Menagerie: Running a Business Out of a Vintage Airstream

Menagerie: Running a Business Out of a Vintage Airstream Trailer

When someone is running an organic beauty products business out of a vintage Airstream trailer in a permanent cart pod in Portland, especially if that person has escaped brutal Chicago winters for warmer climes, I'm tempted to think that person is beating me at life. But in this interview, Casey Shagena talks about the realities of owning Menagerie, the actual cost of launching a mobile business, and how she really makes her income.

Your shop is in located inside a 1979 Airstream trailer?

Yes.

At first I was confused about the logistics of that, because I’m wondering: how do you permanently park an Airstream somewhere, because you have a physical address. But I Google Streetviewed you and I found out about the cart pod that you’re a part of, which is something that we don’t have here in Chicago and I’m not sure people who aren’t from Portland would be familiar with. So, can you explain how that works?

In Portland, food carts are really big —they're huge — and they have these areas called “pods” where it’s just a private owner of a lot and you rent a space from them and they set up all your utilities, they set up the water, compliant with health code and things. It’s a really common thing in Portland for food carts but not for retail. I was sort of just hoping that I would get a spot in a food pod and, if not, I was planning on renting directly from a private owner — maybe a storefront that sold clothes would let me park on their lot because I don’t sell clothes or something like that, just rent a space.

But I got really lucky. I saw a post that Lodekka — the another retail bus — was moving to a new pod that was opening up in August so I just called the woman who owned it. She was trying to build a food pod that was more than just food. It was sort of a new idea in Portland because they’re all food, basically. She made it a lot more neighborhood-like, outfitted with patio lights, a fire pit and a farmer’s market, so it was much more of a community center.

Yeah, it looks beautiful! It looks amazing.

It’s really cool.

What were you doing before you moved out to Portland?

We moved out here last year from Chicago, and one of the reasons we moved was that I wanted to start a small business. We had gone down to Austin and sort of looked around there, and they have a few mobile businesses too, and I thought it was such a cool idea. We came out to Portland on vacation and I met the woman that owns Lodekka, which is the other retail cart in Portland, and I was just so inspired by what she was doing. In Chicago you just can’t do that type of thing.

Up until then, I worked for a couple of companies as a package designer for beauty  — for about eight years. I worked in product development and did package and graphic design full time. Then, I went off on my own to do freelance design.  So, me and my boyfriend were both doing freelance graphic design and  living in Chicago — he’s from Chicago, I’m from Michigan — and I think it was the year we got the winter that was just incredibly cold.

That was last winter! It was terrible. That was the worst winter ever.

It was! It was a year ago or a year and half ago or so. We were just sort of  like, “Let’s get the hell out of this town!” Like I said, we went to Austin and we were really considering moving there because it was such a progressive city with less red tape to go through to start a business than Chicago. And then we had some free time and decided to go out to Portland and we were like, “Oh, Portlandia is on and lets check out this is a weird town. Let’s just go visit,” thinking nothing of it. Then, we came out here and it was such a magical place. It’s run by small businesses, everybody is so community minded — everyone’s really supportive, the food’s great, the nature’s great, the city life is great, it’s just more affordable. There’s so many great things about Portland that we didn’t get in Chicago, so we just, on one visit, decided to move and came out here.

There’s so many people moving out here. It’s sort of becoming almost overcrowded, but people will basically move out here without a job because they love the city so much, so there’s a lot of unemployment! Lots of overly qualified people with degrees living out here in their mid-thirties.

Menagerie PDX vintage airstream business

Are you still freelancing?

I am. I work with a company that’s based in Chicago and they have an office in New York, and they do private label perfume, so, I do graphic design and art direction for them. And then, I work for another small natural cosmetics company out of Chicago, doing all their creative direction and design as well.

So, you’re able to make a living freelancing and doing Menagerie. What’s the combination of income that pays for your life?

Oh, definitely it’s all from freelance. I mean, at this point I don’t really make an income from Menagerie. I make 100% of my income from the freelance job. I did have five clients, then I cut it down to two, so… They’re still able to pay me enough money where I can live and survive, but… I mean, if I were to switch over to freelance in Portland — Portland pays way less than Chicago, so, I was lucky enough to bring it with me.

Are you year round in the Airstream? Is that open 365 out there?

Yes.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of retrofitting the Airstream to be a shop? How did you know what you were doing?

