As a student at the University of Rhode Island, Justin Bristol sought to create a solar-powered food cart that could serve as a mobile community center to bring people together to socialize, charge their phones and enjoy a snack. He borrowed power tools to build his first one in his mother’s boyfriend’s backyard, and he sold crepes at farmers markets, summer festivals and other venues.
“The goal was to bring the community together around alternative energy and local organic food,” said Bristol, a Matunuck native who majored in environmental economics at URI. “I wanted to connect people more than anything else, and I figured that food was a good way to do that.”
But he soon realized that he was more interested in building food carts than operating them, so he and friend Matt Fuller started their own business, SolarCart Co., to build custom-designed solar food carts that are operated by independent chefs and other entrepreneurs. And the company soon took off.
Today, Bristol and Fuller have designed and constructed solar-powered food carts for customers around the country, including one operated by Narragansett resident Michelle Frank called Gansett Poké that has offered poké bowls at URI football games and numerous other area events.
Bristol calls his food carts “creatively built, solar-powered, prefab, affordable restaurants” that can produce as much food volume as an ordinary restaurant but in a much smaller space.
“They’re completely off the grid – they don’t require a generator – and they’re designed to be very interactive,” he said. “Most food carts are built from the standard contractor’s trailer that they put a kitchen in. We build unique restaurants on wheels that are pretty complex. Our goal is to help our clients stand out in a field of boxy food trucks. When one of our carts goes to an event, we want everyone’s eyes to focus on it.”
And stand out they do. Their first customer heard about their food carts at a solar festival in Vermont. The cart Bristol and Fuller built for her looks like a yellow house with shingles, a green roof and a porch where people can watch the chef as she cooks. They’re now completing one that looks like a rustic, weathered barn for a client in northern California who intends to use it to sell espresso at outdoor weddings in wine country.
The company’s most prominent customer was airline JetBlue, which hired SolarCart to construct a custom food cart to be operated for one day only – at the 2019 Boston Marathon. When the marathon was over, JetBlue returned the cart, and Bristol and Fuller are now seeking a partner to operate it in South Kingstown, perhaps near URI.
This summer, they are also building carts for customers in Florida and Texas who heard about the company via Roaming Hunger, a website that books food trucks for events around the country.
While marketing their business to potential clients has been a major undertaking, Bristol said the biggest challenge has been learning the construction skills needed to build the carts.
“I really had to learn everything on the fly, learn it all from scratch,” he said. “Before I started, I didn’t know much about construction, but now I’m welding, doing woodworking, sheet metal work, and everything else.”
He’s also enjoying the creative side of designing unique food carts, and he’s especially proud that their end product is more affordable than typical food trucks.
“If you were going to buy a big food truck, you’re probably going to spend around $80,000, but you could buy one of our set-ups plus a brand new F250 pickup truck, and it would still be cheaper than a food truck,” Bristol said.
And because solar carts don’t need a generator to provide power, they’re quieter and cleaner than almost every other type of food truck. “Food trucks are a growing contributor to pollution in many cities because of the generators,” he added. “When you order from a food truck, you get a breath of fresh diesel fuel. But with our carts, we’ve eliminated use of the generator, and even if there’s no sun for three days, you can still plug it in at home to recharge it.”
The next step for Bristol and Fuller is to seek out places where solar carts can be established in more permanent locations.
“I want to get back to the community hub idea,” Bristol said. “Instead of being mobile, I want to find places where we can operate in one spot and lease them out. I’m a really social person, and I like the idea that my food carts connect people and bring chefs into the industry where they might not have been before. The goal is to build the carts and lease them in prime commercial areas.
“And maybe eventually,” he added, “we’ll be franchising them.”