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Deals On Wheels

New city program helps retail stores launch mobile businesses.

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Food trucks have taught Memphians how to shop on the street over the past two years, and that experience has laid the groundwork for the next evolution in mobile marketing.

Five mobile retailers will get their formal debuts this Thursday through the launch of the MEMMobile program from Memphis City Hall. The trucks will offer jeans, t-shirts, bicycle products and services, and more.    

Most of the participating trucks have already hit the streets, taking advantage of the spring weather and big events like Memphis In May and South Main Trolley Night. Thursday's rollout will gather all the trucks at City Hall from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., with food trucks, music, and speeches from city leaders. 

Jim Steffen’s Bikesmith truck
  • Jim Steffen’s Bikesmith truck

The program began last year as a part of the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team's efforts to boost the economies of certain Memphis neighborhoods. The program started with $75,000 and research on mobile retail in peer cities such as Nashville, New Orleans, and Chicago. 

The MEMMobile program offers entrepreneurs forgivable loans of up to $25,000 to buy and design a truck and to get their business off the ground. The business owners also receive technical business training and advice from

alt.Consulting, a non-profit business consulting firm.  

The mayor's team had hoped to get at least 10 applications for the program when they started MEMMobile. But they ended up receiving 20.

 "It sort of blew us away to realize that there were so many entrepreneurs who were definitely interested," said Abby Miller, project manager for the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team. "A lot of them said they had this idea and were thinking about it, but, all of a sudden, this incentive was their tipping point to say 'Let's dive in and see what we could do with this.'"

 The applications were vetted by a committee of economic development professionals, food truck operators, and the Memphis Grizzlies mobile retail team. Some ideas, like mobile window replacement or art framing, weren't right for the program, Miller said. The five that were approved had the right blend of financial viability, engaging the public at large, and contributing to the core city.

Given the city's growing bicycle infrastructure, Miller said the Bikesmith truck "was a natural for this." Truck owner Jim Steffen said he and his business partner, his wife Julia Steffen, were considering a move away from Memphis to open a bike shop when he ran into Tommy Pacello, a project manager with the mayor's team, who told him, "Don't move away. Memphis needs you here to do this kind of stuff."

"[MEMMobile] seemed like a brilliant way to get into a bike shop for a much lower start-up cost," Steffen said.

Opening a brick-and-mortar shop would have been "tough," he said, listing the cost of a lease and buying expensive inventory. Much of that start-up cost will be defrayed by the MEMMobile program as long as Steffen provides quarterly financial reports to alt.Consulting and can prove that his business is actually working out.     

Other MEMMobile trucks include clothing stores Sache, Henny Penny, Thigh High Jeans, and K'Presha.


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