It’s hard to miss the red-and-cream 1968 Volkswagen Beetle—with a giant coffee mug on its roof—parked across the street from Union Station. On the Road Coffee, a unique mobile business that launched in Denver in May 2016, has caught the eye of passersby and probably raised a few questions. Well, we have answers. First things first: The man inside that bug, owner and operator Matthew Pendleton, wants people to know that, yes, he really does sell coffee (choose from Americano, espresso, pour over, and nitro cold-brew coffee on tap) out of his car.
But Pendleton didn’t come out here for coffee. He needed a change from his home state of Oklahoma, he says, and moved to the Mile High City 12 years ago. On the Road Coffee supports his life as an artist. We caught up with Pendleton, 36, to discuss the makings of one of Denver’s most recognizable small businesses.
5280: How do you start your day?
Matthew Pendleton: I usually wake up at 4:30 in the morning and grab my equipment—my Rok Espresso Maker, coffee grinder, Manual Coffeemaker for pour overs, beans, all that stuff—and take it to the car. I get to my spot across from Union Station bright and early. Then I get ready and watch the city wake up.
Surely you need coffee to function so early.
Actually, I don’t have any coffee until I’ve made it through the morning, like 11 o’clock-ish. And I just do an espresso. If I have too much coffee too early, I’ll just have to pee.
Good call. One of the drawbacks of running a business from your car, huh?
Yeah, but I need to work a day job to support my art.
What kind of art do you make?
Abstract drawing with ink or graphite, which I’ve worked with for about 10 years now, mostly on medium- or large-scale pieces.
To support this, naturally, you decided to outfit a Volkswagen Beetle as a coffee shop.
The whole idea for On the Road Coffee came from a trip to Thailand a couple of years ago. It was New Year’s Day 2015. I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and that’s where I saw another bug doing something similar to what I have going on now. I thought, ‘That’s something I could do, and it would be perfect for Denver.’ I thought it was my possible ticket out.
How did you fund the business?
Money I saved up from working previous jobs. I hardly ever go out. I don’t drink or do drugs. I live a very quiet life—a very simple life. I’m not spending my money on a bunch of stupid shit—not that going out is spending money unwisely. It’s just, I don’t spend money on much materialistic stuff. I’d much rather save my money for nice, big trips.
So you came back from your trip to Thailand and just got straight to work?
Yeah, exactly. Three weeks after I got back, I bought the bug. I was lucky enough to find it right here in Denver. A fella was raising money to move to Seattle for a job, and he couldn’t take his Volkswagen with him. So I took it off his hands. One of my sisters-in-law, her dad has fixed up cars his whole life just as a hobby. He was a huge help and saved me a ton of money.
Love it. How much work needed to be done?
Not much. The car itself—the body—was in really good condition. There were a few small dings on one of the front fenders, but all he had to do was bang it out with a hammer and that was pretty much it. As far as the inside went, I simply had to slide out the passenger seat and build myself a small table for a work station. I hooked up two RV batteries to my power inverter, and that’s how I boil water.
How long did it take before the business was ready to launch?
The car was ready around September 2015, but I wasn’t going to bother launching the business with fall coming in with the cold weather. I figured I would wait until 2016. When I launched I didn’t know what to expect, but I did better than I thought. This year’s been even better. Now this is all I’m doing. Business isn’t all that crazy—usually an average of 15 to 20 people in the morning—but with those few people, I do all right. I do well enough.