This is the second article in our three-part series about choosing the best type of vehicle for your mobile farmers’ market. In this article, we talk about operating a mobile produce bus.
Check out our articles about trucks and trailers to learn more.
Buses are very popular with mobile farmers’ market operators and for good reason. A lot of community organizations have been featured in magazines,1 in the news, and online for tackling food deserts with their farmers’ market buses.
But, for this kind of work, is bigger always better?
With a bigger vehicle, comes bigger responsibilities, and a lot of other things to take into consideration. And, just like food boxes, what works for some doesn’t work for others. If you’re wondering if a bus is right for your organization, you’ll want to keep reading.
We’ll break down the pros and cons of having a bus for your mobile farmers’ market. Plus, we’ll go through some of the other things you’ll need to think about and plan for before you make any sort of investment.
The Comforts of Indoor Shopping on Wheels
The obvious advantage of a mobile produce bus2 is more space. This makes buses a great choice for bigger community organizations that serve a large number of people. It’s also a good option for those that would like to make several stops in a day, without having to restock.
The one thing that sets a mobile produce bus3 apart from other vehicles is that it can provide a comfortable year-round shopping experience.
Farmers’ market buses are generally set up for customers to come inside the bus and do their shopping. It’s the closest thing to being inside an actual grocery store.
It gives your customers the pleasure of being able to pick the sweetest smelling fruit without having to worry about getting rained on! And you don’t have to worry so much about canceling your market event because of bad weather.
The downside is that inside shopping limits the number of people that can shop at once…especially in the era of social distancing. It makes each market stop a little more time-consuming, so you can make sure that everyone has the chance to shop.
Finding the Right Route and Driver for Your Mobile Produce Bus
Now, unlike The Magic School Bus, you can’t take a mobile produce bus wherever you like. There’s a reason why buses stick to certain routes.
They’re just not as maneuverable as a truck or trailer. A lot of roads aren’t made for a bus’ size or weight. So, you might find yourself limited as to where you can take your market on wheels.
We even heard from one organization that their bus couldn’t make the steep hills on the way to one of their markets without scraping on the pavement. Eek, it’s like nails on a chalkboard, but more expensive!
Hills, tight turns, narrow streets…they aren’t exactly bus-friendly. Just some things to keep in mind when picking out your next set of wheels.
If your route isn’t a problem, that’s great news. But, what about parking?
Partnering with a local community center or a business with a large parking lot is probably your best bet. Although, we do know that some organizations have had success working with their municipality to secure an on-street location.
Unlike farmers’ market trucks and trailers, a bus driver needs a special license to drive. You’ll have to take into account finding an experienced driver and their wages before you buy a bus.
The typical wage for a bus driver is different in each state. Looking at the average wage for bus drivers4 can make hiring and budgeting a little easier.
The Cost of Buying and Maintaining a Bus
Mobile produce buses are almost always bought used, as buying a new bus can be pretty expensive.
To find a used bus you can search the online classified ads or contact your city or municipality. Call your local transportation authority or school district to find out what they do with decommissioned buses.
Through the right networks, some non-profits have had the good fortune of getting a school bus donated to them.
For others, finding a sponsor or sponsors to cover the cost of a bus is a great way to reduce costs.
Another option is to get the local business community involved in your efforts and build up fundraising efforts.
A big-ticket item when it comes to owning a bus is maintenance.
Yes, a used bus is definitely cheaper to buy than a new one. But when you think about it, most used buses get decommissioned for a reason. On-going maintenance bills can end up costing your organization more in the end.
Bus maintenance and repairs can usually only be done by a specialized mechanic in the proper shop. This can tighten your budget even further.
We’ve known organizations budgeting up to $15,000 annually to cover anticipated repair costs. It is a used vehicle, after all.
If possible, bring an experienced mechanic with you when you’re shopping around for your bus. They can help steer you away from the lemons.
Make Your Bus Beautiful on the Inside and the Outside
A grocery store or farmers’ market in an old city bus or school bus isn’t so obvious to a lot of people. Some mobile produce bus operators mentioned that because of this, sometimes they go unnoticed by passersby.
In bustling cities, buses are everywhere and are often wrapped in eye-catching ads, so it’s hard to stand out.
Make it clear what your mission is and what your bus is for, so everyone knows you’re not just another passenger bus. Getting a wrap for your bus with your logo and colorful graphics is a great way to stand out.5
Also, think outside the box (or bus!).
Get some outdoor signage, and maybe an awning so customers can wait in the shade. How about a table, chairs, and some volunteers to greet customers on the street?
Try to create a fun and inviting environment. One that isn’t associated with a regular bus business or bus stop.
As for the interior design, most buses have a narrow aisle up the middle, so planning for flow is very important. Ideally, people shouldn’t exit through the same door they came in. And make sure there’s enough space for customers to enter and exit the bus safely.
If you’ll need to retrofit the bus to create more space, make sure to keep enough seats for your staff.
People Power: Your Staff Make All the Difference
Speaking of staff, a lot of organizations have a combination of paid workers and volunteers to help run their mobile markets. When operating a bus as your farmers’ market, you’ll want anywhere from two to four staff. It all depends on how many people will be using your market.
Two is recommended for quieter markets that aren’t likely to see a lot of customers at any one time. But, having four staff is common for larger operations. Ideally, your bus driver can serve as one of your market staff too.
Ultimately, more staff means you’ll be able to serve more people and they won’t have to stand in line as long. After all, increasing food access is what it’s all about!
To Bus or Not to Bus? The Choice Is Yours
In our opinion, operating a bus as your mobile farmers’ market is not for newbies.
Buses are definitely better suited to larger, more established organizations. A bigger budget is also a must when it comes to buses. They cost more to run and to maintain.
But, if you live in a place with unpredictable weather (and who doesn’t nowadays), a bus might be worth considering. It definitely provides customers with a more comfortable shopping experience. And, you can make the most of all of that extra space and stock up for the day’s markets.
For small, medium, and seasonal operators, you might want to look at other vehicles, like a truck or trailer. You’ll save on those extra costs we mentioned and the special licensing that comes with operating a bus.
Regardless of what kind of vehicle you’re thinking about, having any sort of mobile market will increase food access in your area. We’d be more than happy to help you make the right decision for your organization.
So, what’ll it be: bus, truck, or trailer? Get in touch with us today.