From Wall Street Journal: At CamRock Café and Sport, in Cambridge, Wis., patrons can rent a mountain bike, get their brakes adjusted or load up on cycling accessories. Or they can nibble crepes and attend an art opening.
Before CamRock opened last year, avid road-bikers Mark and Vicki Sewell, husband and wife, typically headed to Madison, the state capital, for entertainment. Now, Mark, a 55-year-old attorney, and Vicki, a retired schoolteacher, make a weekly pilgrimage to CamRock, in the heart of Wisconsin’s dairy country, for yoga, spin classes and a post-class glass of wine—all while getting their bikes tuned up. They also like CamRock’s concerts (which range from string-quartet to steel drumming) and even spent New Year’s Eve there, when a guest chef whipped up cioppino in the cafe fireplace. It may not offer the lowest repair prices, says Mark, but he won’t go anywhere else, since “it’s your general store for cool stuff.”
Around the country, bike shops are shifting gears. The National Bicycle Dealers Association 2013 survey of 4,000 establishments found that 12% have coffee bars, 11% offer spinning classes and almost 5% serve beer. About 1% offer massages, yoga or full-service restaurants.
Market researcher Jay Townley, who tracks the cycling industry for the NBDA, says these hybrids barely existed five years ago. Currently, he says, they number close to 100 in the U.S.—and not just in places like Portland, Ore., and Brooklyn, N.Y. He projects they will grow fivefold by 2018, and could soon outnumber the 3,700 regular independent retailers.
For some shops, diversification is a survival strategy. While more people are riding bikes—cycling in New York City alone has more than doubled since 2005, with at least 500,000 residents biking—fewer are buying new ones. Unit sales fell 5% in the first half of 2013, with revenue down $88 million compared with the first half of 2012. And recently added bike-sharing programs in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago have put a dent in shop-based rentals. Bike shop locations have decreased by nearly a fifth in the past decade. Now, the $6 billion U.S. bicycle market is trying to lure new customers, especially women and families, with extras ranging from poetry readings to open-mic nights and even weddings.
At NBX Bikes in Narragansett, R.I., hot yoga classes are attracting people “who have never ridden a bike,” says owner Matt Bodziony. Shops such as his “always have the local neighborhood element,” but the key to bringing in new customers, he says, is “because the experience is so fun.”
While many new-wave bike shops hire separate staff for their food and entertainment services, some employees end up wearing multiple hats. At One on One Bicycle Studio, a Minneapolis shop and cafe that also holds art shows, co-owner Gene Oberpriller says one barista can now change a flat in three minutes. (Finding a mechanic who can make a good espresso, he says, has proved more elusive.) Bartenders at Red Lantern Bicycles in Brooklyn, some of whom moonlight as bike messengers, work on bikes when they’re not making vegan nut milks for the morning coffee customers. One CamRock mechanic is also trained in the kitchen, so he’ll often jump in when the restaurant gets busy. “As far as putting together a crepe, it almost seems like some of those mechanical skills do transfer to a cafe setting,” says CamRock general manager Heather Lang.
Of course, there’s always a concern about keeping grease out of the refreshments. At the Denver Bicycle Cafe, which hosts board-game nights and cheese tastings, co-owner Jessica Caouette originally envisioned repair staff going back and forth between changing a tube and pouring a cold one. “We discovered very quickly that as a mechanic, you’re just way too dirty to go back behind the bar and hand somebody a beer,” she says.
Even with all the new sidelights, bike shop owners insist that repairs are still the soul of their business—as well as its biggest moneymaker. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists bicycle repairers in its top 30 fastest-growing occupations, forecasting 38% growth by 2020.
While 7 p.m. is the official closing time at One on One Bicycle Studio, a Minneapolis shop and cafe that also holds art shows, Oberpriller remembers when a man dragged in a mangled bike a night around 2 a.m., drunkenly begging them to fix it. “We said ‘sure.’”
Some see the changes as a welcome evolution of bike shop culture. “There’s a stereotype about what a bike shop is like—it’s dirty, it’s mostly men, it’s an intimidating place to be, let alone hang out,” says Carolyn Szczepanski, spokeswoman for the League of American Bicyclists. Mechanics, she adds, often treat women like they can’t tell the handlebars from the derailleur. “There’s a concerted effort to change the face of who those folks are.”
At Shenandoah Bicycle Co., in Harrisonburg, Va., the smoothie bar—serving antioxidant-rich acai bowls—”makes things a little less of a dude ranch,” says head service and parts manager Paul Forrester, who takes turns between bikes and blender duty. (”We obviously scrub our hands pretty well before hopping back there,” he says.) And rotating roles helped him develop his “customer-service personality.”
When Jon Tirrell and Abbie Fillmore of Portland, Ore., decided to tie the knot, they didn’t exactly dream of making it a bike-shop affair. The couple rode bikes on their first date and own a half-dozen between them, but didn’t want the wedding to be “too Portlandish,” or to ride down the aisle on a tandem bicycle, as some couples do. (On a 10-point scale of cycling enthusiasm, they rate themselves a “6.”) But when Jon, a carpenter and EMT, and Abbie, a medical student, went for a drink at the new bike shop-café in town, Velo Cult, they were attracted to the unique setting—and the bar.
In most respects, the June nuptials were quite traditional: The bride, wearing a long white gown, was escorted down the aisle by both her parents, preceded by two bridesmaids in cocktail dresses. But there were a few reminders that the couple had chosen an unconventional venue. The couple exchanged vows beside a mechanic’s workbench. And when a man walked into the shop with a flat right before the ceremony, Velo Cult’s mechanic-cum-events coordinator didn’t blink an eye. He changed the tube in five minutes and sent the cyclist on his way. “It’s no wedding in the Hamptons,” says Jon, but “I would not change a thing about it.”