Mobile Retail: Is Knoxville Ready for Clothing Boutique Trucks?

Move that food truck over—there's a whole new breed of mobile vendor rolling onto Knoxville city streets.

Or at least, that's what Alisha Schuett has in mind. Now that the city has embraced the presence of food trucks downtown with a new pilot program permitting them to operate in select locations and certain times, Schuett is seeking to open the door (or the road) for other mobile vendors with her Vagabond Roaming Boutique, a rolling women's clothing-and-accessories store.

It won't be easy, though. The process that changed city ordinances to allow more latitude for food trucks was a long one, and city officials say there may not be enough demand—yet—to justify another legislative overhaul.

"Right now, we're still looking at how the [food truck] pilot program is going," says Patrica Robledo, the city's business liaison. "With food trucks, it was quite the lengthy process—there are so many moving parts, so many departments involved. I'm not sure we're ready to look at more changes yet."

A stylish, raven-haired woman in her early 30s, Schuett is a Nashville native who moved to Knoxville for college at the University of Tennessee. Though she never graduated, she sampled a host of diverse class offerings and majors—business administration, public relations, logistics, anthropology—before finally giving up on academia and heading to New York City, and the promise of new adventure, in 2009.

"I reached a point where I said to myself, ‘I'm just a bad student, and school doesn't interest me. I need to stop,'" she chuckles. "And I had wanted to go to New York. It was one of those things where I've always wanted to live there while I'm young and unattached, then move back. It was always meant to be temporary."

And move back she did, to Knoxville, four years ago, taking a job at a local restaurant. But her first love was fashion. In the early ‘00s, she began dabbling with online retail, buying vintage dresses at thrift stores and reselling them on eBay, eventually graduating to her own Etsy operation.

By the time she got to NYC, though, the Internet was crowded with online women's clothing. "The market was oversaturated, for sure," she says. "Every other girl on the street had an Etsy store. It was frustrating; it was hard to break in and make a name for yourself."

While in New York, Schuett took a job with a larger online women's retailer where she learned "everything not to do. I observed lots of mistakes, and I took note of them." She quit that job after eight months.

Upon moving back to Knoxville, Schuett heard from a friend in San Franciso who said she knew another woman who had gutted and repainted an old box truck, filled it with clothing, and set out to market her wares on the 'frisco streets. She, in turn, had picked up on the idea from a budding trend in Los Angeles.

The clothing-truck movement, which Schuett estimates is less than five years old, has pushed east, to other urban areas. Mobile fashion is gaining traction in New York; it's entered Boston; there are even a couple trucks in Nashville, she says.

When Schuett learned about mobile fashion, and saw its potential, she made some bold moves. "I had just turned 32, and I was ready to stop treading water," she says. She quit her restaurant job, pulled money out of savings, and purchased an old Frito-Lay delivery vehicle off craigslist from a elderly farmer in Rutledge, a rusty box truck situated on a hill surrounded by fields of goats and llamas.

She had it renovated by a couple of local design firms—"The renovation has been more expensive than the truck itself, by about three times," she says—and made arrangements with clothing wholesalers out of Atlanta, plus a handful of local jewelry designers. She formulated a marketing plan that calls for stylish but affordable (mostly $40 to $60 price range) clothing and accessories for women 18 to 40, with a few men's accessories thrown in for husbands- and boyfriends-in-tow.

Then she set her sights on a grand opening, of sorts, at the Knoxville Rhythm ‘n' Blooms music festival this past April.

At Rhythm ‘n' Blooms, Schuett says Vagabond was a big hit. "It went well—it was overwhelmingly successful," she says. "It's been my best weekend so far."

But Schuett faces a number of challenges despite that impressive initial splash. According to city ordinances, a business like Vagabond can only operate on private property, with permission from the property owners, or at special events held on city property, with permission from event organizers.

"I've been sort of tethered to special events, so far," Schuett says. "I'm trying to find parking lots I can use on Saturday, to coincide with the Farmer's Market. I'm also trying to team up with businesses out west. I may even try out of town."

In all, Schuett says the feedback she's received has been good. "The excitement has been great; lots of people are excited because they've never seen this kind of thing before," she says. "The flip side is having to hammer away at finding places to sell, which is really time consuming.

"I am making money. Not tons of it, but enough to keep it open. Which is my number-one goal."

In other cities, many brick-and-mortar establishments have complained that mobile vendors enjoy unreasonable competitive advantages, in that they can easily move to different high-traffic areas, carry little in the way of overhead, and (in some circumstances) may be subject to fewer regulations.

Such objections arose in Knoxville when food trucks made their push here last year, as a coalition of 21 Gay Street, Market Square, and Old City restaurants formed the Downtown Knoxville Restaurant Owners. One of the group's requests was that food trucks confine their operations to the World's Fair Park.

Schuett says she hasn't heard any of those complaints to date—with the exception of a single meeting with the owner of a bar/eatery near downtown who filled her ear while she was still researching her prospects prior to Vagabond's roll-out. "He kept using words like ‘leeching' and ‘piggy-backing' and ‘glomming' and ‘parasitic,'" she remembers. "He was the only business owner I spoke to who didn't seem to get it."

Downtown business owner Paula West has a double stake in the mobile vendor question: She is proprietress of downtown's Earth to Old City, which has a limited selection of clothing and accessories (about 10 percent of stock), and she is also owner of Preservation Pub on Market Square, which sells food.

West says she believes, for the most part, in helping and encouraging entrepreneurs like Schuett. "I think businesses like that are exciting," says West. "There's a cool factor there. It means there's some diversity. And it usually means your downtown is doing well.

"I don't believe it should be just carte blanche, where you can set up anytime in front of my store. There should be parameters. But to me, that diversity of choices, more competition, those things mean a better downtown. I'm not going to do more business because I'm the only person here."

But for now, it's a moot point. Robledo says that getting the new food truck pilot program in place was a year-and-a-half-long process, encompassing multiple city departments. "There are communications issues, police issues, zoning, you name it," Robledo says. "I'm not sure what the process [for other non-food mobile vendors] would look like.

"We started the food truck program because those operators came to us looking for more options. But the demand may not be there for the others, at this point. I do get some requests from other types of [mobile] vendors, though. So it may be something we revisit in the future."

At least, at this point, Schuett knows where she stands. "It's kind of like I'm small potatoes right now," she says. "So I just plug away in the places where I can sell, and not worry about where I can't. It's probably going to take more vendors to step forward, more voices alongside me to get things moving toward changing the laws."