This Man Turned a Fire Engine Into a Rolling Taproom. Here’s How He Did It
Kevin Mullan is a non-profit-CEO-turned-marketing-executive who for years harbored a very specific dream: to retrofit a fire truck into a rolling tap house that would serve specialty brews to adventurous beer connoisseurs.
This year, he finally cranked the engine on the project, literally. For his own birthday, he debuted his 20,000-pound craft-beer-spewing side gig in a party with his family and friends.
Some guests were skeptical at first. But the party — and 10 taps worth of Ohio’s finest microbrews — extinguished their doubts. Maybe even some of his own. Since then, the fire truck has frequented corporate events, birthdays, kids parties, festivals and more around Mullan’s home of Toledo.
In a nod to traditional fire engine names and Toledo’s area code, Mullan, 38, named the rig Ladder 419 and his events-booking gig Tapped 419.
“I only need to do about nine to 12 events a year, and I’ll hit my financial targets,” he said.
Open to the public for just about three months, he’s already hit event number nine.
With the fire engine fully operational and more events on the books, Mullan has his work cut out for him. But the story of getting to that point is one of grit — and a lot of luck.
“The whole business,” he said, “has been a series of happy accidents.”
Here’s how one fire engine went from quenching fires to quenching thirst.
Origins of Tapped 419
When Mullan’s wife, Dani, isn’t planning events at her day job, she’s shooting down Kevin’s bad business ideas – a side gig in its own right. But one idea, which started almost as a joke, made it past Dani: adapting a fire truck to serve beer.
It had some merit. Who doesn’t love fire trucks? And beer? So for years, the Mullans mulled it over. Kevin skimmed through Craigslist and GovDeals for fire trucks for about six years before he started bidding, and almost winning, in auctions for fire trucks all across the nation.
After losing a few close auctions, Mullan nearly resigned himself to retrofitting a trailer, but Dani reminded him to stay true to his goal.
“No one is going to care about or remember a trailer,” she told him.
By this time, a new feature launched on Facebook that helps people buy and sell things locally: Marketplace. After years of scouring other buy-and-sell websites, Mullan pecked “fire truck” into the Marketplace search bar one day in March 2019.
Boom. A 1987 E-One fire engine with only 25,000 miles popped up — and it was just 90 minutes away, slowly submerging into a field of an Ohio farmer who bought the truck to water his crops.
“The wheels just sank right into his field,” Mullan said, because the truck, even with an empty water tank, was far too heavy. The farmer wanted it gone, and Mullan was happy to oblige. Within a few days of his Marketplace search, he secured an auto loan from his credit union, negotiated a $5,000 price with the farmer, and was driving it home.
But on the way, he started questioning everything.
“I’m less than an hour into it, and I’m thinking, ‘If I could drive this back to the [farmer] and get even most of my money back, I should probably do that,’” he said in an interview with The Penny Hoarder.
The thing is, fire engines need diesel fuel. Lots of it. He knew this, of course, but the process of getting the fuel into the truck proved difficult. And Mullan, by his own account, is no grease monkey.
At a truck stop somewhere west of Toledo, Mullan and an attendant fumbled at the diesel pump, spilling fuel all over themselves. The nozzle was too large for the truck’s fuel inlet. They tried using a funnel. Still no luck. Mullan had one last lifeline, the cell phone number of a local fire department chief.
“He was very kind,” Mullan said. “He didn’t berate me for being an idiot.”
“You’re at the wrong pump,” the chief told him. “Move over 100 feet and you’ll find the pump you need.”
He indeed found the pump with the correct nozzle size. But before leaving the gas station, he stumbled upon a new issue: a $100 credit and debit limit for gas purchases. For a 10 ton diesel fire truck, $100 doesn’t go very far. But for Mullan, simply getting any fuel into the truck was all the reassurance he needed.
“Whew, okay — avoided that disaster. Calm down. It’s going to be okay,” he told himself.
From Flame Douser to Suds Spewer
Once Mullan got the truck to Toledo, things started falling into place. His three kids fell in love with the rig as soon as he pulled into the driveway.
“They instantly branded it their fire truck,” he said.
And they’re not wrong. Mullan’s main goal is to make enough money with his side gig to cover his kids’ tuition costs. First for Catholic school, then maybe college. He jokes that he should’ve named the truck Ladder 529, a reference to the college savings plan.
When starting a new gig, have a financial or career goal in mind so that you’re not working endlessly. The higher the startup costs, the more fleshed out your side hustle exit plan should be.
Within a month, Mullan was making solid progress on the renovations. His first step was removing the water tank to make room for a refrigeration unit. Then he rebuilt a back wall, added a new roof and insulated the space where the refrigeration unit was going to be installed. His next big hurdle was setting up the beer taps and draft system.
The Facebook Marketplace gods were on his side. A nearby bar in neighboring Michigan was going out of business. It had all the equipment he needed and more for $300. The kicker? The equipment included two beer towers, one of which Mullan resold on Marketplace for $250.
The morning of his birthday, he got the truck in working order. Friends, family and neighbors gawked at the microbrew-serving fire engine, which — two months prior — was sinking in a field of crops.
Following the test run, he installed the refrigeration unit in the hull. A few weeks later, Tapped 419 was ready for the public.
In total, the retrofitting process cost Mullan upwards of $15,000, none of which was out of pocket. His local credit union helped him finance the entire project through a personal loan and an auto loan with a lower APR.
Since the last recession, funding a small business or side gig has become more difficult. Credit unions may be more willing to finance your idea than big banks.
Not a One-Trick Fire Truck
At first glance, Ladder 419 looks like an average fire truck.
A 1987 model, it doesn’t look so old as to come across as vintage, but it’s not brand new either. Upon closer look, you’ll notice the storage decks don’t house hoses, ladders and valves. They’re replaced by 10 draft taps.
What you won’t see is just as important.
“You won’t see the word ‘beer’ on the truck, ever,” Mullan said.
That’s because fire trucks appeal to kids just as much as adults, and that opens up tons of different events opportunities. Weekend-long beer fests are his ideal event — for those, he charges about $1,000. But the parties and one-day events, which run $450 for 4 hours, are working just fine, too.
“I want to be able to take it to a school and serve root beer floats with the local fire department,” he said, “and them not realize that a beer truck just rolled up.”
Despite the fact that Mullan has yet to pay a dime to market Tapped 419, event requests are flooding in.
Customers are coming to him. Kids at birthday parties want root beer. Coffee connoisseurs at community events want nitro cold brew. Small-scale breweries want a way to get their batches to big-ticket beer fests.
And everyone wants to pull the levers and honk the horn of a 30-foot, ten ton fire truck. Beer, coffee or soda in hand.
Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He specializes in ways to make money that don’t involve stuffy corporate offices. Read his latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.