I didn’t! I didn’t. We have Honda Civic, so I didn’t really think that part through. I sort of just jumped into it. But luckily enough Portland is so easy to get started, you don’t really have to get extensive permits or anything. As long as I have a contractor work on it. So, what I did was I shopped around. I looked on Craigslist, I looked at dealerships — and I ended up going with a dealership. There’s an Airstream dealership out here and they have vintage and new trailers, and the reason I chose them was because I was worried that if I bought something off of Craigslist, it’d be cheaper but I might run into electrical problems or really deep-in-the-vehicle problems that I couldn’t see on the surface. So, by purchasing from a dealership, they were able to do a 10-point inspection and they were able to make sure that it had running lights, that the electrical was all set up…

They did about two thousand dollars worth of repairs on it before I pulled it off the lot and then all I had to do was cosmetic work. So, then I took it to a contractor who had worked on food carts and tiny houses before. They had never done a retail store, but it was kind of easy for them because they just pulled everything out of it; there was a kitchen, a bathroom, bedroom, carpet, all that. They pulled it all out. We wanted it to have rustic floors and white walls, so that was really easy. We went to a salvage yard for the flooring and then he basically patched any holes on the inside and then just made it completely white and all we had to do was buy our own displays and set it all up. So, it was pretty quick, I think, once I pulled it out of the dealership lot, it was maybe two and a half weeks and he was done with it.

So this wasn’t a DIY project, you just hired a contractor and said “This is what I want it to look like.”

I did. I think if I would have been somewhere like back home, my dad could have done it. He's actually a construction guy and done that his whole life, so if I was in the Midwest renovating it I probably would have said “Dad, let's just go and do it ourselves,” and worked on it with him. Because we would have had the space and the tools and whatnot. But because we had just literally moved out here to Portland — I think we moved out here February, and I bought the trailer in June — it was really quick. We lived in an apartment, so we had nowhere to renovate it.

Right, it’s not like you could park it in a garage and work on it.

Right. Luckily, I had been saving my money for a while from the freelance business to open a shop business. And this is a lot cheaper than doing a storefront, so…

How much did it cost to do this, in terms of buying the trailer and then paying for the contractor?

I think I bought the trailer for… I want to say $9,500, which is pretty cheap to me, considering it’s the biggest Airstream they have. And it was in pretty good shape, I mean, the inside was disgustingly ugly but, outside, it was in really good shape and it was mobile. It had good wheels on it and the tail lights worked. And then I probably put another $2,500 into it at the dealership just to make sure that it was completely in shape. And then, with the contractor, I want to say I spent about $10,000-12,000 total. So it ended up being around $20,000-23,000, I think. Then I maybe spent another couple thousand— maybe another $1,000 or $2,000 on displays and just sort of retrofitting the look on the inside on my own. It wasn’t cheap!

Menagerie PDX vintage airstream trailer business interior buildout 

But I think you’re right, where you’re not having to rent a storefront and you don’t have to build out a storefront.

Totally, and then I own it. I mean, if I would have done a storefront, it probably would have been the same amount, but I would have been dumping money into something that I don’t own. And worst case scenario, I have Airstream!

You can consider this as an asset — right? — because you could sell the whole thing, fixtures and everything now, and that’s worth a lot of money.

It’s worth a lot! I mean, there was another woman, she had a little one — I think maybe twenty-one foot Airstream, it was in great shape, but — she was selling flowers out of it for a little while and then she moved back to France. She sold the Airstream, I think, for $20,000-$30,000. Just as-is, no business, just the Airstream, to someone who wanted it. I don’t know if the person who bought it was another food cart or they just wanted the trailer. So, they retain their value. I think that it’s definitely considered an asset.

How much time are you spending at the shop each week?

We’re closed Mondays and Tuesdays, so I work there Wednesdays through Sunday and I do my design job Mondaythrough Thursday. So, needless to say, I don’t have a day off yet! But I do have a girl that helps me sometimes with sitting in the shop when I can’t.

What’s the Tidbit community like?

It’s awesome! It’s really great. The food cart owners in Portland are the hardest working people I’ve ever met because they’re so passionate. They all want and dream about starting their own business but they might not have the financial backing that a bigger company or someone with a lot of resources would. So, they’re sort of the underdogs of the restaurant community. They’re just — they’re so passionate, they’re so creative, they make great food -—I think the food at the food carts is better than in the restaurants here. It’s just that they’re able to be more nimble and they can try out different things. They are also the owners and operators working there, so they’re there every day and, of course, they do have their back-and-forth tests with each other. But because I’m a retail cart, everybody’s friends with me, because I buy their food and we all get along because we’re not competitive to each other… It’s a really great community. The food pod also has live music sometimes; there’s violinists who just set up and play or — someone was playing the clarinet the other day! It’s a nice community — it’s feels more of a community than a storefront would, I think.

