I think most people living in the Washington, DC metropolitan area feel the pain of a daily commute. The money blown on gas. The monotonous crawl of cars. All those wasted hours.
Sometimes enough is enough. So, last year Kandi Mitchell decided to do something about it. And somewhat ironically, her plan to avoid the 90+ minute one-way commute from Bristow to Arlington everyday, involved spending more time in a vehicle: Her very own coffee truck, Shenandoah Express Juice & Java.
Part of the inspiration came from the Alaskan coffee huts she and her husband frequented when they lived in the 49th state. Each hut has its own unique look, personality, and menu–quite the stark contrast to the surplus of chain coffee shops in Prince William County.
Kandi describes the moment she decided to pursue the coffee truck as “exhilarating,” but there was also plenty of anxiety mixed in.
“I was excited that I’d finally made the decision to breathe life into the ideas that had been rolling around in my head for the past few years. At the same time, I was very nervous about giving up a well paying job to do something I had never done before.”
Kandi quickly got to work. She found an excellent resource at FoodTruckr.com and raved about the helpfulness of their podcasts, which feature interviews with food truck owners and related industry professionals. She also tapped into her experience in project management as a Systems Engineer for an aviation consulting firm. Patience and good organization are two valuable traits to have when dealing with the business side of things. It also goes without saying that her service to our country in the United States Air Force would also come in handy in staying cool under pressure and stressful situations.
From the start of her venture, Kandi knew she wasn’t in this just to replace her day job; she wanted to make a difference. Through Organic Products Trading Company she learned of Cafe Femenino, a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide grants to programs and projects that enhance the lives of women and their families in coffee-producing communities around the world. Sourcing a product that is good is always the goal, but she was able to find coffee beans that were also doing good. After sampling the coffee, she and her husband, Jesse, were hooked. This was a product she would be proud to serve.
With a source of quality raw beans, next was finding a commercial roaster to make those beans ready for her espresso beverages. Like some perfect coincidence, Kandi found Monument Coffee Roasters, another local company, who much like her, was in the early stages of their own coffee business. (To learn more about the story behind Monument Coffee Roasters, check out our post from last winter.)
Beans? Check. Roaster? Check. Now, the most important part: The truck. Built from scratch in Georgia, this deep red truck arrived as a blank canvas. Kandi credits her sister, Kris, for being a vital part of the design by helping to create the logo, decals, and signage. Kris even went so far as to fly down from Michigan (with everything stuffed in her luggage) to help Kandi apply the decals to the truck. With Kris’s help, Kandi was able to pay homage to the local train culture, while also ensuring that it attracts plenty of eyes–an important aspect to any food truck.
The inside of the truck is also surprisingly spacious, comfortably fitting 3-4 adults with elbow room to spare. It’s even outfit with plenty of amenities, like air conditioning/heating, running water, large refrigerator, and even a bathroom, something that will make long days at events a little bit easier.
This is by no means an easy task, and Kandi admits that owning her own truck has created its own set of daily struggles–sustaining a parking place, sourcing ingredients, following (and sometimes interpreting) regulations–it all takes patience and perseverance. As I noticed and mentioned before in a previous post, entrepreneurs don’t venture out on their own so they can work less, they do it so they can work more at something they’re passionate about.
“It’s been and continues to be really hard work. I actually love that part. I feel challenged in a completely different way than I am used to.”
Kandi also noted that one of the benefits of leaving a desk job was the increased physical activity; being on her feet all day has even led her to losing a few pounds (so maybe the “Food Truck Diet” will eventually catch on). But also mentally, there’s a strong sense of accomplishment that can be achieved through interacting with satisfied customers.
“I get a lot of really nice comments about my truck and my products. People really like it once they’ve tried it and I already have a few regular customers. That’s very validating.”
Why are the customers so satisfied? Aside for fresh, locally roasted beans, she offers something different from the same ol’ options, with a menu that’s constantly changing. The menu has its standard morning fare, fresh fruit smoothies, hot or iced lattes, and pastries, but there’s always a special or two to help mix things up, like The Commuter Canon (a hazelnut and caramel latte), or a supercharged Soy Chai latte with a shot of espresso. Also, with the hot summer months, you can expect to see some refreshing cold brew being served. When asked about her personal favorites, Kandi mentioned she was more a fan of variety than of any go-to drink.
“I like to try something different every day, but my favorite flavors are hazelnut, caramel, and chai so they’re my fallbacks when I’m not feeling particularly creative.”
So, if you’re in Prince William County and you see her red truck parked somewhere, be sure to stop by and say hello to Kandi! Sure it might be easier to go to the drive-thru of a large chain, but when you have an opportunity to support a veteran, woman-owned business sourcing responsibly and supporting a great cause, seems like the choice is pretty clear. And Kandi’s coffee is way better.
You can follow Shenandoah Express Juice & Java’s schedule on Facebook for updates on where the truck is parked, but here is a sampling of some of the regular spots: