When Ellie Cram and Logan James pitched their idea for a mobile thrift shop to their business class at Utah State University, they didn’t mince words about the market they were entering.
“We feel that retail shopping is dying,” James told the advisers in the Entrepreneur Leadership Series course at USU’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business. “No one goes to the mall anymore. People want something new and exciting. We feel that this bus could give people that new, exciting shopping experience.”
In the year since the dating couple, both from Lehi, pitched their idea, the mobile shop — called Thrift Jam — has grown into a fixture at pop-up events around the Wasatch Front and developed a presence online, all while making a point about selling sustainable and vintage clothing in an era of throwaway “fast fashion.”
“We were kind of scaling, just selling vintage at pop-up events,” James said. “We were like, ‘How do we make ourselves different?’”
They found inspiration in a think tank, hearing about a professor who had retrofitted a bus so he could tour the country, interviewing entrepreneurs.
James said his mom saw an article about the Alpine School District, in his hometown of Orem, getting rid of their old school buses. They bought and renovated a 2002 bus, painting it white with a red Thrift Jam logo inspired by the movie “Space Jam” (which itself borrowed the red circles of the Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes” introduction).
Cram and James created Thrift Jam out of their individual clothing interests — James used to collect high-end vintage clothes, and Cram enjoys thrifting for the style and to save money. Combining those ideas, they decided to specialize in secondhand apparel, with a focus on clothes with a bit of ‘90s nostalgia to them.
“Our mission is sustainability,” Cram said in their USU pitch. “We know that ‘fast fashion’ and the fashion industry is a large contributor to global warming today.” (“Fast fashion” describes items that are low-priced but jump on style trends as they come around.)
When they made their pitch last year, Cram said that 85% of all textiles made in the previous year ended up in landfills.
In 2022, Bloomberg reported, the United States throws away 11.3 million tons of textile waste each year: or approximately 2,150 pieces of clothing every second. Making that disposable clothing, the report said, uses up fossil fuels, plastics and other pollutants.
The bulk of the clothing Cram and James acquire for their bus come from rack houses, which Cram said are the last place textiles go before they’re thrown into landfills.
“We buy them by the pound, wash them, and get them cleaned up [to sell],’ she said.
They don’t buy from charity-run thrift stores, such as Goodwill or Deseret Industries, because of the negative connotations of taking affordable clothing out of circulation for lower-income shoppers. “We don’t want to take away from someone who might need it,” Cram said.
The notion of selling sustainable clothing started when they started asking questions about where items of clothing go when they don’t sell, the couple said.
Sustainability, James said, “comes into play a lot more with our reworked items that we do. … Most of those textiles are clothing items that are just worn to pieces [that] you can’t wear them anymore. We started reworking them into new pieces.”
For example, James pointed to a reworked Carhartt jacket hanging in the bus window “It looks brand new, but it’s made of just a bunch of destroyed old corduroys,” he said.
It’s become James’ passion to help design upcycled items, which a friend helps sew to be sold on the bus.
“I love textures and nice fabrics,” James said. “The design is irrelevant because every design is different, but I can control if I want thick fabrics.”
“We just take items that would not have a new life and we give them a new life,” Cram said.
In the year since they launched Thrift Jam, the couple estimate they have saved 12,000 clothing items. In June, they took their bus to Fork Fest, the weekend music festival in American Fork — which last year was the first market where they started selling their clothes. They recently bought and renovated a second bus.
All the while, they’re still full-time students. James is studying finance, Cram is studying marketing.
On the Thrift Jam bus
On a Friday in late June, the original Thrift Jam bus was parked at Millcreek’s Evergreen Park for the Twilight Market.
The bus is a bit of a tight squeeze, but it’s full of character. A string of lights hang overhead, and a line of sunglasses are strung around the edges of the ceiling. There’s a $5 bin, along with racks of sweatshirts and t-shirts, and a line of reworked tote bags. A display of hats is installed near the front, and Dickies and Carhartt pants line the back end.
The neon ThriftJamCo sign is lit up, and there’s a carpet emblazoned with a matching logo — which is becoming recognizable around the state.
A customer came up to the bus, bought a few items, and told Cram and James he loves their TikTok account. Cram oversees the videos and social media content, which showcases new items, gives behind-the-scenes information, and lets people know where the bus will be next. (In their original pitch Cram and James said that 62% of their lifetime sales had come through Instagram.)
Their current customer base skews young, they said. “We’ve noticed like high school and even middle schoolers just love thrifting,” Cram said.
When the bus is parked, Cram and James set up a plastic table in front of the bus. They were using that table even before they had a bus, Cram said, and now it’s part of the company’s character.
The table is now jam-packed with doodles and messages like an octopus, smiley faces, large curvy signatures, and even a drawing of Cram and James. Around the edge, James pointed out, is a list of events the bus has gone to — but now that space is filled.
“We just had some Sharpies out, and said, ‘Go crazy,’” Cram said. “Customers wrote their names or weird little drawings everywhere.”
Into the ‘Shark Tank’
Since ThriftJamCo started as a college project, Cram and James said they’ve been happy to embrace the learning curve of running a successful business. This includes handling the logistics of finding events to take the bus, partnering with local businesses, figuring out how to keep prices low and still turn a profit and tackling mechanical issues on the two buses. (The original bus is a 2002 model; the “new” bus is from 2012.)
The pitch they first made was part of a program that’s structured much like the reality show “Shark Tank,” with students presenting their business ideas to faculty members and advisors from the business world.
“We have CEOs that have open office hours for our students, [so] whenever they have questions, they can call,” said Russell Fisher, associate director of USU’s Center for Entrepreneurship. “[We have] lawyers that have donated time and energy, a ton of people that are just willing to give feedback. …That sort of kind of sounding board has been really helpful for our students, and has helped them to see pathways in terms of execution.”
Fisher said Cram and James’ idea showed that they were knowledgeable about thrift shopping. That wasn’t unique, he said, but their approach was. Their know-how and their drive were signs, Fisher said, that ThriftJamCo would succeed.
The USU “sharks” dug into Cram and James’ pitch in detail. One of them — Steve Peterson, general partner and portfolio manager of Millrock Capital and Development — even quizzed them about how much gas the bus would use.
The Center for Entrepreneurship, Fisher said, is designed to focus on supporting students’ ideas, because 99% of the time, they have a better idea of what the market looks like than established businesspeople.
Fisher said he’s proud of Cram and James, and said it’s been exciting to watch them develop their idea into a functional business. “Their success is based off of largely on who they are — hardworking, incredibly intelligent students,” Fisher said.
“Most people will see that this bus is a thrift shop, but what they don’t understand is the effort that needs to have gone into to understanding the fashion, the supply chain and their approach,” Fisher said.
Cram and James have a vision to expand Thrift Jam outside of Utah — so they can meet and sell clothes to more people.
“That’s my favorite part of this, honestly,” Cram said, “meeting all these new people from these places that I would have never met, seeing all these parts of Utah and hopefully other states.”