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California Cart Builders: Creating a different kind of mobile business

Peter Gorenstein
My Family Business

Last year, we brought you the story of Rodney and Elma Eaton the founders and owners of a family business from southern California. Their story is one of sacrifice and perseverance; one with humble roots that proves with the right idea and enough family support anything is possible. Their story was so compelling we checked in with them again recently to find out where the business is heading.

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If you haven't heard their story it starts at the turn of the millennium. Rodney and Elma seemed to have it made. Rodney was making six figures as a pressman for a successful printing firm. They had a beautiful house in Corona, California with a pool and horses to keep their four kids busy and happy.

But Elma wanted something more. Specifically, she wanted vacations that did not include sleeping outdoors and cooking over a campfire. In order to get money to afford something a bit more luxurious, she decided to open a hot dog stand. Elma had worked in food services before and had a friend who'd made good money running a cart. But Elma had something her friend didn't: Rodney.

A super-handy guy with a flair for design, Rodney built Elma a hot dog cart that looked so sharp it drew a lot of customers and ultimately someone who wanted to buy it and the business. After repeating the same pattern a few more times, Rodney and Elma decided to forget selling hot dogs and focus on building and selling carts. They made plans to downsize their lives and build the business slowly. But Rodney also wanted something more: to work for himself.

"I wanted to be independent," he says. "I knew this could be successful deep down inside and I just couldn't wait." So in 2000, Rodney gave up a $125,000 salary -- and decided to go into business for himself. Telling his wife he'd just quit his great job at the printing shop was just the first of many hardships Rodney, and his family, would have to endure.

"When Rodney called me and told me he had just quit his job I panicked," Elma recalls. He made 125 thousand dollars a year…and then nothing." Having already sold their house in Corona, the Eatons suddenly found themselves without a home or any income. For the next three years, the family would live in what Rodney calls "a really junky 1970 trailer" with no running water. "It wasn't pretty," he recalls. "We lived in dirt." Times were tough -- really tough for the Eatons, who had to borrow water from a neighbor and haul away their waste, and tried (unsuccessfully) to get Food Stamps. But Rodney had a dream to build better food trucks far superior than anything he has ever created.

Eventually, the orders started trickling in. In the early days, Rodney and his oldest son Tony would work all hours and sleep in a garage. All the money they'd make from one truck would go toward buying newer and better tools to make the next one, everything from hammers to a metal grinder. Twelve years after a taking a huge leap into the unknown, the Eatons have a thriving business, California Cart Builder in Lake Elsinore, California. As the food industry changed, so did the business: The Eatons now specialize in custom-made food trucks, which have sparked a culinary revolution all over the world.

From less than 10 orders just a few years ago, California Cart Builder now has hundreds of clients from all over the world, including as far away as Dubai, Iceland and Australia. The company now has 13 employees, including three of the Eaton children: Tony, Rodney Jr. and Shay. The family has lunch together every day and seem to have all learned the same lesson from those tough days in their used trailer: You don't need material things to be happy. Hard work pays off.

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The company continues to thrive in 2013. After a 12% increase in sales in 2012, California Cart Builders is on track for 30% year-over-year growth this year. If all goes well they could break $3 million in revenue this year. In fact, to keep up with demand the company is building a new manufacturing plant in Dallas, Texas. "We feel that that area is underserved," says Elma. "They don't have our quality of product there at this time."

Driving that growth is the company's innovation. The company continues to innovate not only in the food truck business. Thanks to their expertise in automotive customization, the Eatons are now moving into new businesses. "We're actually asking people why should food trucks have all the fun," says Elma. "We're expanding to other mobile businesses -- tattoo trailers, photo studios... you name it we can put it in a mobile business." They also have orders for mobile pet groomers and mobile nail salons.

"It's a long way from the dirt," says Rodney.