More Mall Merchants Go for Gravy by Serving Up Their Wares a la Cart
Pushcarts, which have been plying the streets of the world’s cities for centuries, have been reborn in upscale shopping malls all across the country.
Today’s pushcart peddlers don’t sell secondhand clothes or seafood or fresh vegetables. They don’t offer knife and scissor sharpening. Now they feature pricey one-of-a-kind merchandise aimed at specialized markets.
At University Towne Centre the other day, these mobile merchants were catering to the Mother’s Day shopper. The sunbaked cement in the center of the mall was crowded with the hopeful mini-merchants perched on canvas director’s chairs and selling to the strolling office workers from nearby high-rises in the Golden Triangle.
While the all-day shoppers made beelines for the boutiques and department stores, the lunchtime crowds browsed happily through the cart wares, pricing glass sculpture, stylish T-shirts, handmade memorabilia and doggie biscuits.
Doggie biscuits? Well, explain the merchants at Ala Cart, gourmet pet foods are what they peddle. Pure, delectable (to pets) tidbit treats for pampered poodles and favored felines. After all, this is Be Kind to Animals Week.
It all started about two years ago when John Fall gave his wife, Carol, a cookbook.
“In the back of the book was a recipe for dog biscuits,” she said. “So I baked a batch. Our dogs wouldn’t eat them.”
She decided she could do a better job than the cookbook chef and began to experiment in her Rancho Bernardo kitchen, using the family’s registered Yorkshire terriers as critics.
John Fall, a computer systems management consultant, acknowledges that he may have done himself no favor when he brought home that book. Now, most of the gourmet meals that come hot out of the Fall oven are destined for the palates of the couple’s five Yorkies.
The Falls, like other mall pushcart peddlers, are just getting started in the merchandising game and
are not yet ready to invest a life’s savings in a store lease for their Gourmet Pet Treats from Carol’s Kitchen.
They tried placing their gourmet goodies in pet stores, but, after the stores marked up the already-stiff prices and displayed the Falls’ biscuits along with lower-priced treats, the products turned stale on the shelf.
At the dog shows the Falls and their pooches frequent, Carol’s concoctions caught on rapidly as rewards for good performances. A mail-order business grew, and she began cooking up doggie treats by the dozen.
By late 1986, Carol’s Kitchen became a going concern, and the Falls started looking for a bigger oven in which to bake the products and a better way to market them.
A couple of places, including a pizza parlor, turned down the Falls when they asked to rent out the kitchen during off hours.
‘Just Stared at Us’
The pizza man “just sort of stared at us,” John Fall said. “He finally turned us down, saying that people might think he was using dog food in his pizzas.”
Finally, the couple chanced on a health food store and bakery in Escondido. The marriage has been a happy one, because both the people food and pet food use the same unadulterated products: enriched all-purpose flour; stone-ground, organically grown whole wheat flour; real liver and anchovies, dried naturally to preserve the flavors; soy flour, lightly roasted and processed to remove the raw taste; Parmesan cheese and garlic; nonfat dry milk; and brewer’s yeast for nutrition and to discourage fleas.
Everything in the concoctions is the real thing. No preservatives. No chemical additives or flavorings. And never any of those awful “animal byproducts.”
The couple also found the perfect vehicle for marketing the munchies: a pushcart in one of San Diego’s modern malls. If the delicacies--attractive packaging and all--don’t draw crowds, the Falls bring along one of their Yorkies. The silky-haired miniatures, complete with braided topknot tied with a bow, attract admirers, who often turn into biscuit buyers.
The gourmet treats aren’t cheap. A 6-ounce bags of liver, cheese and garlic or anchovy biscuits is $4.95; the 10-ounce tin is $9.95; and the party pack, with all three flavors, goes for $17.95.
The home-grown company has branched out and now makes Hoity-Toity Kitty Tidbits and Hooty-Tooty Bird Stix. The latest hit is a pizza-flavored Woofer Waffle.
The Falls have already tested the pushcart market at La Jolla Village Square and plan to move into North County Fair in Escondido and Horton Plaza downtown as their market expands.
The Falls’ neighbor merchants at University Towne Centre are typical of the pushcart breed. They’re trying out their wares in the hope of someday joining the ranks of regular lessees with roofs over their heads.
Paula Yancy, carts manager at UTC, has managed to keep the permanent tenants from protesting the pushcart peddlers’ presence by carefully selecting the itinerants and their wares. Merchandise that competes with that in permanent mall establishments gets a cold shoulder.
“The in-line (permanent) mall tenants welcome the carts because they add a festive air to the mall,” Yancy said. Several of the stores even rent one of the 15 carts to feature some of their own specialty merchandise, she said.
Mall pushcarts surfaced several years ago on the East Coast and rapidly spread west. Horton Plaza introduced them at its opening three years ago, and most other malls in the San Diego area have followed suit, Yancy said.
“It’s a chance for the small entrepreneurs to compete with the big guys,” she said. “It’s a good way to get started.”
Horton Plaza Is Tops
Jennifer Heiderer has peddled at a pushcart for about three years, selling her husband’s clear-glass sculpture art that he fashions in the family garage.
Heiderer said pushcart vending has its moments, especially during the Christmas season, but that she and her husband hope someday to be permanent tenants, not itinerants, in one of the upscale malls in the county.
Horton Plaza is the premier site, she said, because of the large volume of shoppers. But the rent, which she said is as much as $5,600 per cart space for the Christmas season, rules out all but the pricier merchandise.
The Falls, who estimate they will begin to show a profit sometime in 1990, are hoping their UTC venture, with a rental cost of $100 a week, will be their key to success, with pet lovers beating a path to their door, or rather cart.
Yancy thinks they have a good chance to hit it big. Many cart peddlers have scored at UTC, she said, “and, after they’re gone, I get phone calls asking where they can be found. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sold as much afterward as they did while they were here.”