"We started our business because we couldn't find good coffee here in Hossegor", explains Milk Coffee Co. founder Ben. The coffee van business that British couple Ben and Danielle started a year ago is thriving. At the centre of Europe's surf clothing and retail industry, the Milk Coffee Co. has clearly cornered an untapped market. During the morning we spent at the van with Ben and Danielle a steady flow of customers came to grab their morning java - from the solo early risers to the mid-morning groups of designers and marketeers who work in the offices of surf clothing giants like Billabong and Ripcurl nearby. It's an international and well-travelled crowd with a thirst for Flat Whites, Frappuccinos and Lattes.
We came across the Milk Coffee Co. on Facebook and then stumbled upon their beautiful vintage Citroen H van under some pines in Hossegor's commercial zone. Ben and Danielle had seen the We Follow The Sun van around town and greeted us with a warm "you found us!" and we agreed to come back for a proper chat and a coffee. We were intrigued to find out more about their business.
Ben and Danielle met when they were both about 18 years old, while working as ski instructors on California's Mammoth Mountain. They travelled together in Australia the following summer and Ben then 'followed' Danielle to Leeds University, as he puts it.
"I phoned Leeds University from the back of a van in Australia and asked them what courses they had. I told them I was interested in graphics, they said they only had fashion design. And that's how I got into the fashion industry."
Ben went on to get an internship at Ripcurl's office in Annecy in the French Alps, which led to a job in Hossegor. Seven years later they decided to start their own café in a bid to provide Hossegor and themselves with the good coffee they missed from the UK. Their search for a premises hit a wall due to the high costs and the reluctance of local landlords. So inspired by the global food truck phenomenon, they looked for a suitable vehicle and eventually found their 1968 Citreon H van on a vineyard in Belgium. It had driven the same kilometre stretch taking the grapes to be pressed every harvest since new. They shipped the van to the UK where it was kitted out by a catering van specialist near Cambridge.
"He was used to doing funfair burger and chip vans so we had to explain that we didn't want white formica and stainless steel everywhere," the couple explained.
The engine overhaul, bodywork and respray were carried out by a separate garage and then the van was shipped back down to France.
"It's a 14 hour trip from my home town of Liverpool to Hossegor. The longest we've driven the van is an hour and it started to complain even then so shipping was really the only option."
The van does make the five minute journey each morning and evening to their home nearby. It's also a key part of their marketing strategy.
"People love the van, they ask if they can take a photo, go shopping at the stores and outlets and then come back for a coffee. It's a great way of attracting business," explains Ben.
And business is good. They originally planned to recoup their initial investment for the van, mechanical work, fitting out, equipment and supplies within two to three years. But as Ben explained, summers in Hossegor are so busy with tourists that they have already managed to pay off their start up costs in the first year. In fact they make almost 50% of the annual revenue in the high season, from early July to mid-September.
They found the local legal system and paperwork a challenge, mainly due to the language and there are strict licensing laws which mean they can't just take the van anywhere.
"Last winter was tough," Ben commented. "It's hard being out here when it's minus five degrees. So this year we're thinking of shutting down over January and February to go travelling."
Apart from the Milk Coffee Co. Ben continues to do freelance fashion design work and Danielle runs not one, but two, online accessory businesses.
"We're trying to keep our fingers in lots of pies for the moment," says Danielle.
And on the subject of pies, not all of their ideas have translated.
"We tried serving pies here, but the local customers just weren't really interested," says Danielle. "One of the biggest things we've learned is it's very hard to change the local food culture!"
Ben agrees, "I just don't think this business would work anywhere else, even an hour inland. We've thrived here because it's so international and even the locals are really well travelled and are bought in to a more global style of coffee."
They do serve a range of homemade cakes plus fresh yoghurts with muesli. Coffee comes from Union Roasted in the UK. For events they cater breakfasts and healthy lunches, and are called in for product launches, photo shoots and private parties by the major surf brands that dominate Hossegor.
So what would they do differently?
"I'd add a plancha at the front of the van," says Danielle. "The local market really want hot food at lunchtime and that's tricky for us to provide. "
"I wouldn't change anything," says Ben. "It's been a great experience and we love the lifestyle - it's so social, we spend lots of time together and it leaves us free time to pursue other projects and our own interests."
Most importantly, the coffee is good. Carlos had an Americano double shot, black, no sugar (he's on a diet), while I tried a skinny Flat White (I'm pretending to be on a diet). Both were excellent. As we chatted and enjoyed our coffee Ben and Danielle greeted their regular customers and friends. We bumped into someone who gave us directions when we first arrived in town and we felt at the centre of the community at this charming vintage van café with it's excellent coffees and warm welcome.