Fairfield couple find happiness selling coffee on wheels
Former Greenwich High student brews up a new lifestyle with converted school bus
Published 1:00 am, Sunday, June 1, 2014
It's just another Thursday at the office for Alex and Jessica Grutkowski.
Glorious blue skies. Warming temps as noon approaches. Parked in a shaded corner of the Earthplace nursery school parking lot in Westport, they are surrounded by tall trees, chirping birds and children -- along with moms, dads and teachers, who appear gravitationally pulled to the couple's converted school bus.
Alex and Jessica, 37 and 35 years old, are in their element. They're wearing jeans and T-shirts. They're chatting up friends and strangers. Over the years, they've each had big jobs in New York City. But they've never had this.
"I love this," says Alex, a look on his face like the first day of vacation. "I got up this morning and I was so pumped to get out here."
It wasn't always like this. They met in the late `90s at Boston University and moved together after graduating to New York City. Jessica, who had gone to Greenwich High, got a job in public relations. Alex, who had gone to Amity High in Woodbridge, got a job as a product manager in online advertising for a startup called Adtech. Before too long, Jessica had had enough of her job. The day she informed her bosses that she had enrolled in culinary school, she received other news: she was pregnant.
Nine months later, she gave birth to identical twin girls, Zoe and Izzy. The family went straight from the Manhattan hospital to their new home in Fairfield.
Alex quickly learned the rigors of a two-hour commute. He detested the time away from his family. The feeling intensified after his company was scooped up by AOL, and the office culture grew stuffier. Sometimes, he would step out of work and come across a big orange truck parked in the middle of lower Manhattan's Astor Place. The truck was from Mudspot Cafe, a funky eatery in the East Village. Looking inside, he would feel a twinge of envy.
"There would be a guy in there, listening to Phish and pouring coffee, and I'd think, `Man, that looks like a lot more fun,' " he said. "Then I'd schlepp into the subway."
He would schlepp all over for his job, including overseas.
"Those first few years, I barely saw my kids," he says with regret. "Literally, it was painful to leave all the time."
Brainstorming a business
Instead, he left his job. It was late 2012. Finally, with more time on his hands, he caught up with his daughters and brainstormed business ideas with his wife. He also did some consulting work from home. They thought of opening a miniature golf course. They looked at downtown Fairfield's shuttered Community Theatre, which closed in 2011.
The idea came to Jessica one day last May. She was in downtown Westport, standing in line at Starbucks, a little edgy because she had to pick up her kids from Earthplace Nursery School. She was about to order when the guy ahead of her in line whipped out a paper. He placed at least a dozen orders -- and complicated ones.
Jessica, who is easygoing by nature, is transformed as she recalls it.
"I wanted to go crazy, I was so angry!" she said. "I thought, `Why isn't this easier?' "
At once, the idea hit her. She even thought of the name "Buzz Truck."
"I came home and told Alex, and he was like, `All right, let's do this!' "
The problem was, they knew nothing about trucks. So last June, in a spirit of research, they went to the "Pop Shop Market" taking place in the downtown parking lot of Fairfield Theatre Company. Alex, a fan of French fries, got excited when he saw a truck called "Fryborg." He recalls walking up to get some.
"Jon?" he asked in surprise.
"Alex?" said the guy inside, an old friend from Amity High.
Before long, FryBorg's Jon Gibbons was advising Alex and Jessica on how to get their own food truck up and running. He told them about Manchester-based Creative Mobile Systems -- and about Brian Smith, the guy who turns old trucks into rolling eateries.
Up and running
Finding the truck took seemingly forever. Finally, after five months Alex came across a posting on Craigslist, from a small gas station located in Sturbridge, Mass. He went up with Brian Smith, who said he could indeed transform the painted-blue school bus into the Buzz Truck.
The Grutkowskis documented the project on the Buzz Truck's Facebook page. It wasn't ready until about a month ago, and the truck rolled out for its first day of business on April 27.
Since then, Alex and Jess have been getting up early, brewing coffee, and heading out to park at various hot spots in Fairfield, Southport and Westport. They frequent train stations, parks and playgrounds. On weekends, with their daughters in tow, they visit baseball and soccer fields. They're finalizing a packet of information for catering.
Inside the bus, almost everything is stainless steel. Their cash register is a tablet computer, which accepts credit cards. The bus has two sinks, a collection of spring-water jugs that gets piped into drip-coffee makers, bins of coffee beans from Trumbull-based Shearwater Organic Coffee Roasters and satellite radio so Alex can listen in the mornings to Howard Stern.
These days, he has a lot more time for his daughters. "They call it Buzzie," he said. "They love helping out, which I think is great."
Their first time inside, the girls took out crayons and drew a bunch of pictures. The Grutkowskis still have one taped to a storage container. It's of a flower, and a heart, and something that might be a heart, but it's hard to tell. It definitely has a coffee stain.
"I left it there for good luck," Alex said.
Longer term, the Grutkowskis' business plan is evolving. They could acquire a fleet of coffee trucks, says Alex. They could open a physical location, too. Buzz Cafe, perhaps. But that might undermine the brand. Alex would love to see his daughters work the truck for their first real job at 16. But that's 10 years away.
Shorter term, they know one thing for sure. On June 8, the Fairfield Theatre Company is staging another "Pop Shop Market." FryBorg will be there, Alex said. And so will the Buzz Truck.
"It will be special coming full circle," he said. "To see Jon a year after we were just thinking of it as a concept, to now be like, `OK, we did it. We're doing it. We're doing well.' "
"To go from asking where he got his truck fitted to rolling up and being like, `Hey, can you move over a little bit? I gotta park.' "