What happens when you plunk down a pile of cash on Alibaba for an electric food truck from China, then have it shipped half way around the world to the US? That’s exactly what one of my readers decided to find out, and fortunately he shared his experience with us.
While I never intended for this to happen, I’ve somehow become something of a de facto expert on buying the weirdest electric vehicles from China. I’ve got a bit of a collection myself, plus I write a weekly column where I window shop for the weirdest electric vehicles I can find on Alibaba.
Buying wacky vehicles from China can be risky, and I always advise my readers against foolheartedly doing the same. Basically a “do what I say and not what I do” situation. That means not risking your hard-earned cash on an Alibaba pipe dream.
This time the result was pretty darn awesome, though not without its own rollercoaster of an import adventure. An enterprising entrepreneur named Doug reached out to me after reading one of my articles about Chinese electric food trucks. We chatted about the ups and downs of these funky little things, and a few months later he had a pretty awesome looking electric food truck — or perhaps electric food tuktuk — custom built by a Chinese factory. It sported his own coffee brand’s paint job with Nitro Walnut Coffee on the side and featured a hydraulic lifting rear that could hold all the equipment needed for a mobile coffee shop while providing enough head room for baristas to stand inside while working.
As Doug explained, he’s quite tall and so a hydraulic pop top was going to be important.
As a three-wheeler, it is technically a motorcycle class vehicle and Doug was prepared to register it that way.
But upon arrival in the US, it became obvious that it was going to need some serious work.
Doug explained that he had to completely tear it down and rebuild it to make it safe to drive and also pass electrical and plumbing inspections. “All electrical and plumbing specs that came with the truck where not acceptable by the standards of WA State LNI,” he explained. “So I replaced all of it.”
He eventually got the hydraulic lift working to raise the roof and finally got the interior outfitted with all the proper equipment he needed for a mobile coffee shop.
That include a portable battery generator instead of a combustion generator to ensure both the vehicle and the coffee were emissions-free.
A year after the vehicle first arrived in the US, he had his final inspection and passed. That finally allowed “Wallie” as he named it to take to the road as fully licensed street-legal vehicle.
The performance specs on Wallie are fairly abysmal, but that seems to be just fine for a vehicle that spends most of its time parked while serving coffee. Doug described the top speed as “20 mph downhill” and the range as “4 to 6 miles.” Though he is quick to point out that the hilly Washington State terrain and extra weight from lugging around kegs of brewed coffee and water don’t do the range any favors.
Doug also had some words of wisdom regarding shopping on Alibaba that I completely agree with:
I did a lot of research into what I would need but still not enough. I would say that the process with the manufacturer is swift and if you don’t ask for it and explain yourself more than you think you need to, you will not get what you want. Being patient, slow, and respectful is the best way to go, if you are in too big of a hurry you will not get all that you need. I have done a lot of shipping and corresponding with Chinese manufacturers in the past, and I can tell you that you get what you pay for. If you want an Italian level tiny food truck for 1/5th the price, you will be very upset with what you receive.
I have spoken to many other buyers of this same product and those who think they will get a perfect vehicle for a cheap price are always upset. China has a unique culture and a unique idea of how business is done, not in a bad way but you need to understand that or you will not get what you want/need. In the end what you get is a product that functions and is simple enough to repair and/or customize.
Just as a reminder, it’s fun to live vicariously through stories like these, but I never recommend jumping in feet first on a big purchase from China like this. Doug has been around the block a few times on Alibaba, and even he had his fair share of hurdles with this food truck, including largely rebuilding the vehicle and swapping out many parts.
Other readers of mine have found that the list of required tools to get their vehicle assembled and working including things like a welder, so keep in mind that these imported vehicles can be quite an undertaking. It’s not a simple matter of clicking “buy” and then screwing on some sideview mirrors when it arrives.
There are also safety concerns. I bought a massive lithium-ion battery on Alibaba that literally shot sparks and smelled like a barbecue the first and last time I plugged it in.
So yeah, this isn’t a game for the faint of heart.
But if you’re going to ignore all of my warnings and make bad decisions like us, definitely reach out to me and let me know how it goes.
In the meantime, now I have a serious hankering for coffee. I wonder if Nitro Walnut Coffee ships?
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