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Mobile businesses expand in Ithaca over last five years

Nancy Gruen sits at her mobile nail station. She will be offering free trials for the rest of this month.

A mobile nail business is joining an accelerating trend in Ithaca, a hub-city for this business model from as far back as 1918.

The movement began when Louie’s Lunch first opened its truck doors in between world wars. Then, the Hot Truck opened in the 1960’s.  Since 2009, at least four more food trucks have been established, including Collegetown Crêpes, which opened Oct. 1. Planning for the Circus Truck began in 2009, The Good Truck opened in Fall 2010 and The Icebox Snowballs opened in May 2013.

Nancy Gruen, former owner of Bluestone Bar and Grill, joined the movement in early September, beginning with free manicure trials to attract customers. The restaurant she owned with her husband burned down in a fire in November 2012, and her life changed. Two years later, her husband has a new job and Nancy has decided to go back to the trade she was in years before they opened the restaurant, but in a modernized format.

Nancy’s Nails in Motion offers clients in-home nail service. Although this new venture is not operated out of a truck, it fits the changing definition of a mobile business.

Stacey Jischke-Steffe, co-founder of the American Mobile Retail Association, says that although the AMRA defines a mobile business as one operating out of a vehicle, she personally thinks of a mobile business as anything where the product and vendor are on the move, such as in-home product sales.

When Jischke-Steffe opened her mobile fashion truck in 2011, she says, other mobile business-owners started looking to her for advice. She says that what many once called a trend is more than that. “I don’t see it as a trend at all. I see it as a way of doing business.”

Tom West and Kathy Gehring, employees at the City of Ithaca Department of Public Works, were involved in the formulation of an official street vendor policy. The policy was created, West said, because the DPW recognizes the benefit of and demand for these mobile businesses. However, they say that there is opposition from traditional brick-and-mortar restaurants who feel that their business will suffer from the introduction of mobile businesses.

West says that traditional businesses and food trucks fill different niches. “If I’m going out to eat and I’m going to have a meal, I’m not likely to just decide to skip that and have a crêpe or a taco.”

In addition to providing customers with a certain product, mobile businesses also provide them with a different consumer experience, Jischke-Steffe says.

“For a lot of trucks, either the designer is in the truck, so you’re buying straight from the designer themselves, or lot of people are working with local people and so you’re getting a unique product and a quality product at a really great, affordable price,” she said.

Nancy’s Nails in Motion is aiming to be no exception to that. Gruen said she hopes to bring her skill into the homes of Ithacans to provide them with a personal experience.

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