Featured in The Age, by Nina Hendy
March 13, 2017
Sonia Lear was cradling their newborn when her partner declared he wanted to quit engineering to make pizza on the side of the road for a living.
Her initial reaction was complete exasperation. “The timing was terrible and I told him there was no way. We were living in India at the time. We relocated to Melbourne, but the pizza dream was still very real for him.”
Happy Camper Pizza
Then one day, her partner Remi Pham, came home with a wood-fired oven kit and added wheels to make it “mobile” in an attempt to demonstrate that he meant business.
“Next came the twins. We had three children under the age of two when I was roped into co-founding Happy Camper Pizza. I joke that it was my partner’s midlife crisis,” Lear says.
Keen to make their mark on the flourishing Melbourne food truck market, the couple imported a 1960s airstream caravan from the US and spent $200,000 transforming it into one of the city’s most iconic food vans.
“We imported the gas oven from the US. It cooks pizza on a rotating stone base, which cost us $80,000.”
While initially serving pizza as a street trader, they’ve diversified towards private catering, including weddings. They’ve also attended some of the country’s biggest festivals. Recent corporate clients include Qantas and Ray White Real Estate.
Buoyed by the bookings, they recently purchased a 1962 Chevrolet and transformed it into a second pizza truck at a cost of $150,000. They’ve mastered authentic pizza recipes and hired eight staff across the two trucks.
“We literally moved in with my mother to be able to fulfil this dream of Remi’s. I jumped on board because I wanted to make sure it was going to work.”
It’s been three years since the business launched, and last year tur
nover reached $400,000 though Lear points out expenses and staff costs are high. Pham still works full time as an aeronautical engineer in Melbourne to support the couple.
Brisbane man Jason Sydenham also runs a food business from a retro caravan. The chef spotted a dilapidated caravan in a paddock and offered the owner $500 cash for it.
The 44-year-old spent $15,000 gutting the van before declaring it a jaffle business, dubbed Jaffle Shmaffle.
The retro sensation sets up shop at bars and microbreweries across Brisbane, and can be spotted at festivals.
Sydenham averages four events a week and turnover is around $8000 a month, at 50 per cent profit. He temps in kitchens around Brisbane when business is quiet.
He takes payments via the Square App on his iPhone, which nearly immediately deposits funds into his bank account.
“The food truck scene is booming in Brisbane. I don’t need to chase gigs anymore, they come to me. We’ve got a strong following on social media, which helps people find us.”
However, it’s not all beer and skittles. “The income can be very sporadic, and space limitations makes it difficult to fit in kitchen equipment.
“I made some rookie errors with the van, too. A more generic name would have given me new business opportunities.”
That Vintage Caravan
Young Woollongong couple Sarah and Adam Dicker purchased an existing retro caravan business.
That Vintage Caravan is hired for events between Newcastle, Bawley Point and up to the Southern Highlands. They charge full bar service for $990 or you can hire the caravan for $700, which has proven popular for magazine photoshoots and larger corporate events.
They don’t need a liquor licence as they only serve alcohol at a venue with an existing liquor licence, not sell it.
The business turns over around $75,000 a year, while Adam works three days a week in a cafe he part owns. They plan to add barista-made coffee and lawn games to their offering soon.
“It’s seasonal work. The caravan is popular during the summer months. It’s late nights and a lot of work, but our turnover is growing.”
And while Lear is as pizza-obsessed as her partner these days, she admits to being utterly sleep deprived, working evenings to answer inquiries and handle marketing.
“Finding a way to stand out from the growing number of food trucks is the hard part. And it can be insanely expensive. Our focus now is looking at how to grow the business even further.”