Something new under the sun

Solar Crepes chefs and co-owners Danna Andrews, at left, and Camille Dierksheide share a tight space in their cart. At the end of the workday, they have to maneuver it backward up a steep hill.
Solar Crepes chefs and co-owners Danna Andrews, at left, and Camille Dierksheide share a tight space in their cart. At the end of the workday, they have to maneuver it backward up a steep hill. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Late in July, Camille Dierksheide and Danna Andrews, one an opera-singing former caterer, the other a former personal chef, launched Solar Crepes, a solar-powered stand the two consider to be a million-dollar idea. The women met in L'Academie de Cuisine's Professional Culinary Program in 2007 and quickly discovered that their driving principles for a food business were aligned: to prepare sustainable, healthful and nutritious food; to have a positive impact on the environment; to work family-friendly hours. (Andrews and her husband have a 2-year-old son, Lucien; Dierksheide is married and wants to have children.)

The women pooled resources and bought a used crepe cart on Craigslist for about $10,000, less than half of what a new one would cost, according to Andrews. Total start-up costs were about $40,000, not including the $4,755 they raised on to pay for two 90-watt solar panels that will power the cart's fan and refrigerator.

Solar Crepes (motto: "This place gives me the crepes") sets up at the corner of North Stuart Street and Fairfax Drive by detaching its pink, green and orange cart on the sidewalk in front of the Ballston Metro entrance.

Dierksheide and Andrews's day runs from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays. (Andrews has no day care for Lucien on Fridays, so the cart is closed that day.) Everything is made from scratch for the menu of four savory, 100-percent buckwheat crepes and three sweet crepes, plus two specials.

When I showed up at the commercial kitchen space Dierksheide and Andrews lease from Arlington's Trinity Presbyterian Church, the women quickly put me to work on the buckwheat crepe batter. As chickens roasted, onions caramelized and Camille trilled "Libiamo ne'lieti calici" from "La Traviata," the smoke alarm went off three times; judging by the rote action taken, it was a regular occurrence.

By 10, the cart had been loaded up with the mise en place (prepped ingredients) and attached to a flatbed truck. Andrews posted on Twitter: "Headed out. Come out and see us." Fifteen minutes later, we were turning on the gas, putting up awnings, setting up the steam table with ham, bacon, beets, beet puree and peaches, lining up squeeze bottles of syrups and reductions, putting the containers of batter on ice, and stocking the drink bins. (By "we," I mean "they." I watched, mostly.) At 10:55, we were open for business.

The cart barely holds two people, provided no one juts an elbow to the side. There's a fresh water bin, a small sink, two crepe griddles (one of them doesn't work) and a coffeemaker that really only keeps water warm, a small steam table and a refrigerator.

What is most striking about Dierksheide, 37, and Andrews, 34, is their people skills. The two are chatty, engaging and sincere. They create relationships with their customers and often greet them by name.

Given that it was a holiday weekend, business was a little slower than usual, so Andrews tweeted again, offering a $2 discount. At 1:45, it was time to break down, which the women have down to a science. (Andrews has to pick her son up by 3 p.m.) In all, they did 52 covers at an average check of $10, recorded on an iPad used as a point-of-sale system. If they gross $600 a day, that's a little shy of $125,000 a year. And a lot shy of $1 million.

But they are nothing if not determined. When the women returned to the church in the afternoon, they had to back the cart up a long, steep hill to the kitchen's rear door. The first day, they had to get a kitchen assistant to do it for them; then the gardeners did it for the next few days.

"Then I decided I was just going to have to figure it out," Andrews said.

- David Hagedorn

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