Wheelin' and Dealin' From a Truck

Anne Kadet This week, when it looked like the deep freeze would never end, fashion boutique owner Jessie Goldenberg made a brilliant move: She drove her entire business to Tampa.When your store is on wheels, you can do that.Ms. Goldenberg’s shop, Nomad, occupies all 120 square feet of a former uniform-delivery truck she found on Craigslist.Shoppers climbing a flight of foldout wooden steps to the truck’s rustic interior discover racks of dresses, scarves, jeans, tops and hats on either side of the narrow aisle. Against the driver’s cab, there’s a checkout station and a tiny dressing room behind a flowered curtain. Bob Dylan plays in the background.“You wouldn’t know you’re in a truck,” says Ms. Goldenberg, who frequently parks her store on the streets of Manhattan’s Flatiron District and Williamsburg in Brooklyn.Inspired by the food-truck movement, there now appears to be roughly a dozen truck-based stores rolling around New York, including a mobile sunglasses boutique, a florist and a pet-grooming salon. Given the city’s fast-rising commercial rents, we’ll likely see more. The typical cost of launching a truck store—$20,000—is about one-tenth the cost of opening a small storefront, according to industry sources.That’s not the only advantage. Ms. Goldenberg says her store attracts curiosity seekers who make a purchase just so they can say they bought something off a truck. “People like the novelty of it,” she says.A truck store also serves as its own rolling billboard. “You can market yourself easier, better and faster on wheels,” says Elline Surianello, who outfitted a customized Mercedes Sprinter van with hydraulic barber chairs to create a mobile version of LeMetric, her Midtown salon specializing in wigs and extensions.Perhaps the city’s most notorious mobile operation is Health Street’s rolling DNA-testing clinic, better known as the “Who’s Your Daddy?” truck ever since CEO Jared Rosenthal plastered the sly slogan on his vehicle.Mr. Rosenthal says when he launched, he played up his operation’s drug-testing service with a giant urine-cup logo: “That didn’t do so well.”A 2012 redesign struck a chord. Folks posted photos of his truck on Facebook and Instagram. Now, he’s set to be featured in a VH1 reality series. Still, the street life can be tough. Mr. Rosenthal deals with traffic, flat tires, dead batteries, break-ins, parking tickets and perpetual maintenance. “If you start a business in an office, the office doesn’t ever really need an oil change,” he says. Weather also takes its toll. Many of the city’s truck-based operations closed their doors these past few weeks. No one wants to shop in a truck when it’s 10 degrees out. Stacey Jischke-Steffe, president of the American Mobile Retail Association (yes, this actually exists), says there are about 400 truck stores rolling around the country, but relatively few in New York. Not only do the city’s weather and parking conditions pose challenges, but this is a tough town when it comes to the law. It can take years to obtain the city’s general-vendor’s license required to sell on the street. And according to the Department of Consumer Affairs, even if you get a permit, it’s still illegal to sell (nonedible) merchandise off the back of a truck—or from any parked vehicle, for that matter. Truck-shop owners say they try to ward off possible complaints and police action by parking far from competitors and avoiding residential streets.Truck-based operations are nothing new in New York, of course. Folks in the Bronx are long familiar with the mobile law offices of John C. Dearie, where malpractice and accident lawyers take depositions and dispense advice in trucks outfitted with green-leather armchairs, wall sconces and crown moldings.Brooklynites, meanwhile, know the clanging bells of the knife-sharpening trucks. Mike Pallotta of Mike & Son Sharpening Service, says his is a family business going back generations; his knife grinder is more than 100 years old. Business has declined to the point where it’s more of a weekend hobby than a job.“People used to come running out with their knives,” he says. “Now they come running out with their cameras.”But some newer efforts are thriving. Former bankruptcy lawyer Oren Shapiro has big plans for the truck-based flower shop he launched last Mother’s Day. He envisions his Mrs. Bloom’s Mobile operation, which can be seen dispensing tulips, daisies and roses outside Westchester and Connecticut train stations, as a national franchise.While he expects franchise owners to make an initial investment of $100,000, it’s a relatively low-risk proposition, he says. If a chosen location flops, just motor on. Try that with a storefront.Jenny Fisco, who launched her mobile fashion boutique Gypsy a GoGo last summer after closing her storefront party-supply business, says she enjoys the freedom and low overhead of her new operation. Her current store is a 15-year-old former Con Ed truck furnished with a tin ceiling, faux-wood floor and shelving found at garage sales. Total cost: $12,000. It’s a bit makeshift, but a fitting backdrop for her mix of new and vintage wear, which she terms “boho rocker.”“Now,” she says, “I just have to worry about auto insurance.”

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