2018-08-24 / Front Page

Charlie Compton — brûlée business boy wonder on a bike

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Charlie Compton of Portland applies the finishing touch to a homemade creme brûlée during a recent visit to Bug Light Park in South Portland with his mobile business, Brûlées Bike. (Duke Harrington photo) 
 Charlie Compton of Portland applies the finishing touch to a homemade creme brûlée during a recent visit to Bug Light Park in South Portland with his mobile business, Brûlées Bike. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Anyone who has seen a young man selling homemade creme brûlée from a bike cart in and around South Portland over the past few years might be forgiven for presuming him to be just a high schooler toiling away at a part-time job.

Well, Portland resident Charlie Compton is a high school student – or was, until his graduation this past spring – but he’s no summer wage slave. Compton is the founder and owner of the mobile confection cart, Brûlées Bike, a business he started at age 14 while a freshman at Casco Bay High School in Portland.

In between applying flame to finish off brûlée treats for customers at a July 12 event in South Portland’s Bug Light Park, Compton, 18, took time to share how he started his business and what he hopes the next chapter of his life will bring, post graduation.

Q: First off, for those who don’t know, what is creme brûlée?

A: It’s a French custard with burnt sugar on the top. It’s made with egg yolks, sugar and heavy cream.

Q: How did you develop an interest in making them?

A: I started cooking when I was very young and it’s always been a passion of mine. I spent my freshman year in high school travelling around Europe and I took cooking classes in Paris, and I learned how to make creme brûlées there.

Q: What drives that passion for food?

A: I don’t know. My mom taught me the basics, like just cutting carrots and simple stuff like that when I was really little. I was homeschooled all during middle school and I had kind of the freedom to do what I wanted. So, I chose to take cooking classes at Measuring Up! Cooking for Kids, in Scarborough.

Q: You started your business just after you go back from your freshman trip. How hard was that to accomplish?

A: I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was, obviously. There was a lot of licensing, a lot of permits. I had to become a registered food safety manager and had to build a four-bay sink into my cart because of the type of food I am making. It was a kind of a very long process.

Q: How hard was it to customize a four-bay sink to fit a bike cart?

A: I figured it out. I actually had the bike all built when I went to city hall for licensing and they were like, “Oh, by the way.” One bay is for hand washing and that you need one, each, for washing, rinsing and sanitizing utensils. I don’t actually use any utensils on site. I make everything in the kitchen and never actually touch any food out at an event. So, honestly, I don’t really “need” the sink. I don’t use it. It’s just for show. But I had to have it.

Q: Was it worth it?

A: Yes, very much. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a real learning experience.

Q: Did your parents help you get the business up and running?

A: My mom had to do some of the stuff, because I was too young to legally own the business by myself. So, she had to do some of the signing of papers. But I did the majority of it myself. I did get help making the cart from my neighbor, who is an architect. I got some scrap materials from another friend of mind and he helped me piece them together.

Q: How much did it cost to start the business and how did you capitalize on it?

A: It was about $2,500, including making the cart, although I got most of the parts for that relatively cheap. It was the licensing that really set me back. I had some money from my family, but most of it came from a Kickstarter I did, from people I don’t even know.

Q: What did you offer as incentives in your online crowdfunding efforts? Did anyone get a lifetime supply of creme brûlée?

A: (laughs) No, but for $100 someone got to pick out the color for the cart. So, that’s why it’s this shade of orange. A lot of the rest of it was coupons for creme brûlées. A lot of them asked for theirs to be donated to Wayside (Food Programs) for one of their picnics.

Q: And what gave you the idea to launch your brûlée business as a bike cart.

A: (laughs) Well, initially I wanted to do a food truck. But my mom said I was too young to drive a truck. And I was, of course. I was 14 at the time. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. So, that wasn’t going to work.

Q: Thus, the necessity of using pedal power?

A: Right. In the beginning I would pull the cart behind my bike to different events all around Portland. I live in Bayside, so it was just a short ride to set up in Back Cove. The first two years started out pretty slow, but not that I am getting a lot more weddings and regular outings to places like the movie nights in Bug Light Park. And of course, now that I am doing events further out, I just pop the cart in the back of my car. Unfortunately, living in Portland, I can’t really bike across the bridge.

Q: Did you have any doubt in the beginning that creme brûlée would prove popular enough to sustain an ongoing summer business?

A: Actually, I wanted to do gourmet french fries at first. But then I thought biking around with hot oil could be a little dangerous. But then on a visit to San Francisco – we have family there – I went to an event called Off the Grid and I saw a creme brûlée food truck there, and I was inspired by them. Actually, I kind of thought it was the best thing ever.

A: You finish the brûlées on site, but where do you make them?

Q: I can’t make them at home. I have to make them at a licensed kitchen. So, I make them at Wayside Food Programs (on Walton Street in Portland). They make community meals to hand out and I used to volunteer there when I was in middle school. I rent their kitchen from them. It takes me about three hours to make 100, or so. The hold pretty well, but I usually make them in the week before an event.

Q: How many do you normally go through during an event?

A: For an event like this it might be 20, but when I do a wedding it can be up to 150.

Q: And what it the secret to making a quality creme brûlée?

A: Definitely the water. When it’s cooked you have to cook it in a basin of water and if it’s at the right temperature and cooked for the right amount of time, it gets a really good consistency. However, if it’s not, it ends up looking like scrambled eggs. It’s not good. It takes a little practice to get it down. Of course, I’ve been doing it for so long, but I think anyone can do it. It’s fairly easy. And then the burnt sugar on top is what really makes it. But if I’m at an event where it’s windy, that can get kind of tricky, manipulating the flame. No fire accidents so far, though.

Q: You sometimes have different flavors of creme brûlées, like honey lavender. Are those your own inventions?

A: For that I got inspired by the Snell Family Farm (in Buxton). I did an event with them and did some research of different flavors with local ingredients they could use. So, they came up with “honey lavender.”

Q: What’s the wildest flavor you’ve done? Is there such a thing as a lobster creme brûlée?

A: One of my favorites that I came up with is a lime and sweet basil. I don’t even know how to explain it to you, but it is just really, really good. The different flavors are really fun to make.

Q: Having just graduated from Casco Bay High School, what are your college plans?

A: I’m going to take a gap year. I’m going to do a program with Where There Be Dragons (a Coloradobased firm that offers foreign cultural immersion trips), and then I’ll be going to Lewis & Clark College (in Portland, Oregon). I’m thinking about a hybrid major in computer science and mathematics.

Q: That seems a major fork from a cooking career.

A: Yeah, I guess it is. But I have a passion for mathematics, also. But there’s actually a lot of science in cooking, especially in the chemical reactions and stuff.

Q: And what does the future hold for Brûlée Bike. Are you going to continue the business, or maybe franchise it?

A: I have thought of upgrading to a truck and maybe working it cross country, but I’m still working out the details.

Q: Any advice for youngsters who might want to follow in your footsteps, whether it’s in the mobile food business, or just starting their own business of any kind at such a young age?

A: Do it. It’s much more achievable than you think it is. And, if you want to do something like this, don’t be afraid to look into the food truck scene. Everybody in this industry has been so friendly and super-helpful to me. Even when I was 14 and just looking at starting out, there were some that were happy to take me in and show me around their entire setup, and share their experiences. When you can get that kind of mentoring and build off of that, almost anything is easy to achieve. And, like with my experience with the four-bay sink, you can never do enough research in advance, but if you do run into something like that, just keep going and be ready to revise. As long as you keep going and don’t give up, you’re golden.

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