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Business owners truck ventures on road to success
By: Carola Vhnak
Heads turn when Richard Clarke trundles down the highway in his 1938 Chevy Maple Leaf truck.
The black cherry beauty is a sight in itself, but it’s the copper Hershey Kiss-shaped oven on the flatbed that really fires the imagination.
“I love that spark when people realize what it actually is,” says Isabelle Boisvert, Clarke’s wife and business partner in their Vintage Pizza Pie Co.
The couple, who live just north of Cobourg, take the truck and mobile kitchen on the road to make Neapolitan style wood-fired pizza at fairs, street parties, weddings and special events. They’re part of a growing breed of nomadic entrepreneurs who go the distance to reach customers.
A product like pizza calls for a special vehicle, says Clarke, who searched for a year before finding the “rare, one-of-a-kind truck” on Kijiji.
Used as a show vehicle by its previous owners in Scarborough, the restored Maple Leaf is powered by a 350-horsepower V-8 engine and mounted on a ’77 Suburban four-by-four chassis capable of towing the trailer that houses the kitchen. The frame had to be specially engineered to carry the 1,200-kilogram, French-made stone oven, which heats to 800 degrees and bakes a pizza in 90 seconds.
“People just freak out when they see it,” Clarke says of his oven-toting truck named Gertrude.
The parents of three children both have full-time jobs — he’s a millwright; Boisvert’s in customer service — but learned how to make “real pizza” from top chefs during a short-term gig a few years ago.
They launched the business last summer, taking thin-crust pizza made with simple, fresh, quality ingredients to events in an area that stretches from Durham Region to Prince Edward County. Some weekends, they set up shop at the corner of William St. and University Ave. in Cobourg, an hour east of Toronto. Their website, vintagepizzapie.com, lists the dates of appearances.
Boisvert says they found a winning combination. “Everyone loves old trucks and everyone loves pizza.”
If customer reaction is a measure of success, then “Purlin’ J” also has a hit on her hands.
“People love the yarn truck,” says dyed-in-the-wool knitter Joan Sharpe. “I’ve had people literally scream because they’re so excited.”
Sharpe has put a new spin on the mobile retailing trend with her Kingston-based business, Purlin’ J’s Roving Yarn Co., housed in a red truck she bought from Lanark County last year. The 1982 Ford chassis with a Fleet body was a surplus emergency services vehicle outfitted with shelves and bins for firefighters’ gear.
With “ridiculously low” mileage of 14,000 kilometres, the step van was perfect for the job, needing only an interior paint job and exterior graphics, she says.
But it’s a slow trek to festivals, markets and studio tours in eastern Ontario. Lil Dorothy — named after her late mother who taught her to knit — isn’t built for speed or distance, says Sharpe, who stays under 80 km/h and never ventures onto Hwy. 401.
She got the idea for her business after discovering a similar venture in California. She only travels on weekends because she works full-time managing a research centre at Queen’s University.
Sharpe, who uses social media and her website, purlinjs.ca, to let customers know her location, will next appear at the sheep dog trials in Kingston, Aug. 8-10.
The cost of gas, she says, keeps her within an hour or two of home base. And while she thinks hers is Canada’s only yarn shop on wheels, she jokes that she can’t respond to a “knitting emergency” because the truck’s previous owners removed the sirens.
Buying someone else’s unwanted wheels wasn’t the way to go for Lindsay Buccella in Stouffville. Her travelling doggy spa called for a 16-foot customized trailer equipped with human-sized soaker tub, hair dryer, grooming table, shop vac, water heater and two 135-litre tanks.
A graphic with a sudsy pooch and the name Scruffy Muttz provided the finishing touch on the trailer, found online in Connecticut. Buccella’s Toyota Tacoma hauls it to clients’ driveways where she plugs into their power supply.
“It’s been non-stop,” the lifelong dog lover says of the business she started late last year.
“I get waved and honked at.”
She credits her West Highland Terrier named Duncan for motivating her to make the leap from the family fire protection business. Before going out on her own, she attended grooming school and did a stint at a pet store chain.
The mobile service allows her to groom dogs with car sickness or with health or age issues in a relaxed, personal environment, says Buccella, whose treatment costs an average of $65.
She spends four days a week on the road, covering the area around Stouffville, north of Steeles Ave., and two days in the store she recently opened.
Unlike some on-the-go entrepreneurs, she travels year-round, which led to burst pipes last winter. Just a temporary setback, says the businesswoman who’s happy her new career is going to the dogs.