Velspresso cart serves coffee on the move

Innovation: Mobile café serving coffee drinks, tea and breakfast food

When Rob Mohr introduced Velspresso to Milwaukee in early April, the concept behind it was such a new one that that he couldn’t quite figure out how to describe it.

“I don’t even know what to call (the concept) to be honest,” Mohr said.

The cart’s pedal power aligns with Mohr’s affinity for eco-friendly operations.

The “pedaled café,” as the owner and operator now calls it, consists of an old bike frame he attached to a mobile cart that functions similarly to Milwaukee’s food trucks. Since Mohr launched Velspresso, he has been roving downtown just about daily, selling everything from brewed coffee and espresso drinks to teas and breakfast bites right out of the coffee cart creation.

The cart, which has a steel frame and is 43 inches wide, weighs on average between 650 and 800 pounds when stocked. The name of the business combines vélo, which is French for bicycle, with “espresso.”

Along with sheer pedal power from Mohr, the café relies on an electric wheelchair motor to move.

“Without the motor, some of the hills would be nearly impossible,” said Mohr, who maneuvers the cart through city streets despite an injured right wrist.

Mohr designed and built the coffee cart contraption over four months at the Milwaukee Makerspace in the city’s Bay View neighborhood, largely with assistance from other builders and entrepreneurs onsite. Several components of the cart also came from the Makerspace and its “hack rack,” where members of the social building club leave parts and equipment they don’t need but that could be valuable to peers.

Outfitted with a commercial coffeemaker and espresso machine, both of which have been converted to heat water with propane instead of electricity, the cart has the capacity to serve more than 300 drinks without being refueled. Additional amenities include freshwater tanks, a sink, a cooler to store extra milk, a fire extinguisher, an awning for protection from rain, and night lights.

Batteries stored in the cart fuel the electronics of its equipment, including the coffeemaker, espresso machine, grinder and lights.

The concept behind the pedaled café is one Mohr has toyed with since his college days at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh about 13 years ago. The café was also inspired by similar business ventures Mohr came across while traveling in Europe, though he thought he could produce a better cart than those he encountered.

“That was the big drive – the challenge of making something better than what’s out there,” he said.

While Mohr prepares drinks at Velspresso, he turns to area vendors to supply his ingredients and breakfast foods. Along with serving Rishi Tea and coffee from Valentine Coffee Co., he has agreements with Bruegger’s Bagels and C. Adam’s Bakery to sell their bagels and pastries from his cart.

On a typical weekday, Mohr sets up shop by 7:30 a.m. outside of the Chase Tower in the heart of downtown. After meeting morning commuters, he pedals over to the Third Ward, with a few stops along the way, and caters to passersby until mid-afternoon.

Velspresso also makes office calls, pulling up outside downtown businesses to serve drinks and menu items to employees in need of an afternoon boost.

That business model “works a lot better than I would have imagined,” said Mohr, who is open to making special stops for businesses that are interested.

On weekends, Velspresso often makes appearances at local festivals, farmers’ markets and community events, in addition to roaming through the Third Ward.

As the sole staffer of the pedaled café, Mohr commits at least 70 hours each week to the operation. But he said he hopes to bring another part-time barista on board this summer.

While some cold and dreary spring days have given Mohr a slow start, he’s optimistic for his first summer in action with the cart.

“(Business has) been picking up with the warm weather,” he said.

Mohr will likely close during winter months to either travel or begin construction on a second cart. He aims to have one or two carts in Milwaukee as well as a cart or two in Madison. He also envisions franchising carts out or building them for other coffee companies to use as a sales and marketing tool.

“I’d like (Velspresso) to succeed,” Mohr said. “I’d like it to make a little money so I can use that to manufacture other carts. This is a prototype cart, and I’d like to perfect it. I’ve learned a lot of things through building it, and with those new things I’ve learned I can definitely make an even better cart yet.”

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