A young Dubuque entrepreneur has made her dreams come true with a unique business venture that she opened in August.
Sarah Knabel, 24, runs Bob & Lou’s, a mobile coffee shop, out of a 1968 Forester hard shell camper. In just a few months, the business — named for Knabel’s java-loving grandparents — has proven wildly successful.
Bob & Lou’s offers six coffees from Sergeant Bluff, Iowa’s Jumpy Monkey Coffee Roasting Co., as well as four flavors of lemonade, freshly squeezed when you order.
The average price point of the drink menu is $5.
“I’ve already done a bridal shower and have several weddings and events already on the books,” said Knabel, a Wahlert Catholic High School and Iowa State University grad.
While at ISU, where she majored in public relations and marketing, Knabel worked at a coffee shop. It was there that she fell in love with the beverage. Her passion for it only grew when she moved to Los Angeles after college for an internship.
“That’s where I saw all the trendy coffee shops,” she said. “I knew that someday, I would open a coffee shop. It was always in the back of my head.”
When she returned to Iowa for a job in
Des Moines, the food trucks around her place of work sparked the idea to go mobile.
“I decided mobile probably two years ago,” Knabel said. “I had been brainstorming whether I wanted an actual food truck or a vintage camper. A friend of a friend had a vintage camper coffee business out of Sioux City (Iowa), and I talked to her about it and asked a lot of questions.”
That friend of a friend tracked Knabel down just as she was getting into the serious business of making her dream a reality.
“She said, ‘I just got a new job, and I’m giving up the coffee business. Would you like to buy my coffee camper?’” Knabel said. “It was just perfect timing. I was able to start generating income right away, rather than waiting for it to be renovated. Everything just kept happening exactly the way I’d pictured it in my head.”
Knabel credits Amy O’Connell, the owner of Sprinkled Confections in Dubuque, with being a valuable business mentor.
“I worked full-time for Amy when I moved back to Dubuque,” she said. “I learned a lot of my entrepreneurship skills from her.”
Knabel also worked with Jay Wickham, the regional director of Northeast Iowa Community College’s Small Business Development Center, on creating her business plan, getting her LLC and applying for all the necessary permits.
“Jay was very helpful in helping me get started,” Knabel said. “And all of the advice was free.”
Knabel knew that her age and relative business inexperience would be obstacles when tackling the next item on her agenda: Securing a business loan.
The first bank she applied to turned her down, and it was enough to take much of the wind out of her sails.
“I was crushed,” Knabel said. “I started to think this wasn’t meant to be. I told my mom, ‘I can’t see myself doing anything else.’ And my mom said, ‘Well, you’ll just have to keep trying.’”
Knabel’s father, who had past dealings with DuTrac Community Credit Union in Dubuque, encouraged her to reach out.
“He said, ‘Send them your biz plan. You never know,’” Knabel said.
DuTrac came through with 80% of the needed funds, with her parents, Jim and Laura Knabel, providing the other 20%.
“I’ll never forget at the first meeting, they said, ‘We want to do this. We want to give you this loan,’” Knabel said. “I cried a little bit.”
While networking and word of mouth have played a part in launching her business, it is the power of social media that has proven to be a driving force behind her success.
“(Sarah) has fresh ideas and a perfect ‘Instagram-able’ vibe,” said Laura Knabel, referring to her daughter’s expertise with social media.
Knabel’s Facebook page has more than 1,300 followers. When she first created the page, she had 400 followers overnight.
“It was pretty crazy how quickly everything started happening,” she said.
Social media has made it easy for Knabel to announce where she’ll be with her camper each week.
“Every Sunday, I post where I’ll be during the week,” she said. “I give myself two days off each week to clean the camper, stock everything and just to give myself some mental sanity.”
On any given day, you might find Bob & Lou’s camper, with Knabel behind the counter, at parking lots ranging from schools to hair salons to the Shot Tower Inn, where she works part-time.
Although she’s only been in business for a few months, she already is getting recognition around town.
“I was at the gas station at 6 a.m. the other day, and two ladies recognized me,” she said. “They asked, ‘Where are you going to be today?’”
In between serving her customers, Knabel also is trying to decide on her salary — “Everybody said I need to pay myself; I’m still deciding how much” — and dreaming of the possibility of a brick and mortar location someday.
“I have lots of ideas brewing in my brain,” she said.
Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.