Locations, locations, locations.
Those are the keys to Terri Szemis’ business — she’s been taking it on the road to locations around Atlantic and northern Cape May counties for more than four years now. She runs Puppy Cuts Mobile grooming, and her company has been going to the dogs ever since she turned a longtime hobby into the job where she landed following 27 years in Atlantic City’s casinos.
Corey Kurica has been been running restaurants for close to 45 years, but later this month, he plans to start driving his restaurants. He’s opening two food trucks — Corey’s Fish Fry and Corey’s Raw Bar — after he lost his longtime Long Beach Island restaurant in Hurricane Sandy.
And early this year, Gasper Sanders took his barbecue restaurant on the road too, converting an old school bus into Smokey World Catering 2U. He stocked it with stuff from his last bricks-and-mortar kitchen, plus the outdoor smoker-trailer that’s been the key ingredient on his menu over his five years as a food pro.
In an increasingly mobile American society, these local entrepreneurs are part of a growing national movement to make commerce more mobile, by taking it to the customers.
Of course, there’s nothing new about businesses hitting the road to find a market. Ever since carpet cleaners existed, they always had to go where the carpet was. And the electrician had to go out to fix the wires; safety dictated that rule. Plus home delivery is an old service, for everything from newspapers to pizzas to, in more modern times, basically the whole Internet.
Still, the mobile-food model typically involves somebody taking an order by phone, cooking the food and sending a driver out to the customer. Now, in an expanding food-truck revolution, all that calling and delivering stops and the kitchen just goes right to the customer.
“But food on the go is just the beginning,” as the National Federation of Independent Business describes the phenomenon on its website, nfib.com. “Lately, businesses-on-wheels have come to encompass hair salons, high-tech repair shops, and even makers of artificial limbs.”
And at least locally, mobile pet grooming appears to be a leader in this trend. Szemis, of Somers Point, knows at least three other pet salons that run on wheels around her turf, and she says she works and gets along well with with the owners of the others — they help their customers, and each other.
It was necessity that drove her into this new life. She lost her casino job and was offered retraining in a selection of fields — and picked pet grooming since she liked doing that anyway. She took a four-month course at a North Jersey school, flew out to Indiana to drive her Puppy Cuts van home and started finding customers.
“A lot of our business is older, senior dogs — the people have a hard time getting them in and out of a car,” Szemis says. But another target group is older people — “senior citizens who are house-bound, but still have a pet,” she adds.
One of the keys to her business is planning. Szemis figures that 60 percent of her day-to-day expenses involve the gas she uses to drive herself around, so she tries to schedule carefully and combine trips when possible. The difficulties include an obvious key to a mobile business — parking. She gets much busier in the summer, but sometimes she struggles to find easy parking in the booming beach towns.
Kurica, of Absecon, the new food-truck owner, knows all about the occupational hazards of shore businesses. He ran the Bayberry Inn in Ship Bottom for 33 years, until Sandy came along and flooded him out. As he was rebuilding, someone offered to buy it.
“We figured it was time,” he said. “I’m getting older (and) a permanent location is just getting to be a little too much for me. Eventually I can see doing a Saturday and Sunday or a Friday and Saturday, which isn’t as stressful. But if you have a building or some structure, you have to be open at least four or five days a week.”
After the storm, he ran Corey’s Seafood Corner in Galloway Township — and there was another Corey’s back up in Manahawkin. But now his plan is to have his two businesses traveling together, sometimes with help from his longtime kitchen colleague, Jim Avery, and often with help from Corey’s wife, Nancy.
Another one of Kurica’s plans involves traveling with his friend, Sanders, who’s known as Gasper to some customers and Smokey to others. But his business name was always Smokey, at locations in Pleasantville, his hometown, and Egg Harbor Township. Now Smokey World travels all over South Jersey.
He brings his food to local businesses during the week and to festivals and other events on weekends. He and Kurica — who met as happy customers in each other’s restaurants — hope to do some catering together, to offer a sort of surf-and-turf option to customers.
Sanders says party hosts like food-truck caterers — because when the cooking and serving are over, all the mess is in the truck, not the host’s kitchen. The main difficulty in the business is local rules that he says are strict on food trucks, which is one reason why South Jersey is behind much of the rest of the country in the food-truck movement, as he sees it. But the mobile model has its advantages too.
There’s the lack of rent and lease and other overhead, “And I like to get out and meet people. I think that’s a faster way to make the business grow,” Sanders says. “Being brick and mortar, you’re locked in, you have to be there. With my bus, when I park it, I park it.”