If you’ve been to the Midtown Farmers Market or the Uptown Market this summer, you’ve likely noticed Go Green Beans, a sprightly green truck peddling Peace Coffee. I use the term “truck” loosely — this is a three-wheel solar-assisted electronic trucklette. It’s so darn small and endearing it seems almost fictional, as if Richard Scarry drew it into his Busytown and Lowly Worm drove it off the page and into our market.
But don’t let all this cuteness fool you.
The brainchild of local coffee fanatic Tim Shindler, Go Green Beans is a serious purveyor, pulling fine espresso drinks, ice coffee, and house-made chai. And, as a battery-operated café on wheels, it’s also a real feat of craft and engineering.
Here Shindler talks in geeky detail about how he turned a rough sketch into a summer business and the interesting folks he met along the way.
HEAVY TABLE: So how did you come up with the idea to put a café on the back of an tiny electric truck?
TIM SHINDLER: I was inspired by Peace Coffee. I have friends who work there, and I’ve always really liked their mission, using organic and fair trade beans and then using bike power or biodiesel vans to deliver them. And I like that it’s a locally roasted product, too.
And, of course, I’m a big coffee drinker myself, but I am also interested in alternative forms of transportation. I found these little zap trucks when I was looking into things and the idea just clicked. Someone at Peace Coffee had told me that they get asked to come to special events and sell coffee — you know, they do roast beans and give donations away, but they have no way to brew coffee — and they have to tell people, sorry we don’t do that and it’s not in our plan.
So when I was like I have this idea, they said, “That’s a great idea, you should do it and we’ll send all kinds of stuff your way.”
It took me two years from that point to get it to be an actual, working electric coffee truck.
HT: So how’d you build it?
SHINDLER: Well, the first thing was just having the vision. So what happened was, I doodled it down on a napkin. Someone at Peace Coffee got an email from a guy [Mike Funk], who said he was retiring to do fun projects; they introduced me through email, and I sent him my proposal. He totally thought it was a great idea. So we started talking back and forth about what kinds of things we wanted on the truck and how it would look. Between that back and forth and me finding the funding to buy the truck and pay for the work, it took a year or so just to get the wheels rolling.
HT: And what was Mike Funk doing before he retired?
SHINLDER: He is kind of a career coffee guy. He started out as a ski bum, but then in the ’80s, he kind of fell into building coffee kiosks for a hotel lobbies and malls. He made some money at it, so he kept doing it and, eventually, he started working with Starbucks and Sara Lee as an independent contractor. He also consulted on coffee because he was a roaster, too. He retired from doing all of that so he could focus on his own hand-crafted, small-batch roasted, organic, fair trade coffee in the upscale Arizona market .
He has a super cool building in a real funky town — now, he does stuff for four-star restaurants out there.
HT: So you sent him your napkin and …
SHINDLER: Pretty much. I wrote him a descriptive email and he said, “Yeah, I’m interested.” I showed him a picture of the electric truck online. He thought the trucks were really cool; he quickly tried to become a dealer out there for them, but somebody else already had the dealership so he couldn’t get it.
HT: He sounds like an entrepreneur …
SHINDLER: Yeah, he totally is. He’s a hustler and a business guy, but he does quality work, that’s what I like him for — and he was super helpful since I was just getting started out. I mean he really helped me out.
HT: So tell me about the truck — what’s it made out of?
SHINDLER: It’s basically a standard Zap Xebra electric pick-up truck outfitted with a solar panel. It’s completely electric; you can just plug it in with a regular extension cord. The back end is made of Baltic birch — like a marine grade plywood, more or less — and a sustainably harvested mahogany if you can believe that …
And then they cut the back end of the truck off, so they had to re-weld a whole new frame to build the cabinets on — it’s all new 1-inch tube aluminum. Joey, the guy who welded that for Mike, has also welded cars that have broken land-speed records in the salt plains. He’s an apprentice roaster, but he also does race car stuff.
Mike put in all the fixtures and installed the espresso machine. Well, he didn’t just install any old espresso machine; he had to retrofit it to run on battery and propane. He also put in a water pump, water heater, a water softener, a hand-washing sink, and a small, commercial-grade refrigerator.
HT: And how’s it working so far?
You know, it’s pretty good. With the water weight stuff, which we didn’t totally calculate out, we are kind of on the maximum end of the vehicle’s threshold, so ideally I’d upgrade suspension and tires a little bit. And the other problem is that the original batteries that came with the truck were recalled. I’ve replaced them once and I’ve had to replace two of them again — so I’ve been a little disappointed in the battery technology.
HT: How many batteries does the truck run on?
SHINDLER: The truck itself has six batteries, all the other equipment runs on two batteries, and then I have a backup, in case I run out. They’re big, 12-volt, 150 amp hour marine batteries that charge in 8 hours. And actually, if you do a quick charge, you can go 80 percent after three hours.
HT: How fast can you drive with all that weight on there?
SHINDLER: Oh yeah, well it’s interesting. Its top speed is around 40 miles an hour and I have been at 35 in it. I like to keep it around 25 though; it’s comfortable at 25. It’s easier to wave at people when they are smiling at you.
HT: Do people just fall in love with that little truck and buy coffee like crazy?
SHINDLER: You know, people do tell me that. Case in point: I don’t sell regular coffee usually — I do espresso, the Peace Coffee Yeti Cold Press ice coffee, and Cedar Chai — but if people want it, I’ll send them to Fireroast Mountain Cafe. “But we want to buy one from you!” I’ve heard “cute truck” more times than I can count.
HT: Is the chai a Peace Coffee recipe too?
SHINDLER: The chai is my homemade recipe. Ten years ago, I took a trip out west and I had a really great meal at this Indian restaurant. At the end of the meal, the owner came out and served us tea — it was the best chai I’d ever had. I told him so, and in turn he gave me the recipe. I kept this little piece of paper with the recipe in my travel journal for like 10 years. Then, when the coffee cart came around, instead of going and buying boxes of Oregon Chai, I contacted a spice company, ordered spices and tea, and I made that same tea — well, pretty close.
I call it Cedar Chai because I’ve been brewing it in the Bedlam Theatre and they were on Cedar. I don’t know what I’m going to do now; that was a magical little place.
HT: Overall, it seems like you’re pretty happy with the outcome of this little adventure?
SHINDLER: Yeah, I get lots of thumbs up. A few people are like, “Are you making any money on it?” The truth is, I’m not getting rich, but when I go out, the business margins are there and I’m not losing money, which is great. That’s all I care about right now.
HT: Could it become a year-round thing?
SHINDLER: It would have to go indoors somehow. It’s small enough that I could drive it in through a double door, but last winter I didn’t have a lot of success. The mall rents are kind of high and you can’t get into the convention centers because someone usually has a contract to sell the concessions. So I haven’t found quite the right spot for a winter space.
I went in storage last winter and I’ll probably do that this year, too, because I want to do some upgrades on my truck. But I may do some special events, if any come up.
Last fall we did the Zombie Pub Crawl. It was really cold. I almost ended up getting hypothermia by the end of the night; I just wasn’t prepared for how cold it was …
HT: Yeah, you can’t go inside like the Chef Shack gals …
SHINDLER: They’re up inside, where stuff is creating heat — I was just standing on the ground, being overrun with zombies; it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.