I want to go back to this idea that you can’t do this in Chicago. Can you talk about your experience researching Chicago versus Austin versus Portland? 

I didn’t do too much research on licensing in Chicago, but I know that in most cities you have to be mobile, where you actually have to move, and that’s because you are only supposed to be parking on public access streets and then you can only park on those streets for a certain amount of time. So, it might be a three-hour thing or during-a-certain-time-of-the-day thing, and that’s why in a lot of cities, you'll see food trucks that will pull up during lunchtime and then leave after lunch because they can’t sit on a public space for longer than whatever it is, three hours.

Chicago, I don’t know specifically, but I do know that — I think it was around when we were leaving, we heard something about how they were trying to get food carts to come to Chicago and they turned it down.

Yeah, there’s been a lot of back and forth on the regulation here and they’re just very highly regulated, you can do it but you can’t sell within a certain distance of actual restaurant.

Oh, and you can’t make food on the cart! You can sell food, but only if it's not cooked on the truck, which is the whole point! In that case you would then have to rent a space to have your food prepped and cooked and then you might as well have a restaurant! I feel like places like Chicago and even New York and a couple of bigger cities, they just really embrace big business and lots of commerce and money and they don’t really support small businesses as much as they should.

Did you find that Austin was really small business supportive?

It was, yeah. And I, again, hadn’t done a lot of looking into their regulations, but you can just tell by being there that there was more small business than there was big business and chains… And they had a lot of food cart parks, and I’m pretty sure they were stationary because they were areas where you could go and visit three or four food carts at a time.

And had you decided that you did want to be stationary or were you open to the idea of being mobile and towing the Airstream?

I thought about being mobile during the whole start-up phase. I thought that I would probably stay stationary for maybe the first year, just to get my feet about me, then I would go on the road and do the mobile circuit — maybe in California where it’s really nice outside — but I decided against it. Within the last couple of months I really decided against it. We had a little pop-up thing at our food cart pod and a couple of girls who own vintage trailer shops in California just happened to be in the area for another event, so we invited them. We talked to them about the pros and cons of being on the road and they said it was really stressful to do the mobile thing. They basically told us that being mobile is so constant — not only are you living out of hotels, because realistically, it’s hard to stay in a trailer, but you’re just setting up and taking down at every show. And it’s one thing to do that for vintage clothes where you just bringa rack out for set up, but it’s another thing for beauty products and little small, glass items that you have to basically break down and then set it back up every single day. It just seemed like — that doesn’t seem very profitable, you know?

Not to mention the gas money.

Yeah, the gas money! And I’d have to buy a completely new car to tow it since I only I have a Civic.

So your shop is mostly filled with small batch, handcrafted cosmetics, toiletries, gifts. How do you find the makers?

I would say mostly Pinterest and Instagram.

How do you approach them once you do the research? How do you ask about their wholesale?

It sounds funny, but I usually approach them based on their packaging first. I imagine it’s because of the packaging person in me just loves a good look. And obviously, they have to be natural, because that’s only what we carry. Then I go on their website and I research what types of ingredients they use and go to their about page and read what philosophy they have. If they seem like they’re a good fit, I reach out to them via e-mail and just request samples or order samples to try. If the quality’s there and the product’s really great, then I would purchase them.

Are there a lot of people out there doing this, to where you’re never hurting for new vendors to find?

No, I mean, it’s hard. There’s a lot of natural products out there and a lot of small batch products, but they look a little more hand-done and really crappy graphics. You can tell the people who put time and energy into their branding and people who just kind of make it in their kitchen.

Your background is in package design. Every single item in your shop has amazing package design. How much do you know about the process of taking your hand-done brand to the next level if you don’t have a background in package design? How does a person who isn’t a graphic designer make their product, which might be on the same level as the products that are inside these really cool packages, look that good?

I see graphic design or package design as a professional service. Just like you would hire somebody to do your accounting or a contractor. I couldn't necessarily do that good of work myself, so I would hire a contractor to outfit my Airstream, to make it look right. It's the same with design.

I just think design is so important, because I feel like the natural, small batch industry is big but it’s still not mainstream. And I don’t think that we’re going to change people habits of using chemical products over to buying natural products unless the products themselves are trustworthy and you feel like you can buy them because they’re good and they’re quality. I think that’s where design can help.

