In an interview I spoke to Lewes based entrepreneur Hannah Pilfold about the ideas that led her to sell speciality coffee from Hannah’s Van and the popular Facebook Group Community for Lewes Businesses
I’m fascinated by entrepreneurs’ stories. They’re innovators and risk takers. What’s more, they’re not afraid to embrace challenges.
In an interview, I asked Hannah Pilfold what inspired her to set up a mobile speciality coffee and cake business.
I understand you started your career in the police?
Yes. I worked in between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police officers. We gathered information and evidence and got cases ready for Court.
From the police to a specialist coffee venture. What made you take the leap?
When I had children, I spent a lot of time hanging around parks. Here I would long for a place where I could grab a coffee, but there were none around. I had this vague idea about getting coffee to parents.
When a wave of cuts hit my department and redundancy loomed, it occurred to me I could buy a small van and take it around parks and provide adults with hot drinks.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought this is doable. I had a bit of money I could put into it. And if it didn’t work, so be it.
How did you go about determining if the project was viable?
I did a lot of research.
I started with vehicles. Then I got in touch with the council and asked them about licensing. At the time there were more restrictions. Such as I couldn’t park my van within 100 metres of another café.
But I didn’t want to compete with the cafes. There is a big part of Lewes, where the parents hang out, that doesn’t have anything.
What other factors did you take into consideration?
As I had a toddler, I knew that this would have to be a part-time venture and work around my family life. I hope to build on it as my children grow.
What was important to you about the service you planned to provide?
I knew if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it well. I decided to use ethically and sustainably sourced coffee. At the time, my favourite coffee supplier was Kemptown based Ground. When Ground arrived in Lewes, it was a bonus. I called and asked them if I could sell their coffee.
How did you find your van?
I searched for a van on eBay and Gumtree. Here I found the perfect second-hand vehicle. The owners used it to sell pasta. But when one of the partners pulled out, they decided to sell.
Did you need to do a lot of work to make the van suitable for your needs?
No. It had been kitted out with a fridge and sink. I found a guy in Brighton who put shelves and my coffee machine in for me.
I spent time going backwards and forwards installing the equipment. The hardest part was working out how to power it. I needed a massive generator. Because I was mobile, I needed to be able to lift it.
Then I found a coffee machine powered by gas. Fortunately, my van was already equipped for gas. The previous owners had used it for cooking pasta.
Alongside the van, you’ve built up a beautiful brand. How did you come up with it?
A guy in my NCT group, Malcolm from Lewes Maps helped me. He knows me well and created a logo quickly for me.
Where was your first outing?
As a practice run, I set my van up on the drive outside my house and offered passers-by free coffee.
I set out for real in August 2016. I didn’t mind missing the summer as it gave me time to practise.
The first event I did was the Moyleman, an off-road half marathon that takes place in the hills of Lewes. I set up my pitch at the start and then moved my van to the end of the route to greet the returning runners.
What most excites you about your venture?
From the start, I’ve been passionate about providing a quality product. And having the opportunity to support local businesses. As well as buying coffee from Ground I source my tea from Prince and Sons Tea Company in Uckfield.
Do you have regulars?
Yes. People have got to know my route, and I’ve got to know them.
Something I wasn’t expecting, was the enjoyment I get from meeting new people. Everyone is friendly and supportive. Even if they don’t buy anything, they still take the time to congratulate me on my venture.
Who are your customers?
On top of my regulars, I’ve quite a few homeworkers who like to pop out for a coffee break. Some council office dwellers and of course passers-by.
Tell me about your cakes
I’ve always enjoyed baking, so I decided to bake cakes in the evenings. I like giving my customers tasty treats.
What events do you attend?
Last year I attended Firle Vintage Fair. It was successful as the weather was brilliant.
I also attended the Lewes Chilli Fayre and Plumpton Open Day.
Since starting this venture, I’ve realised they’re many events that take place locally.
What aspects of what you’ve done in the past helped you in your entrepreneurial adventure?
In my job with the police, I had to be organised and cover lots of bases at the same time. Those organisational skills helped me with the many aspects of running a business.
You have an active social media profile. Where did you learn about marketing?
I’ve always enjoyed using social media. As a consumer, I observed how brands use social media to draw in customers.
I knew I needed to get in front of locals. Social media is flexible. I can get messages out about my routes quickly. It’s also cost effective.
Which is your preferred social media platform?
Instagram is my favourite, but I do enjoy the social aspect of Twitter. I don’t have enough time for Facebook. It’s my lowest engagement. I’ve learned you get results from the places where you put in your time.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I rely on public parking. If parking is premium, it’s hard to pitch up by a great park.
Other than that, my challenges mainly boil down to equipment issues. I’ve learned the importance of talking to people and garnering their advice. In hindsight, I probably bought my initial equipment too quickly.
There’s been a lot in the press about plastic coffee cups. Has this impacted your business?
The cups I use can be recycled, but there are only three places in the country that recycle them. I could use Vegware biodegradable and compostable coffee cups, but they come at a cost. I would struggle as it would impact my profit margins.
I do however have a sign up in my van telling customers I’ll give them 10% off if they bring their own cups. Since the news broke about the plastic problem, quite a few of my customers bring cups.
On top of that, I sell cups. So it is evident I’m showing willing.
You recently founded the Community for Lewes Businesses Facebook Group. Tell me about it.
There are over 4,000 micro businesses in and around Lewes. I felt there wasn’t a place where they could show up and support each other. Not necessarily sell to each other. I had so many questions when I started my business. So I decided to create a place where businesses could post questions and share their knowledge.
You organise your Facebook group well. You theme days. From where did you get the inspiration?
I’ve seen other groups doing this along similar lines. And I wanted to keep up engagement. To do that I need to prompt people and give them reasons to comment and get involved.
I started with a couple of themes. Then I added the Wednesday promotion. The reason behind that was to stop people using the group as a place for free advertising space. It’s off-putting.
How did you promote your Facebook Group?
I promoted it via Lewes Women and Business and on the #LewesHour on Twitter. I also told my Facebook connections about it. Then word spread.
Business owners still join daily.
Does it take a lot of administration?
Not at all. It’s a rewarding job. I love Fridays when people post about their week’s successes. It can be lonely working on your own. So it’s great to have a virtual place where people can hang out.
Can you share any tips for budding entrepreneurs?
If you think there’s a chance your idea will work, and there isn’t much risk if it fails, then just go for it. Also, speak to people. I asked many people whether they thought my venture would be a good idea. And whether they thought it would be a service, they would use. You need to know you have a market. If you are willing to put yourself out there, you’ll find people are supportive.
From where do you get your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from businesses that stick to their guns and do what they believe in. An example of this is Lewes based handmade veggie burger and speciality coffee shop Bun and Beans. Jamie uses Vegware. He’s conscious of his impact on the environment. He’s proud of the product he’s selling. As a result, he’s been able to build a strong brand around his business ethics.
Where can people find you Hannah?
Connect to me on Twitter @Hannahsvan
On Instagram @hannahsvan.
On Facebook @hannahsvan.
Also if you’re a Lewes based business, join my Facebook Group, Community for Lewes Businesses.
Thank you for your time
About Claire Hawes
Claire Hawes is a marketing communications copywriter. She enjoys writing engaging copy that helps businesses to get noticed and attract enquiries. Claire’s experience mainly lies in the business to business sector. Her clients include both businesses and digital marketing agencies.