Are cycle cafés a sustainable business model?

Has the cycle café had its day? Kieran Howells catches up with three very different cycle cafés in London for their take on the sector...
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Whether a logical next step for a struggling industry, or just the latest fad, cycle cafés have spent the better part of the last six years sweeping the country.

Logically, the concept of a place in which you can take a pit stop, get your flat tyre fixed and replenish your energy levels with a cup of coffee in a social environment seems like a stellar idea, but is the reality of running a cycle café truly as idealistic as it seems? We caught up with three of London’s premier independent cycle cafés to find out who they are, what they do, and whether the idea is transferrable to struggling bike shops.

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The Founder:
LOOK MUM NO HANDS

Sam Humpheson, 
Owner & Mechanic

Can you tell us a little about the company’s history?
We opened in April 2010 and there wasn’t anything like this around when we started. I’d been in the bike industry for the best part of 15 years before we opened. One of my partners was in the café business and was very into the coffee scene. We’d been riding for a long time together and the concept was that by merging the two worlds, we could change the traditional bike shop environment that isn’t necessarily that welcoming. 

Does the shop have a strong community surrounding it?
We were lucky in that we were almost instantly accepted in the local community. Our customer base is incredibly diverse. Half our customers come here just because we’re a good café, but there are also people here getting their bikes fixed, and there are kids outside using the pump service all the time. 

Do you organise events?
We were overwhelmed by the amount of people who came to us straightaway to put on events. We’ve had people coming to us with films and exhibitions and suddenly there was this whole group of people who were keen to do these things but didn’t have a space in which to do them. We’ve had everything from speed dating for cyclists, down to the quite serious Tour de France talks. 

How is the café side of the business run?
You can’t just open a crap café and put a picture of a bike on the wall and call it a cycling café. When we launched there was a bit of an explosion in the London coffee scene that we were part of and we’re often featured in good coffee guides. There’s also been a real boom in the popularity of the craft beer scene and we’ve always had a massive interest in that scene too. We have craft beers on tap and we’ve got a lot of support from independent breweries. 

How successful has the concept been so far?
It’s interesting because this is my first time opening a business so it’s really great that it’s been a success. Pretty much straight away we needed to bring in extra staff, and not many bike shops ever get past that stage where the owners are constantly working their asses off. So that’s a very good place for us to be. 

Is the cycle café idea viable for struggling bike shops?
The concept is sound. Bikes and coffee are good bedfellows. It’s not going to work for everybody but bike shops definitely need to be a more welcoming space. I think shops need to soften up a bit. Engagement is important and community is a very big deal. Offer early and late drop-off, suddenly you’re a good option for fitting into people’s busy days. Having friendly staff is a massive need, and if you’re in the right location having a small café could work well. If you’re in a great location and you have a lot of room then I think providing some sort of a social space is a really great idea.

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The Newcomer:
CYCLE PS

Ian Patterson, 
Manager & Mechanic

Can you tell us a little about the company’s history?
We’ve been open two years, and we have a sister shop in Camberwell. Both shops have a very similar feel, they’re local community bike shops that care a great deal about giving good service. We are more like a clubhouse for the local community and that’s why there are video games and memorabilia everywhere. People can just come in, chill out and feel welcome. 

Does the shop have a strong community surrounding it?
Having a community hub element is really important for our business. A lot of people will buy, sell and trade here. Cycle PS is a nice, safe place to meet and maybe whilst they’re here they may buy a few bits too. People come because they like the way we run the shop, and hopefully because they like us too. We’re here because we love bikes and we love the community that invited us in.

Do you organise events?
The last major event we did was a scavenger hunt. Everyone was given three items to obtain and the first one back with the items won. So it’s fun silly events more than serious races. When you’re doing a serious race, the same people will always come out first, but with these kinds of fun silly events anyone could win. We like to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

How is the café side of the business run?
There are two things we take very seriously here and those are bikes and coffee. The guy who makes our beans is a rider in the local community. Cycling and coffee are intrinsically linked. If you’re going to ride with your friends you have to ride somewhere, and a coffee shop is a great place to go. Coffee culture goes hand in hand with what we do here. 

How successful has the concept been so far?
It’s successful but it could be more successful. In some days in the middle of winter we can really struggle, but in the summer when the cycle to work schemes come out we do very well. The lows are low, and the highs are high. First and foremost, we just care about keeping going. 

Is the cycle café idea viable for struggling bike shops?
I think in the right circumstances the idea is definitely sustainable. There are too many factors to say that the business model is viable everywhere, but integrating into your local community is a sure fire way of building up a community around the shop. We take part in an event at a local school in which parents trade bikes that their children have outgrown, what we do is go along and fix punctures, make sure the bikes are in good condition and fix any small issues. We don’t make money at that event, but those parents will always come to our shop when their child needs a new bike, or if they need any repairs at all, which is great for business.

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The Convert:
MACHINE

Vitas Dronseika
Owner & Mechanic

Can you tell us a little about the company’s history?
We started a little over five years ago, but just as a standard bike shop. It wasn’t even close to a coffee shop. This transition took place a little over a year ago. People always used to come in and ask where the best local places to have a coffee on their rides were. We were always pointing people elsewhere, so we thought maybe a coffee shop could be a great addition to the bike shop.

Does the shop have a strong community surrounding it?
I guess now we have two communities in one, there are people who don’t own a bike, and they come in for lunch or a good coffee, and then the local cyclist community. We’ve had people coming back here from year one because of the service and reliability. So yeah, I’m really grateful for those people who believed in us from day one.

Do you organise events?
We’ve done quite a few events and we’ve had a few concerts in here too. We had our birthday party in here in December, and the same day we got a gift from our customers and our friends, they got us a projector and a screen too. So we changed the back to put in a screen, which we show races on now. 

How is the café side of the business run?
If you’re going to go 100 per centv on the coffee side of things, you have to do it properly, so we invested in a good coffee machine, we chose to not just get the cheapest beans, we actually have some of the best in London. You can do it right, or not do it at all.

How successful has the concept been so far?
The café very quickly attracted a lot more people trough the door, like four or five times more people. We got lots of people who would otherwise never come to a bike shop but who just want good coffee coming in. 

Is the cycle café idea viable for struggling bike shops?
Yes and no. It’s a huge investment. If it’s a one or two man show, and they want to convert it into a café as well, then it’s a giant job. We opened only because we knew there was a demand for this in this area. It just won’t work if you have the same people who are fixing bikes making coffee. I think it wouldn’t work. Coffee really opened the gate for people who otherwise wouldn’t come anywhere near a bike. Bike shops can be very closed environments but you don’t need to own a bike to come in here and be around the culture.

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