All Images Courtesy of Mark Sumner/ Special to the Chronicle
This originally appeared in the SF Chronicle
Esha Chhabra, Special to The Chronicle
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Brad Butler, co-owner of Bicycle Coffee Co. in San Francisco, paused during a recent interview as a motorcycle went whizzing by.
“See, our bicycles don’t make that noise,” he joked.
The company is among a new crop of businesses that are opting for bicycles over delivery vans. It’s not just an eco-friendly move, he said, but a practical one, given the city’s tight urban center.
“I owned a car about seven years back and in my first month in the city, I got nearly 50 parking tickets,” he said.
Cousin Cameron McKee, one of three other owners, agreed. “Plus, it creates great community,” he said. “I just delivered 100 pounds of coffee this morning, and people love seeing me on the bike, especially other people who bike as well.”
Butler and McKee started the Bicycle Coffee Co. in 2009 with friend Mikael Kirkman, Cameron McKee’s brother, Matthew and the McKees’ late brother, Brandon. The idea was born during a trip to South America, where they were inspired by family farms producing top-quality coffee beans.
They decided to buy gourmet arabica coffee beans from these small, organic farms and sell the freshly roasted coffee in the Bay Area on bike. Starting with just a pot on a stove for roasting that grew into a specially designed roaster made by Kirkman, Bicycle Coffee Co. wanted to stay small, local and artisanal.
Now, though, they’ve been invited into shops that are too far to reach by bike, forcing them to make tough business decisions. There’s also the physical challenge of navigating San Francisco’s hills.
“We didn’t get into this to make a lot of money,” Cameron McKee said. “We are doing well. But we got into this to make a living and a lifestyle, not a killing.”
The company is hoping to peddle not only coffee but also a way of living that respects handcrafted products and sustainable living.
Sales have grown
That philosophy seems to be resonating. Sales have grown to 2,000 pounds per week, enabling them to pay themselves a full-time salary and hire three part-timers, which wasn’t possible two years ago. They’ve also received invitations from cities around the world, including London and Tokyo, to bring their “micro-replicable enterprise,” as Butler calls it, to the international scene.
The growth, however, has not come without sacrifice and struggle. So they’ll weigh the possibilities carefully before expanding.
“We have a massive tolerance for pain,” Butler said, “not only in our calves but also in our pocket.” Natalie Galatzer also turned to bicycle delivery when she started Bike Basket Pies in 2009 after spending two years with AmeriCorps. Ultimately, increased sales (with no helping hands), long hours and low pay led her to close her business in July.
“The DIY San Francisco street food scene was just cropping up then, and my bike basket idea was unique at the time in the area,” said Galatzer, a home baker with a predilection for pies since childhood. “So I started it as a project in my free time and it really just built up, to my surprise.”
While Galatzer started out on the bike herself, by January 2010 she had a small fleet of bike messengers working for her and sales were increasing rapidly. Within months, she went from doing it as a project to a full-time business that consumed 70 hours a week.
“In terms of scaling, the bikes were not the problem at all. Rather, it was just the challenge of working endless hours and doing a product that’s very time-intensive,” she said.
Galatzer baked her last batch of pies in June and since then has been writing a booklet of pie recipes. But she’s glad San Francisco seems to be catching on to a concept that’s long been in practice elsewhere.
“In New York, food is always delivered on bike. But in San Francisco, it seems like it’s unheard of. Look at India, where they’ve been doing it for ages. And in Amsterdam, it’s very common.”
Alex Farioletti, director of operations at TCB Courier, a San Francisco bike messenger company that delivered Galatzer’s pies, started out in the business working as a bike messenger in New York City.
“It’s a really tough job. You’re working long hours, from sunup to sundown, and in all kinds of weather. So it requires a work ethic that was quite common in New York, but I didn’t see it here.”
However, entrepreneurs like Galatzer have helped build that culture in the Bay Area, enabling TCB Courier to go from having just a couple of clients in 2009 to more than two dozen food businesses delivering their meals on two wheels.
Aside from the environmental benefits, the personalized touch of bike-based business adds to their appeal.
“Going around on a bike made me unique at the time. It was Natalie with pies in a bike basket. There was a face to it,” Galatzer said.
Plus, because of the physical limitations of distance and weight, there’s bound to be a limited supply.
“There’s something invigorating about it, making it special because there’s a limited quantity and once it runs out, it runs out,” said Robyn Sue Goldman of Smitten Ice Cream. “People feel special that they’ve found it and can get it before it’s gone.”
Goldman became known for her Radio Flyer ice cream wagon that transformed a seasonal flavor like butternut squash into ice cream on the spot, with the help of liquid nitrogen.
Recently, Smitten Ice Cream adopted a physical storefront, made from a 40-foot recycled shipping container in Hayes Valley. But even that is mobile. So, if she decides to move, she can just transport the eco-friendly, recycled shop to a new location. The wagon is still in use, but primarily for catering events.
“With the wagon, I was trying to blend the old with the new. There was the homey element to the wagon and the local ingredients,” she said. “But the process was modern.”
— Boozely’s Pickles ( www.boozelys.com): Brad Koester of Boozely’s Pickles draws on family traditions and recipes to hand-make his pickles, which he lugs around on bike, delivering jars of dill spears to cafes and customers. He even transports his ingredients on his bike cargo trailer.
— De La Paz Coffee ( www.delapazcoffee.com): Located on Mission Street, De La Paz delivers organic, fair-trade coffee that’s been roasted in small batches. They’ve also got a mobile coffee cart in the works.
— Magic Curry Kart ( www.magiccurrykart.com): Started by Brian Kimball in 2009, Magic Curry Kart was one of the first street food vendors to go mobile with its Thai curry rice bowls. Today, Kimball’s chile sauces and pastes are available at Whole Foods – and he spends less time on the streets and more time at catering events.