By Jenny Lee | Vancouver Sun
Surrey-based Norm Kerfoot was pretty happy when he sold a crepe vending cart to a guy in France. And he’s even happier now that the City of Vancouver is licensing another 19 street food vendors.
Vancouver’s expanded street vending program that started last year has dramatically changed Kerfoot’s business. Until last year, 90 per cent of Apollo Carts’ sales were to the U.S. Now, it’s 60 per cent Vancouver and 40 per cent U.S.
Kerfoot made 12 of the 17 new food vending carts and trailers that hit Vancouver streets last year. He got his first order from one of this year’s new vendors on Friday and chances are he’ll be getting more over the next few weeks. The City of Vancouver won’t be officially announcing the list of new vendors until April 4.
“We’ve shipped hotdog carts to England, espresso carts to both Ireland and Holland, quite a few carts over to Hawaii, and all up and down the West Coast and over to Florida and New York,” Kerfoot said. “Portugal was kind of a nice one. France was a nice pat on the back.”
Kerfoot sells a hotdog or espresso cart, ready-to-go, for about $11,000. He’ll build an average 12-foot concession trailer for about $25,000, but the price can climb to $40,000 or more for a custom job and a larger truck.
“Because we ship all over the world, our carts have always been a little bit more expensive than all the other guys’ in comparison to back east or across the line,” Kerfoot said. “We use some pretty high end products. We don’t want any warranty issues. We build a complete steel tube framework for our carts because most are travelling down the road. We powder coat that and then skin it with stainless steel. A lot of the other guys will buy a flat trailer base and attach stainless steel right to that. I have a fellow does events in Kelowna and he bought a cart off us 14 years ago, and he still has it.”
Apollo Cart employs eight, including Kerfoot’s brother Glen who does the marketing and Internet work, and six guys on the floor who not only fabricate stainless steel, but do plumbing, 12 and 110 volt electrical work and flooring.
Kerfoot takes care of sales, customers and the office.
For Kerfoot, the fun and challenge in the work comes from customizing the carts and trailers for efficiency and quality. He’s learned the best ways to locate a water pump for maintenance, for instance, and just how to design a canopy so it’s easy to lift up. His crew is currently working on eight carts, five 12-foot concession trailers and four vans — they take old Canada Post vans, gut them, cut in service windows, insulate them, and put in floors, hot and cold running water, refrigeration, food steamers, conveyor ovens, commercial griddles, sideburners, food warmers, overhead exhaust fans — whatever’s needed.
Bring Kerfoot a menu and he can supply a floor plan and schematics that meet specific health regulations for places all over the world. California’s health department is the pickiest, he says, and as a result, he has to charge almost twice as much for a hotdog cart that’ll be used in California as opposed to B.C.
Some of Apollo Carts’ clients include Arturo’s Mexico To Go, Lemon Heaven and the newest Japa Dog cart. In the old days, they built “numerous” hotdog carts for guys who used to operate outside Home Depots.
In all, Kerfoot figures Apollo built 60 carts and trailers last year and close to 500 in 15 years of business. That’s not counting his stand-alone sinks and other custom work.
The portable stainless steel sink units started as just a crazy idea that the Apollo guys thought they’d try, but have since become popular with trade shows and Weatherheaven, a portable shelter and camp supplier to the U.S. military. Apollo’s sink units are completely self-contained with their own hot water and waste water tanks and water pump. Some run on propane and battery power, others are 110 volt units.
Some of the sinks have ended up on golf courses and in shopping malls. Others are in shipping containers retrofitted as operating rooms and are used in Haiti, Kerfoot said.
There have been plenty of ups and downs, but the past four years have been good, and last year business jumped by 40 per cent, said Kerfoot who started out in metal fabricating as a 16-year-old when a neighbour offered him a job. He went out on his own with Apollo Carts in 1996 as a custom stainless steel manufacturer doing mostly restaurant work and gradually concession carts came to dominate the business.
Apollo doesn’t have any outsides sales people and their webpage is their only means of advertising.
This year looks on track to double and Kerfoot’s not only looking to hire, but to expand his 5,000 square feet shop by a couple of thousand.
Interestingly, when the American economy got really bad, Apollo got busier, Kerfoot said.
“My only guess is many people, because they lost their jobs, didn’t want to go through that again and looked for different avenues to become self employed,” Kerfoot said. “Food carts are a low entry business.”