Entrepreneurs using machines to kick-start ventures Machines help fledgling firms get started.

Succeeding in small business

April 08, 1991|By Jane Applegate | Jane Applegate,1991 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

When Alison Weinberg married her husband Robert, he was practicing law in Dallas. Today, the he runs margarita machines in Los Angeles.

Robert Weinberg chucked his law career to make slushy frozen drinks with a high-tech machine he rents for about $165 a day, plus drink supplies.

About 40 times a month, partners Alison and Robert Weinberg are busy serving drinks made from a Frozen Drinks Unlimited machine at private parties, golf tournaments, food shows and sporting events.

They cart around the 160-pound machines in a specially designed black minivan decorated with grinning limes and bananas in bow ties.

The Weinbergs are among the thousands of entrepreneurs who believe that a machine-oriented business is the way to go -- especially if the machine is affordable, does what it is supposed to do and the manufacturer provides the right kind of technical support and training.

For decades, American entrepreneurs have bought machines that put them instantly into business. Sewing machines, washing machines, film-processing machines, vending machines, video games and copying machines are just a few of those available to launch a venture for a relatively modest investment.

Machine-based businesses are also attractive if you want to begin working for yourself on a part-time basis before making a total commitment.

For example, people who buy street-sweeping machines often work part-time in the evening and on weekends, said Bill Burr, founder of Ven-Co in Ventura, Calif.

Burr never set out to be a professional street sweeper; he just sort of fell into it.

Newly married at 18, Burr was looking for something he could do with his father, also named Bill.

"I had a strong back and energy, and my father had a little money," Burr said.

In 1975, a friend who sold sweepers introduced the Burrs to a widow who wanted to unload her husband's failing sweeping business. They paid her $50,000 for the business, which was generating only $3,200 a month. The machine that came with the business fell apart. They immediately had to buy a new one for $8,000.

If you wanted to start a sweeping business today, you'd need $20,000 to $40,000 to buy a machine. A machine's size and power dictates price. The smallest parking lot sweepers, known as "beer can sweepers," are mounted on the back of light pickup trucks. A top-of-the-line street sweeper runs about $110,000.

"It takes about a year of hard work to build a new route for one machine," Burr said. One sweeper can generate $6,000 to $9,000 a month in revenue if busy seven days a week.

In Southern California, where rates are highest, sweepers charge customers about $25 an hour for their service. A skilled operator, who earns about $10 an hour, can make about six stops a night.

"Sweeping is really dirty work with nasty hours," Burr said. "Not a lot of people are attracted to used baby diapers at 3 a.m."

But because it is relatively easy to buy a sweeper and get started, Burr said, the competition for local sweeping jobs is fierce.

"Every year, five to eight new companies start out in Ventura County, but most don't last a year," Burr said.

Today, Ven-Co's sweeping division has 22 machines and 36 employees. The company also provides landscaping services, employs a total of 80 people and grosses about $4 million a year.

If cleaning up parking lots, streets and construction sites does not appeal to you, consider renting frozen-drink machines.

"The machines are relatively easy to maintain and are so small we can work out of our home," said Robert Weinberg. And the couple's drink business complements their catering service, which specializes in lobster dinners and clambakes.

A single machine, which produces 128 drinks per hour, lists for about $4,000; a twin-dispenser, major event model runs about $7,600. Frozen Drinks Unlimited, based in Dallas, sells the machines through distributors such as the Weinbergs. It costs about $30,000 to buy the van and five machines, plus an additional $50,000 or so for promotion and overhead to get the business off the ground.

The machine, half the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet, is a mini-refrigeration unit hooked up to metal canisters of drink mix. Within 10 minutes of turning it on, alcoholic or non-alcoholic margaritas, daiquiris and pina coladas begin flowing nonstop into the glasses of thirsty people.

"We fill the machine up with as many drinks as the client needs," Robert Weinberg said. "One 55-gallon tank can make 880 drinks nonstop."

Hard-drinking Dallas party-goers have turned their passion for the frozen drinks into a $3-million-a-year industry in that area, according to Robert Weinberg.

On a visit to Los Angeles, he called party rental companies trying to rent a frozen-drink machine. He was surprised that no one he called had even heard of one. Seizing the opportunity, the Weinbergs headed West to educate Southern Californians about frozen party drinks.

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