We are busy making coffee but also speaking to pedestrians, people who have their own businesses and you can ask a lot of questions — how they are doing? I really believe that will help us in the future. The people we meet right now, we will meet again in the future for an event or anything that has to do with coffee.

That’s an excellent way to get some insights into what is happening in the world. Tell me shortly, what is the outlook for your company in the coming months?

Dave: We know that we are a healthy company — we will survive this crisis. We know what our strengths are so that gives us confidence. We know that the clients we know will book us in the future. But, the crisis isn’t over yet so we don’t know what the future will actually bring us.

What I forgot to say, my business partner asked me what I wanted to do the most. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, and I said I wanted to learn. I studied online marketing, which is quite an important part of my business but I never took the time to do that — building an online community, that you know how your website is working, is really important. I will continue that and keep on learning. We don’t know what the business will bring, but we have confidence that it will be alive.

Its an important point about self-development, learning the other parts that are essential for your business, not just the joy of making coffee and sharing with the clients, but thinking about somebody before they become your client. Thank you very much, Dave, for sharing your story with us today.

Dave: You are more than welcome. Just to add one more thing, coffee connects. So whatever happens in the future, we will drink coffee, people love to speak with each other. We can’t have a cup of coffee now with each other but I am sure we will have it in the future because that will never change. So thanks a lot!

Of course, I personally highly recommend Dave.

About the Guest

Dave van der Aar is the owner and head barista of Coffee on wheels Amsterdam. “Since November 2015 I’ve been running my own coffee catering business Coffee on Wheels Amsterdam. Coffee on Wheels Amsterdam is a mobile espresso bar coffee catering business and we facilitate our barista services mainly in and around Amsterdam and furthermore in the rest of the Netherlands. We are the number one specialists in the coffee catering business. We bring joy, hospitality and the best coffee to any location with our mobile espresso bar units and Italian coffee Piaggio’s. We are dedicated to the craftsmanship of serving the best cup of espresso to our customers in order for them to experience a true moment of happiness. From 2004 until 2015 I’ve been working in the hospitality industry for NH Hotels in multiple 4 & 5-star hotels in South Africa & The Netherlands. The last five years of my career at NH Hotels I’ve been working in the position of Food & Beverage Director at NH Collection Barbizon Palace Hotel & Restaurant Vermeer (one Michelin star).”

https://www.coffee-on-wheels.nl/amsterdam/ https://www.linkedin.com/in/davevanderaar/ https://www.instagram.com/coffee_on_wheels_amsterdam/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nDT2RBWaQE https://www.facebook.com/CoffeeOnWheelsAmsterdam/

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