Pizza parlor, dog groomer among those going mobile

October 15, 2007

When the phone rings at Neighborhood Pizza, owners Michelle Greenberg and Tami Maslyk jump into action. Dough is prepped and toppings piled on before the pie enters the oven. And the bubbling-hot finished product finishes baking just as the delivery truck pulls into the customer's driveway.

The two single moms run their make-it-and-take-it business out of the back of a souped-up box truck equipped with a pizza oven and other necessities. The mobile pizza shop is among a growing number of startups that are hitting the road--literally.

Owners of such businesses keep their overhead low and customers happy with curb-side service.

"Today, it seems to all be about convenience and customer service," said Terry Wilkin, a business adviser with the Central Indiana Small Business Development Center. "There are going to be more and more adaptations to how we conduct business to bring it closer to the customer."

Wilkin said he's seen an increase in mobile business ideas above and beyond the traditional plumber or electrician working out of a van. For example, he has worked with entrepreneurs working on a mobile billboard firm and a leather repair shop.

Pizza on wheels

In the case of Neighborhood Pizza, Maslyk and her husband had tossed around the idea for years in part because it always took so long to get a pizza delivered to their Carmel home in the Village of West Clay.

Though they are now divorced, Maslyk's ex-husband built the truck for the new business. It is outfitted with hot and cold water tanks that run to four sinks, a propane tank heating two convection ovens that can bake 16-inch pizzas in six minutes, refrigeration and every gadget pizza makers could want.

If a pizza's not done by the time they arrive to deliver it, the women just pull in the driveway and chitchat with the customer while it bakes. Kids sometimes pull up on bikes to get some of the free candy the women hand out and neighbors often wander over to order a pizza on the spot.

"We've been stopped in the middle of the street and asked, 'Can we order?'" Greenberg said. "Our truck is like a big billboard."

So far, they've kept their delivery area small so the pizzas never take long to arrive and to keep the neighborhood feel.

When they started the operation, the partners looked at renting commercial space for a pizza parlor, too, but the $4,000-per-month West Clay rents discouraged them. The truck cost about $100,000 fully outfitted, and the women hope to hit $300,000 in gross sales next year--if not before.

Greenberg, 37, and Maslyk, 40, focus on fresh ingredients to give a gourmet touch to their pizza, salads and breadsticks. They rolled out the truck in January, but it was idle most days so the partners offered their services to corporations at lunch.

The made-on-the-spot pizza has been a hit at corporate meetings at Lauth Property Group, said Kathy Skyles, manager of office services there. The women cold-called the office pitching their business and Lauth decided to try it for one meeting.

"It's taken off like wildfire from there," Skyles said.

Neighborhood Pizza now is at Lauth headquarters at least once a week providing pizzas, salads or sandwiches for meetings.

The partners want to expand the business by either establishing a franchise or perhaps just selling the custom-made trucks to other would-be owners. If they go down the franchising road, they wouldn't be alone.

A noticeable number of franchise concepts are van- or truck-based, according to a 2006 study by the International Franchise Association. In the review of 2,400 franchises, 7 percent were mobile businesses. Last year's study was the first time the association asked specifically about mobile businesses.

Dog love on the run

Another local entrant in the field is Fishers-based For the Love of Dogs Mobile Pet Salon Inc. Owner Lori Shuman, 48, started the business in 2004 after quitting her job at a traditional grooming salon.

Shuman wanted to run her grooming business from a van because it provides a more humane experience for the dogs. Instead of being dropped off in the morning and spending the day in a cage surrounded by strange dogs and noises, her canine customers can be coiffed in a stress-free setting.

"We do one dog at a time with no cages," she said. "They're hand-bathed and hand-trimmed and we take our time."

The service usually takes and hour and prices start at $65.

Shuman paid about $60,000 for her fully equipped van and had to purchase shampoo and incidental supplies on top of that. She said she was earning van payments within a month and was paying herself within six months of opening. In June, she bought a second van and hired a commissioned employee to work out of it. Once he gets fully booked, Shuman hopes to be hitting $250,000 in annual revenue. She just rolled out new spa services for dogs, such as skin and fur conditioning, aromatherapy, facials and paw bubble baths.

Her two trucks work on the north side now. Eventually, she wants to have five trucks working all parts of Indianapolis and the suburbs.

She also has considered opening a retail location, but only if she can keep the one-on-one, low-stress feel.

Though mobile businesses have their perks--no monthly rent payments and sometimes a lower initial investment--experts said owners should make sure it's really the way to go before getting behind the wheel.

"The first question shouldn't be, 'Should I set up a storefront?' but rather, 'How do I differentiate myself from my competition?'" advised Sharon O'Donaghue, director of the Central Indiana Women's Business Center.

She said a mobile business easily can end up losing money if the owner uses up the profits on gas and insurance.

The mobile plan makes the most sense, she said, in fields where retail locations already are abundant and bringing the service to the customer would be key to making the business stand out.

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