The Wheels on the Blue Sparrow Food Bus Go Round and Round
Updated: May 7, 2020
Founded in 2016, Blue Sparrow is a food truck fleet that serves global street food with local ingredients. From baking their own bread to pickling and fermenting their own vegetables, everything that Blue Sparrow serves is made from scratch. The menu ranges from Asian fusion items, like their Korean BBQ Burrito and Ramen Burger, to street food dishes, such as banh mi and Cuban sandwiches.
Owner Luke Cypher previously ran kitchens around Pittsburgh for many years. Inspired to launch his own culinary concept, Luke bought an old box truck on Craigslist and revamped it into the first Blue Sparrow food truck.
Since hitting the road, Blue Sparrow has achieved much critical success and built strong collaborations with local coffee shops and breweries, including Commonplace Coffee Northside, Dancing Gnome, and Eleventh Hour Brewing.
The Road Not Taken
Two years in, Blue Sparrow was at a crossroads in their growth journey. As the food truck consistently sold out at larger events, it was clear to Luke that he needed a bigger rig while staying true to Blue Sparrow’s unique charm.
“Healthy growth is really hard,” Luke admits. “There’s this fine line between making more money and making money in a healthy way. For me, the two aspects of growth are how happy my team is and how happy my customers are.”
Luke was considering taking Blue Sparrow in very different directions: “The question was, do we make a second truck that looks like the current truck we have? Do we open up a restaurant that does similar types of food? Or do we try and grow the unique thing that we’re currently doing?”
The original Blue Sparrow food truck
Around this time, Luke stumbled across a Facebook group listing for a 1956 Greyhound bus in Maryland. On a whim, he drove down to take a look at the bus and immediately fell in love. While the bus was being sold as an RV furnished with bunks beds, Luke envisioned transforming it into a novel food bus concept.
He describes, “The 1956 bus is a really appropriate response to the growth of a business that is pretty unique. The nostalgia of the bus, the uniqueness of the bus, and the draw of it is something that matches not only our food style, but also what the original truck does. There are only a couple of other buses being turned into food trucks in the whole country, let alone a vintage one like ours.”
Ramen burger, bibimbap bowl, japchae, and other yummy eats from Blue Sparrow
Luke’s plan was to turn the back half of the bus into the kitchen and the front half into the “front-of-the-house” area, where they’d take orders from customers. He also wanted to install a tap system on the bus, taking Blue Sparrow’s brewery partnerships to the next level.
But the transformation from an old Greyhound to a snazzy food bus would require tearing out the interior, buying new equipment, and adding mechanical upgrades—all things that would cost money. So where were the funds going to come from?
At this time, Luke was introduced to Honeycomb through one of his pals from the tight-knit Pittsburgh food truck community. Honeycomb’s mission to help businesses grow with the community at their side aligned strongly with the core values ingrained in Blue Sparrow.
“The reason I do a food truck is because I don't want to be stuck in a kitchen. I like to have customer interaction, and community investment and community development are a big chunk of the business is all about,” he explains. “From day one, I’ve said that I want to invest in communities, I want this to be part of my brand.”
Luke preparing an order in the food bus kitchen
Through Honeycomb, Luke would have the opportunity to pursue healthy growth with investments directly from the communities that Blue Sparrow served.
“The most positive aspect of what Honeycomb does is that it opens up an opportunity for utilizing more than just your friends and family,” Luke says. “For people to be able to invest $100 and see a return on that, they don't feel like they're just giving you money. They feel like they're a part of the process, and I think that's the most awesome part.”
Driving the Campaign
Luke launched a Honeycomb campaign to outfit the front half of the Greyhound bus—and was fully funded $10,400 in less than a month!
Luke found the campaign to be very easy and straight-forward.
“It was a little bit of social media and a lot of word-of-mouth,” he shares. “The initial launch of the campaign coincided with the one-year anniversary of Honeycomb, so we were able to meet some new investors that way, as well as word-of-mouth from people that we knew. Friends, and family, and regular customers filled out the rest.”
Window to take orders in the front half of the bus
His favorite part was seeing the outpouring of support and investments from both familiar and new faces.
