Velo House founder Olly Stevens talks with BikeBiz

Cycle Cafe Profile: Velo House, Tunbridge Wells

Velo House has only been open a matter of months and is already troubling awards juries, scoring a nomination for the Society of British and International Design Awards. Velo House founder Olly Stevens talks awards, setting up in the Garden of England and bringing a bit of Australian culture to Kent…

Why did you open Velo House in Tunbridge Wells?
I was born and raised in Tunbridge Wells. I learned to ride a bike here and even when I lived in London I would travel back at the weekend to ride here. It has always seemed a great place to ride a bike with the roads south of here much quieter than those of Surrey or north towards the Sevenoaks Weald. You have the hills of Ashdown Forest or flatter roads down to the east coast to ride and stunning views in the Garden of England.

Growing up I rode with lots of different groups but never joined a club as they didn’t seem very friendly.

When we returned from three years in Australia, I noticed there were lots of small groups of friends riding together in an informal club but no large cycling clubs in Tunbridge Wells bringing them together. I thought what the modern cyclist needed was a clubhouse they could visit and feel welcome, meet like minded people and form alliances for new rides.

I wanted to create a place that cyclists could call their own and felt like a home for them. For this I realised you needed to cater for all of cyclists’ needs so we included a workshop with experienced road bike mechanics and a shop stocking a wide range of road bike-focused equipment for all budgets and including many brands that this area had never had before. We wanted the whole thing to feel like a familiar welcoming experience for cyclists and also a friendly place for people interested in starting cycling to come and learn more.

In terms of floorspace, how big is the café compared to the workshop and shop? Did you always intend for it to have those rough proportions?
The cafe is slightly bigger than the shop and workshop combined which gives us the scope to host largish events. We can seat 45 people inside and another 20 outside which is popular with cyclists in the summer. The building was always going to dictate the balance of cafe/shop and workshop but we are happy with the space we have.

Is the shop largely for essentials like tubes, etc, or is the product range wider?
We stock everything related to road cycling. We stock bikes from Focus, Scott, Boardman, Parlee, Ritte, Kinesis, Colnago and Lightweight. Clothing from Capo, Endura, Cafe Du Cycliste, POC and Vulpine and large range of accessories, helmets, shoes and wheels including lots of hand-built wheels which are proving very popular.

Was keeping the character of the bank important to you and the design team? Particularly as you gave up a job in the City to launch Velo House?
We definitely wanted to keep some of the character of the building regardless of what building that was. We kept the night safe in the corner as it was in a foot of concrete and couldn’t be moved, but other elements we used just because we liked them from an aesthetic view.

What kind of look and atmosphere were you going for?
My brief was that I wanted cyclists to walk in and think ‘wow, this is a great cycling cafe designed for me’ but also for non-cyclists to walk in and go ‘wow this is a great café’ and not feel intimidated.

The look was definitely inspired by our time in Melbourne and the great sunny bright cafe spaces they have there. We wanted it to be welcoming and friendly and also bright and sunny inside. I am very lucky that my wife Sophie has her own Interior Design business, SGS Design, and her sister runs a commercial design business, Kiwi and Pom, so I had a wealth of design talent to use. The whole thing was a family affair with my father working as the architect and now my daughter works in the kitchen. My wife and Kiwi and Pom came up with the design and I just added some more cycling references like our Velodrome wall and cycling map tables to finish things off. We wanted to make a very strong design statement and people often ask if we are a chain as it looks so professionally done. We got a small branding agency, Mose study, to create our logo and some of the other visual identity elements and these have been really important in creating the look of the Velo House.

Like all design processes some of the things that work well are planned and some are last minute decisions made out of necessity like the Rouleur musette bags used to hold paper towels in the toilets. I had forgotten to spec anything for drying peoples hands and we were opening in two days so we came up with a hook and called Bruce Sandell at Rouleur and he sent us some musette bags the next day and now everyone loves them.

What has been the local reaction to the launch?
People have been amazingly supportive. They love the fact we are local people running an independent cafe and not another carbon copy chain cafe. About 75 per cent of our customers are non-cyclists although we have manage to convert a few and sold some of them nice road bikes for the first time. It is great when people have travelled to visit us and I always try to have a chat with new customers and hear what they have to say. At the weekend we have more cyclists but we still get lots of locals who just like the cafe.

Has Velo House’s success so far hit your expectations?
The response from cyclists and locals has been much better than I could have hoped for. When I am having a bad day I usually find sitting down with a regular or new customer and having a chat about the place is enough to cheer me up and remind me why we did this.

Would you ever envisage opening up more Velo Houses in Kent or further afield?
Definitely. We designed it around what we think cyclists want and need to enjoy their bikes more and spent a lot of time of the design and branding to give it a unique look and feel so that we can open more down the line. We are always looking for possible sites for another Velo House either within Kent or beyond.

What’s coming up next for Velo House?
Christmas has been really busy with people hiring the Velo House on Friday and Saturday nights for private parties and we are also fully booked in January too. My job is to spread the word about the Velo House further afield. We will be hosting lots more events, including regular events every Thursday night. We hosted a live podcast with the Telegraph cycling podcast guys just before Christmas and have a Cycling Fox Hunt ride planned for the day after Boxing Day.

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