You might have great products, but if someone who’s used to buying Clinique looks at your product and it looks like it’s handmade in your basement, they’re not going to buy it because they’re not going to trust it. I don’t feel like we can change the industry until the few people who do focus on design as much as they focus on what’s in the product come forward and are able to sell their products. We want to help change the industry by gathering all these really great products, inside and out, and present them to customers who are not used to buying them.

Do you think that you’ll eventually graduate from the cart pod?

I don’t know. I thought about it, I thought about doing brick and mortar, but we have such a great support system here in Portland, from people who live here that are really into the idea of a mobile cart, to the people who are coming here from out of state who are just completely fascinated by it. I don’t think that it would be that big of an appeal if I open a brick and mortar. I think if I did a brick and mortar, it would be in a different area of Portland and then just keep the mobile business. I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of the mobile business; I just love it too much.

I wonder how scalable it is. Are you looking to turn this into something that you can live off of and retire off of?

I’d love to! It’s that weird, hard in-between. I don’t want to grow too big because I do like to have my hands on everything. I don’t want to go away from small business because that’s really important. But I also don’t want to work two jobs for the rest of my life, you know?

Do you have other businesses that you look up to? What was your inspiration?

Oh gosh, that’s hard. My dad owned his own small business. He had a construction business when I was growing up, so I was really inspired by him, and then my aunt also owned a dental business and I was inspired by her. So, it was sort of in the family, growing up. But I really don’t know a lot of people in business here who I can bounce ideas off of.

I want to go back to researching vendors on Pinterest and Instagram. When you go to Instagram, for instance, what do you search for? I mean, how do you tactically find vendors through Instagram and Pinterest?

A couple different ways. One of them is I’ve always followed different boutiques just because I love boutiques. I love stores, I love merchandising, so I’ve always followed boutiques. There may be a boutique in Brooklyn that I follow and they just posted about a new jewelry line that they’ve got in store and then I look at the line and “holy cow, it’s perfect for our shop, too.” So there’s a lot of that or, you know, I go on that jewelry line’s Instagram and maybe she’s not perfect for us but she just tagged her friend, who’s another jewelry designer. So, it’s kind of finding people on Instagram with the same aesthetics and the same sort of look and feel and sense of style, I guess.

Are you on Instagram?

Oh, yeah. Instagram has been kind of a huge thing for us. We’ve gotten a lot of followers and a lot of customers on Instagram.

What advice do you have for people on making good content for Instagram?

Oh, that’s hard. That’s hard because I feel like when I post content, I’m always like, “I sound so sales-y.” And I don’t want to because I want our shop to grow organically and not by just being like, “Hey, come buy this today!”

That’s the hardest part, I think: coming up with content that’s relevant. I watch other people that I really admire, there’s a couple of their shops in Portland that I think just have really great content. So, I kind of see how they throw in a little more personal voice and people respond to that more than they respond to, “We just got this in store, 50% off today!” They respond more to, “Just got these rings in, they’re totally rad. Look, I want to wear one on every finger,” you know?

If you make it more personal, that’s what people respond to.

Do you find it difficult to do that? I feel like some people have a disconnect between — do you talk as the business or do you talk as yourself?

Oh, that’s hard too! I don’t know, I slip off back and forth. I’ve actually found that the more I am more personal, the more people respond to it. But I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to be in front of the camera, so it’s hard. That’s really hard. I think that most people probably struggle with that. I’ve seen a few really great Instagram accounts where the owner is front and center and I think they get a lot more traffic than we do.

What’s a big challenge for you, now? Something you might’ve done differently?

One thing that I struggle with now, and I’ve struggled with since the beginning, is physical support. If I were to do it all over again, I would’ve waited until I had gotten established in the town or, you know, have my family live somewhere close by. Owning a retail business is so much different than owning a design business. There are so many things to do physically: run errands, take pictures… There are just so many things to do that I could use three of me to help me. So, if there was something that I could do differently, it probably would have been to establish myself a support system before I opened a business so I could actually lean on other people.

Would you have waited — once you’ve been to Portland — would you have waited a couple of years so that you knew more people?

I think that if I was smarter, I would have! That would have made it a lot easier to start up because it’s been really hard having no support. And now, I’m building the support. Now I have people like Natalie in my life, where I can call her and ask her questions. I’ve made friends now where if I need something, run here or there, I’ve got a girl who can help me. But, in the very beginning, it was very hard without any physical support. Physical, mental and otherwise!

photos by Mattie Krall and Jennifer Alyse

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