“Getting to see people that we knew involved in the investment process—and then people being disappointed that they missed out—was really cool to see,” he shares, “Because it means that we're impacting people on a level beyond their weekly sandwich.”
Luke especially enjoys seeing his investors come by and say ‘hi’ at local events around Pittsburgh.
“A couple have come to the bus and introduced themselves. I was able to bring them on the bus and feed them. They got to experience what they invested into, and I thought that was pretty rad.”
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
With the funds raised, Luke furnished the food bus with a full tap system with four keg lines, a repair station with tools and gadgets needed for bus maintenance, and a “friends and family table” for people to hang out in the bus.
Because Luke ran his campaign in December, he was able to get the Blue Sparrow food bus up and running by January, giving the team valuable time to get comfortable and agile with operating on the bus before the summer season rush.
“If I didn’t utilize Honeycomb, we would not have potentially hit this season. One of the best parts about doing a Honeycomb campaign when we did was that we had a soft launch—meaning we had 3 months of running the bus before the season really kicked off,” Luke explains. “That allowed us to work out a bunch of kinks, so that when we launched our full schedule in April, we were able to do it with a lot more confidence and readiness.”
As Luke hoped, the vintage Greyhound-turned food bus has lived up to its uniqueness factor, with so much customer demand that it’s now fully booked for the next two years!
“One of the shocking things was how quickly all of our spots filled up as soon as we launched the bus. We've actually had to start picking and choosing and being very intentional with what we are booking.”
The Blue Sparrow food bus parked outside 11th Hour Brewing
Installing the tap system has also opened up a plethora of local brewery partnerships and community events for Blue Sparrow.
“The big part about having a food bus is being able to do events that we wouldn't be able to do at the regular food truck. Now with our brewery partnerships, we're able to do full functioning weddings—their bar as well as their food,” Luke shares.
With the new partnerships, the Blue Sparrow food bus currently makes regular appearances at Brew Gentlemen every Thursday and 11th Hour Brewing every Friday and Sunday. On Saturdays, the food bus makes a splash at special events like VegFest or rotates among other local breweries like Grist House Brewery, Voodoo Brewery, Hitchhiker Brewing, and The Leaning Cask Brewery.
Along with the benefits of the food bus itself, Luke appreciates the value that comes with being part of the Honeycomb alumni network, especially the relationships with other locally-minded businesses that are loved by the community.
“Being associated with other small businesses as well as Honeycomb itself expands your profile to other people. I think that's always going to be a benefit, something that makes you a part of something bigger,” Luke shares.
Soaring to New Heights
From balancing the customer experience across two vehicles to hiring and managing new staff, the Blue Sparrow food truck-food bus fleet has brought Luke a new set of goals and challenges for the upcoming year.
“One of the new things that growth has brought me is a full-time staff. That’s different from running a food truck by yourself. I always joked in the early days that I was like a pirate: I’d drive my truck here and sell some food. Keeping my staff healthy, happy, and inspired is one of my biggest goals and probably my biggest fear,” he admits.
Luke also hopes to focus growing Blue Sparrow in the Pittsburgh neighborhoods where they’ve already laid the groundwork. Rather than traveling from location-to-location indeterminately, Luke’s approach to Blue Sparrow is to become a community fixture in the neighborhoods that they serve.
“One of the things that we've done differently as a food truck company is that we've invested in individual neighborhoods instead of constantly moving around trying to find where the easiest buck is. That's a part of the model, but that's just not our model.”
Luke’s final goal is to continue elevating Blue Sparrow’s food concept.
“As a chef, I want to continue to grow. I want to learn more, I want to get better at the things I do, and I want to give experiences to people that they wouldn’t necessarily find otherwise. It’s inspirational to think about how street food is the food of the people.”
From launching new brewery partnerships to bringing in full-time staff, the addition of the food bus has ushered in a new chapter in Blue Sparrow’s growth journey: the food of the people, funded by the people. And it’s all thanks to community investors who shared Luke’s vision and voted with their wallets to make it happen!
Want to learn more about another community-minded business in Pittsburgh? Read our blog post on My Goodness, the first neighborhood market to offer locally produced goods in Regent Square.