This Torontonian transformed his coffee truck into a mobile vaccine clinic
At the beginning of 2020, Kirk Tobias was gearing up to launch Fleets Coffee, the mobile coffee shop business he’d been working on for two years. Then the pandemic hit and wiped out his primary source of revenue. With a small fleet of decked-out trucks sitting there with nothing to do, he decided to direct his assets toward the vaccine effort. Here’s how he did it.
—As told to Liza Agrba
“I came up with the idea for Fleets Coffee in 2018. At the time, I owned a tech company, and I was commuting weekly between Toronto and Chicago or Michigan, where our offices were. I didn’t have a lot of time, and I faced long lineups anytime I wanted to take a coffee break.
“When I sold the company, I started working on the idea of a mobile coffee shop that eliminates lines by using software to sync the readiness of your drink with the time of your arrival. We’d use proprietary algorithms that incorporate things like weather, traffic and the number of orders on the truck. Over the next couple of years, we did all the right things. We raised a lot of capital—it took $4.5 million to get this business off the ground—and I funded it on my own for the first 18 months. We planned extensively, but we didn’t plan for a seemingly endless pandemic.
“The business has two components: Fleet Commuter, which serves commuters in locations with heavy foot traffic, like GO stations, and Fleet Rover, which delivers to residential and low-density industrial areas. We have five trucks in total, and each one is outfitted with eight espresso heads, a huge coffee station, four fridges, one double freezer and two big ovens. We can put out over a thousand drinks a day. Early last year, we signed a deal with Metrolinx to put our trucks at GO Transit train stations. The plan was that our trucks would pull up at 6 a.m., customers would order through a mobile app ahead of time, and when they arrived, there would be no lineup or waiting. Your product would be ready, the exchange would be cashless, and you’d get on your train without losing any time.
“The plan was to have the trucks leave the stations at 9 a.m., when most of the foot traffic is gone. Instead of people in those areas paying a delivery fee or driving for 15 minutes, we just pull up and make everything fresh on site, like an ice cream truck.
“The pandemic pushed our launch date with Metrolinx back from June 1 to August 31. For obvious reasons, foot traffic at GO stations tanked. We toughed it out for four months with them, losing money every day. Our business is very capital intensive, plus it costs a lot to operate. And we lost more than 90 per cent of our revenue with the GO trains. In essence, because of Covid, we never got the business off the ground. Even though we launched Rover in late fall last year, it wasn’t enough to backfill the loss of revenue. Unfortunately, we haven’t had an easy day since.
“I have to laugh—you’ve got to laugh or you’re going to cry. We’re still bleeding cash; you couldn’t have engineered a worse entry into the market for us. We have five mobile cafés, and depending on the time of the month, two or three of them are just sitting there. That’s because it can be more expensive to operate them than to just let them sit, and I’m trying to conserve our cash.
“Meanwhile, our workers were at risk, operating in the community and interacting with customers face to face. Our office—in an industrial area in Concord—is in a Covid hot spot, and our employees were there every day loading trucks. This was before they started vaccinating people who worked in hot spots—at the time, it only mattered where you lived. I tried to get the team vaccinated, but it wasn’t possible. It made me so upset.
“I realized that we needed a better solution. We needed to take vaccines directly into businesses. And I had these assets just sitting there. I decided I wasn’t just going to complain. I would put my money where my mouth is.
“In April, I posted on LinkedIn and tagged a bunch of government officials, including Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau. Our vehicles were 33 feet long, with four fridges and a freezer, and they could hold tens of thousands of vaccines, I wrote. ‘A team of medical professionals could ride along and help to stamp out Covid, one jab at a time.’ I reached out to my network and asked to be introduced to public health units to see who wanted to use our trucks. I told everyone that we would donate the vehicles, drivers, gas and insurance. We could provide everything for free except the vaccines and the health care workers.