Starting a Mobile Coffee Shop

In 115 square feet, Erik wakes up and starts brewing a new roast. He turns on the song “Good Day” by Nappy Roots and begins dancing around his space.

Erik's 1971 VW Type 2 Transport van has acted as a coffee shop but also a part-time home for the past two years. Read his guest post below to get inspired to reuse a vintage vehicle as a mobile working space.

I was living in an ecofriendly Earthship home at 10,000 feet in the mountains of Colorado when I decided I was going to buy a van.

Coffee became a part of my life when I was on a 4,000-mile solo bike tour around the western half of the country. I started to drink coffee when I was biking down the Oregon coast to stay warm and for a little boost in moral. After I felt what it could do for a cold, exhausted biker like myself to help keep me going, coffee became a big part of my life.

I had been working at a local independent coffee shop and was falling in love with the world of coffee. Having a been a climbing instructor, mountain bike guide and all-around vagabond for the past few years, I knew I wanted to center my coffee shop, Carabiner Coffee, around those passions. After finding Ol' Blue on Craigslist one day, my mind immediately was set on living a life on the road, making coffee and chasing adventure.

Once the deal was done and I was driving Ol’ Blue over a mountain pass for the first time, I knew we would be traveling together for a long time to come.

Converting the van into a coffee shop

Moving into the van was a welcomed challenge of downsizing and conscious decision making. I had always wanted to live a simple life, and this was my chance to make the change. From the first time I moved into Ol' Blue to now, I’ve moved in and out of the van three times and remodeled the interior an eyebrow-raising four times on top of that. During each remodel, I’ve made changes to better suit life on the road, as well as to make it more space efficient when I’m selling coffee.

I want to get great coffee into the hands of people who love to chase adventure like I do, and I want to inspire them to follow their dreams. For me, that mission is just as important as the coffee.

Work/Life Balance

That balance is one of the hardest things about running a business on the road and living out of a van. I have stripped my coffee making setup down to the bare essentials to make a great cup of coffee while still keeping a few luxuries like pillows and fans that are necessary for making van life enjoyable. I spend a lot of time exploring outside of the van to avoid getting stir crazy. To fund my business and my lifestyle, I make coffee by the cup for people strolling by the van as well as ship coffee to the people all over the country who order off my website. I even have a coffee subscription where people can sign up and I automatically ship freshly roasted whole bean coffee to them every two weeks.

The Ups

The most rewarding thing about living in the van and also running a coffee business has been all of the people I’ve been able to meet. I love to hear all the amazing life stories that come up when I’m making coffee for someone.

When people see you are living out of your vehicle, they tend to show a side of themselves to you that you might not get from meeting them in a different situation.

I love adventure and breathing fresh air, so my main hobbies depend heavily on the season and region I’m in. I rock climb, hiking, backpacking, mountain bike and trail run in the summer, and then when the snow hits, you’ll find me up in the mountains backcountry snowboarding or mountaineering.

The Downs

The most challenging thing tends to be logistics. Whether it's finding a shower or constantly navigating new places, it takes a lot of energy to find a new place to live every day or every week. I like to stay in a place for long enough to become familiar with it and enjoy its energy, but the time always comes when you have to leave and start the process all over again. That, on top of all the challenges that are involved with running a business, can at times be a little overwhelming sometimes.

Go-To Van Items

Ukulele/Guitar: I love playing music and since I can’t bring a drum set with me wherever I go, you’ll find me strumming somewhere outside almost every night in the summer.

Mountain Bike: It lets me explore whatever city I’m in at the time or lets me charge around in the mountains. It’s definitely a constant companion.

Poetry Books: Living on the road gives me a lot of time to think and reflect. Reading poetry is something I love to do to keep my heart and mind open.

Showering, Parking & Health Insurance

I often resort to the local climbing gym to take a shower if there is one. I love the climbing community, and it's always a win-win to be able to get to climb and shower as well as meet local climbers wherever I am.

Parking is always a big question mark whenever I get to a new area. When I’m in larger cities, I often like to park in private parking lots of outdoor-inspired businesses or even right in front of a climbing gym. When I’m out in the wilder places, I usually park at trailheads, near campsites or on scenic lookouts. The permitting game is a whole different story, but I’ll just say that I’ve gotten pretty damn good at understanding local legislature to make my business legal wherever I go.

Luckily I have been able to maintain health insurance through my parents plan, seeing as I am still 25 years old. But when the time comes and I turn 26, I’ll have some thinking to do. As far as “retirement," it doesn’t cross my mind that often. There is a lot of time between then and now.

Favorite Place to Visit: Seattle, Washington

I spent a good amount of time there and loved meeting so many different people in the coffee and outdoor industries.

My favorite outdoor destination has been Indian Creek, Utah. I spent a week there over Thanksgiving for something we climbers like to call “Creeksgiving,” where climbers come from around the world to climb together and enjoy each other’s company. Indian Creek is also one of the most beautiful places in the desert I’ve ever been to.

Defining home

Over the past four years, I’ve graduated college with an oil painting degree in fine art, biked across the county, moved five times, started a business out of a van and have never worked a 9-to-5 job a day in my life.

I do see myself finding a more permanent place to call home in the next year, but if life has shown me anything so far, it’s that there’s really no telling what the future holds. All I know is that I’m always excited and inspired to find out.

Advice to mobile shop owners

Don’t be afraid to chase your dream. If your dream is to live small, don’t waste any time in doing it. There is no such thing as the perfect time to do what you love; there is only the present. If you want to start a mobile shop, start looking for your dream vessel to start it out of and go for it!

Commit to what you want your life to be, and slowly but surely, you’ll see your life starting to change every single day.

What's next

There will be a full-page interview in the May issue of Climbing Magazine that will feature the story of Carabiner Coffee.

I’m currently on tour with Patagonia’s "Worn Wear” campaign traveling and serving coffee alongside their free on the go repair truck until the beginning of May. We will be doing about 20 stops across the West, and Ol' Blue and I will be there to keep everyone caffeinated and smiling while Patagonia fixes people's jackets.

I am looking to open my first brick-and-mortar version of Carabiner Coffee. I’m currently eyeing a space in the Front Range of Colorado that's home to an old converted gas station with three service bays.

My vision is to have a coffee shop but also give the community and any travelers passing through a place to work on their tiny mobile living spaces and spread the love for life and adventure with each other. Saying I’m excited about this would be an understatement.

Follow Erik and Carabiner Coffee

Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Carabiner Coffee and Andy Earl.