Opening a bike shop during a pandemic

Former firefighter Tom Hunter recently opened a new IBD – The Bike Side – in West Sussex. Rebecca Morley finds out more

There are many people I expect to meet on our annual trips to COREbike – spending time with those I usually only speak to over email and catching up on the latest brands and products on show. I can walk through the doors of Whittlebury Hall with a good idea of what I’ll see for the next three days.

One person I did not predict to bump into, however, was someone I knew from before I joined the bike trade, and someone who I had no idea had any involvement in the industry at all. This was Tom Hunter – a firefighter I knew from my time as a fire cadet in West Sussex. To say I was surprised, when, nearly seven years later, he walked up to the BikeBiz stand, would be an understatement.

“I did ten years in the fire service,” Hunter later tells BikeBiz. “But my first Saturday job was in a bike shop in Kent where I grew up – and I’ve always had the passion.”

Hunter says his life has juggled around entertainment and bikes, with a bit of fire service in-between. At one point, after he met his wife and moved down to Sussex, he was working full-time in a bike shop, as well as doing entertainment kids’ parties and being a retained firefighter. “It was all getting a bit much,” he says, so he started working full-time in the fire service, in the youth department, including fire cadets, firebreak courses and fire prevention.

“But when my son was 12 he picked up mountain biking and we ended up getting him a nice bike for his birthday,” Hunter continues. “Then we rekindled the relationship with the shop I used to work at – I’d been rebitten by the bug.”

Opening up shop
Now, Hunter has his own store, The Bike Side, which opened on 6th March this year – just over two weeks before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the COVID-19 lockdown and told all “non-essential” businesses they must shut. Thankfully for Hunter, and the rest of the cycling industry, bike shops were among those excluded.

“We started in a little industrial unit,” Hunter explains. “The idea was that the Tomfoolery entertainment company could support us and I could do this during the week. And that died because no one’s having a kids party now, but fortunately the bike industry is allowed to carry on.”

And Hunter says it’s gone from strength to strength: “The business keeps rolling in. I’m really pleased – it’s a really positive start. There’s always that panic that we started a business at the start of a pandemic – but fortunately, we started the right sort of business.”

In fact, Hunter says it has actually been the “saving grace” that he needed due to lack of money being brought in by his other job. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a worry – a lot of money has been invested, after all.

“We are getting support from the Government and we will be eligible for the grants that are available,” he continues. “There’s help on the way which is great, but what’s really positive is that I can do collections and deliveries. I’m picking up people’s bikes without even seeing them. They pay online – everything’s done contactless.

“I’m doing lots of marketing on Facebook and Instagram about that, cleaning the bikes down with sanitising wipes before they go back to the customers. We’re protecting ourselves as much as possible and working through it, and so far it’s working well.”

Welcome to the family
The COVID-19 pandemic aside, how has Hunter found opening a store in the bike trade? “I’ve been really lucky because of my links in the cycling industry before,” he explains. “Rory [Hitchens] at Upgrade invited me to COREbike. I didn’t actually have a premises at that time, but Rory got my foot in the door.

“It’s been a really good family hug, the whole industry. The children’s entertainers side and the fire service side have also been great, so I’ve had really good support from many different angles. The people within the bike trade have been really keen to help out. Hunt Wheels is right next to me and Upgrade is around the corner as well.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to has said I’m doing the right thing in going into an industrial unit. I’m not trying to compete with online, I’m not stocking too much. It’s that lifestyle workshop, we’ll have the coffee on when we’re allowed to. There are stools and a bench you can come and sit at. It’s a social place as well, rather than just a shop.

In terms of challenges, Hunter says there haven’t actually been too many: “I thought I was going to come up against some real snooty companies. When I tried to set up a mobile mechanic – going back nearly 20 years – no one would give me a trade account because I was just working out of my garage.

“Cut to now, the minute I had a premises and told them what I wanted to do everyone was on board straight away. The whole industry welcomed me with open arms. It wants new people. I went up to COREbike and Madison’s iceBike* show and there were really good resources and really good feedback – it’s a great way to get in and learn the products and see what’s happening. I’ve been very impressed.”

Always look on The Bike Side of life
Looking to the future, Hunter says he plans for the business to grow organically, with no great plans for a big expansion. “It’s growing faster than I ever thought it would,” he says. “I’m probably already a year ahead of where I thought I’d be.

“I don’t know if that’s because of COVID-19 – there are definitely some customers I picked up because their local shop shut or they can’t get out so they like the fact that I can collect. In a way, it’s been helped a bit by this pandemic – I can’t honestly tell how much.

“Once we get past it, I want to be going into community rides with everyone meeting up,” Hunter concludes. “I’ve had ideas of service seminars, people coming in and learning how to look after their bikes – I’ve got the space to do that.”

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