Mobile vendors find niche in tough economy

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Earl Mclean, left, weighs out tomatoes for a customer at the produce tent located near the intersection of Madison Road and Sun Valley Drive. Best known for its farm fresh sweet corn, the vendor is nearing the end of selling season. An increased number of Beloiters looked into opening outdoor vending businesses this year, said City Clerk Rebecca Houseman.

Fred Voll is serious about sausage.

Through his new business venture, the Bashmaster Brot mobile food cart, he hopes to "educate" customers on the finer points of bratwurst and sauerkraut. He's looking to make some money, too.

Voll represents a growing trend of business-minded Beloiters who are taking the issue of employment into their own hands and hitting the street in search of sales.

City Clerk Rebecca Houseman said her office, which issues outdoor vending licenses at the price of $107, has been flooded with requests from individuals looking to make an extra buck.

"I think it's a sign of the times," she said. "Daily, there's people coming in asking where they can vend."

But becoming a roadside retailer isn't so simple.

"You can't just start," Houseman said. "There are steps you need to go through."

A pamphlet available through the Neighborhood Planning Division lays out "five simple steps to outdoor vending."

First of all, vending is only permitted on private land, and written permission from the property owner must be submitted. Next, the Neighborhood Planning Division needs to approve the vendor's location. And finally, should food be involved, contact must be made with the Rock County Health Department.

"I believe in the permits," said Earl Mclean, who works at a farm fresh produce tent near the intersection of Madison Road and Sun Valley Drive. "It's just like all the retail stores have to have."

Although some upstarters may find the licensing process a hassle, Mclean said a sensible level of regulation helps keep competition down and quality high.

"The permit's always here for when the city comes," he said, opening up his cash register and pulling out a small white sheet.

But having the proper paperwork is just the beginning, said Voll, who has been setting up his brat stand near the corner of Fourth Street and Merrill Avenue for about one week. A unique product, high-traffic location and right price, along with a handful of other intangibles are also needed to succeed, he said.

"You've got to be a hardy person to do this," he said, noting that many elements of the business, including weather, are always unpredictable. "A lot of people are getting into this right now, but a lot of people bail out."

Sebastian Escalada, owner of the Michigan-based Concession Carts Company from which Voll bought his brat station, confirmed the trend. His metallic vending carts sell for an average price of about $4,000 and even now, with summer's sunshine long gone, orders are backlogged.

"It's a way to make more money than being employed by someone," Escalada said.

Voll said he comes from a family of sausage makers and that he spent many fall afternoons in the 1980s near Madison's Camp Randall, keeping hungry football fans full. Besides his wealth of experience, he also owns another business and has a polished salesman's persona.

As he explained his three-sausage menu and online marketing strategy, a customer pulled up and asked what to order. Voll made his suggestions, offering a sample of his secret sauerkraut, which takes eight hours to prepare, he said.

A few minutes later, the patron drove off, but paused to roll down his window and say, "That was delicious. I'll look you up on Facebook."

Mclean agreed that street vending isn't for everyone. Building up a reputation is also important, he said.

The large green and white tent under which he operates, owned by local farmer George Acktinson, has been a staple along Madison Road for almost 15 years and is best known for its sweet corn, he said.

"He's been here longer than I can remember," Mclean said. "George won't sell sweet corn over a day old."

These lessons of being thoroughly prepared haven't been lost on newcomer Erin Hovland, who recently rolled out Dempsey's Hot Dog Cart in front of Wahl's Appliance on Prairie Avenue. But, there was a lot of preparation for her business.

"I did a lot of reading and a lot of research," she said, telling stories of her trips to Hot Dog University in Chicago and a training session Milwaukee.

Hovland serves quarter-pound Nathan's brand hot dogs and has a wide variety of toppings to choose from. The famous Chicago standard is a hot seller, as is the Dempsey Dog - a wiener fixed with sauerkraut, ground mustard, onion and pickle spear.

For Hovland, street vending is part business and part pleasure.

"I like to be out with people," she said. "I don't know if I'll ever make a profit ... but it's fun."

Fred Voll, owner of Bashmaster Brots, piles his secret recipe sauerkraut onto a steaming sausage as a hungry customer looks on, ready to dig in. Voll has been operating his business near the intersection of Fourth Street and Merrill Avenue for about one week. As the diner drived away, he rolled down his window and said, "that was delicious. I'll look you up on Facebook."

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