Close your eyes and picture the gentle metallic curves of an Airstream trailer or the classic rectangular outline of a VW bus. Now turn it into a cafe.
If only vintage camper build-outs were that simple.
Vintage campers—a phrase with a hotly debated definition—aren’t admired solely for their build or design. Instead, they’re tied to a lifestyle that harkens to a mid-century Americana dream of open, dirt roads and obligation-free travels. “From the cars and trailers to the music and culture, they call them the good old days for a reason,” writes the Vintage Camper Trailers Magazine event page.
“The thing about the vintage campers—the nostalgia involved in them and the appearance, the look, brings back a lot of memories for people, then it draws them to what you’re doing,” says Terry Ziniewicz, founder of Caffewerks, a company that designs parts for and consults with mobile coffee setups. “It inspires people to become customers of that stand because it’s got this unique look.”
Nostalgia is a powerful marketing tool. Sounds, smells, and visuals from childhood elicit immediate emotions and memories. At one of my first cupping sessions, I was told not to talk about memory-induced flavors. Yes, that coffee might taste like your grandmother’s bone broth but no one else will know what you’re talking about.
Psychology research divides nostalgia into two kinds: personal and historical. Personal nostalgia is the kind where you remember how you were and historical is the type that references a time before you were born. While the vintage camper community was kept alive by personal nostalgia, the branching of the campers into retail fronts is maintained by historical nostalgia.
As someone who did not grow up hearing about their grandparents’ hippie travels or have any restored furniture inside the home, I am either the best or worst person to write this piece. Recognizing my limitations, I am not going to attempt to describe the historical intricacies of various models or fake an understanding of van life.
I see a vintage camper and immediately tie it to the free-spirited hippie scenes from movies and shows. Living in San Francisco, there are remnants of this era preserved all over the city. For instance, San Francisco-based Sunset Roasters is in the middle of a vintage camper cafe build-out. “We wanted something that when you looked at it, it immediately would have some story to tell,” says co-founder Sara Roliz. “Something that would come with a history and then we could continue its story was very appealing for us.”
Founded in 2018 as a roaster selling only online, the pandemic tripled business practically overnight and in mid-2020, they were offered a spot in the newly formed Outer Sunset Farmers Market. It quickly became clear between multiple daily load-ins and outs that a mobile unit was needed.
With help from crowdfunding and a little luck, Sara and Phillip Roliz purchased a 1960 International Harvester Metro van from a mobile coffee business in New Orleans. Phillip describes the test drive, noting its original engine and manual transmission. “It was great to pop a big van into first gear and go three miles an hour,” he says. “And you’re like, this is not going to do well in San Francisco.” After running into and resolving a permit issue of being short two inches in headspace, the van is well on its way to being renovated and is estimated to be completed in the upcoming fall or winter.
NW Mobile Kitchens owner Rich Zeidman, who works on mobile kitchen build-outs from start to finish, says one of the biggest mistakes he sees is business owners not doing enough research on health codes and business planning. He says, “This thing is going to go flying down the road at 60 miles an hour and things have gotta be considered from a safety point of view.”
Ziniewicz agrees and adds that under-budgeting is another issue, especially when it’s a DIY project. To help ease the process, Caffewerks designed an all-in-one system, complete with a water pump and electrical panel, that people can install on their own mobile unit. For new ideas and inventions like the system, Caffewerks likes to test them on existing units like in the case of Bend, Oregon-based Autobahn Coffee.
Build-out was straightforward for Autobahn owner Chad Ellingson, who uses the 1972 Volkswagen Westfalia bus for both work and life. And while the exterior is vintage, the interior houses anything but. Outfitted with a two-group MAVAM espresso machine, FETCO brewer, milkshake maker, and taps, the 100% off-the-grid bus is perfect for the local events that it serves.
The unanticipated tricky part of the business was the service: finding the middle ground between specialty and flavored coffee. Popping up in the middle of a forest, you aren’t serving the same customers as those who intentionally visit a specialty cafe. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere and people aren’t coming to you for that experience like they would in a specialty coffee shop that has that reputation,” he says. “It’s fun to have that opportunity to expose very good quality coffee to people kind of unsuspectingly.”
Conceptually, it’s easy to say that you’re going to revamp something older into a modern, mobile cafe operation. But I have watched enough HGTV fixer-upper episodes to know that anything vintage—be it a house, furniture piece, or automobile—is a labor of love. Add on a high probability of surprises and tears and you’re practically guaranteed a unique buildout adventure with an added bonus of a passionate community.
Autobahn might’ve started as a coffee-focused business but it’s evolved into a 50/50 focus divide between the coffee end and the Volkswagen and van community. Between coffee jobs, the equipment is moved into a storage unit and the bus transitions into a home space for him. The bus wouldn’t still be around if it wasn’t for the community that he regularly camps out with at night.
“I measure vans on how old they are by how often they break down and how slow you get places,” says Ellingson. “You joke about it but one of the best parts of having an old bus is constantly having to earn it and the amount of people that help you out is just phenomenal.”
Between creating their own chapter in a vintage camper’s story and a large population who wants to keep them alive (the Airstream Club International alone has 16k members globally), it stands to reason that vintage is always going to be around. With that in mind, Zeidman adds a final piece of advice. “Take your inspirations from the street food around the world,” he says. “These vendors are working with so little and they’re producing amazing results.”
Jenn Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.
Disclosure: The co-founders of Caffewerks are related to a co-founder at Sprudge by marriage.