Portland seems to be always ahead of the curve in two areas: food and bikes. The two are colliding with incredible force this spring, as bicycle-based food businesses sprout like daisies, from a bike-based "cookie CSA" to a three-wheeled, single-origin coffee cafe.
For decades, cities like New York City and Boston have used bikes as delivery vehicles. Portland's already home to pedi-cabs and bike messengers, but up until now there have been few businesses—other than pizza delivery like Hot Lips and Old Town Pizza and the Staccato Gelato ice-cream bike—using bikes to bring food to hungry diners. These new food-business owners say bikes keep their monetary investments down and feed their commitment to treading lightly on the planet. And, of course, they're helpin' them build up some serious quadriceps.
Software marketer Rick Wilson has maneuvered his three-wheeled, 800-pound Dutch-made Bakfiets cargo bike to three of the Portland farmers markets each week since early April. Once he sets "Cafe Vélo's" emergency brake, which, considering the bike's weight, actually resembles a car hand brake, Wilson unfolds the contraption to reveal a zinc-capped bar topped with porcelain filters that he uses to brew up to seven cups of coffee simultaneously on his handmade drip stand. For $2.50, you get a cup of Stumptown single-origin coffee, ground to order and brewed while you wait. There's nothing else like it in the city.
"I want people to be surprised we've done so much with just bikes," Wilson says of the team he's assembled to operate the stand. Before he got the idea for the business, he and his wife used a smaller Bakfiets cargo bike to transport their two kids around town. Having lived in Europe, he couldn't forget his impressions of how bikes were used for commerce, a memory that stayed with him long after his family moved back to the states.
In Portland, he says, using bikes for his business was an obvious draw, considering the city's two-wheeled culture. Ultimately, he says, he'd like to try to encourage other people to incorporate bikes into their daily routines.
Wilson's bike, however, is much more "geeked out" than what most would use to haul kids or groceries. Even though the bike itself cost about $5,000 shipped from the Netherlands, the self-described "gadget freak" was able to save money by building certain elements himself, spending nights in his Irvington garage constructing the wooden box that rests atop the front wheels and mounting the drip stand.
Are bike-based businesses legal? Kind of. Because bikes can be both stationary and mobile, there's confusion about which county and city permits they need. Rich Eisenhauer, who manages street systems for the City of Portland, says that these kind of upstarts are news to him, but he's confident that as more people try bike-based food operations there will be a way to get them totally legal. Wilson says he's been purchasing a $160-per-month temporary restaurant license for each of three weekly market locations, available from the county health department.
So far, business has been overwhelmingly good for Cafe Vélo. In Wilson's first two weekends at the PSU farmers market, he had lines up to a dozen people long, he says, and even ran out of coffee. And as a result, "we're regrouping." Still not ready to quit the day job, though.
Switching gears: Lisa DeGrace of Lulu's Confections says she enjoys giving her cookies away more than keeping them. After tasting her peanut-butter-and-jelly cookies, you'll understand why. Meltingly tender and wickedly rich from plenty of butter, DeGrace's peanut-butter shortbreads are nothing if not divine. She delivers lemon-ginger shortbreads, raspberry thumbprints ($1-$2) and even "couture cookies"—like Parmesan-and-pine-nut—on her pink $1,300 custom bike made by Pennsylvania-based Haley Tricycles.
DeGrace, 37, says she was burnt out on fundraising for local nonprofits and had a "third-of-life crisis," which helped her settle on her true love: baking cookies.
Her vision was to do a cookie version of a CSA—show up each week for a cookie drop at a business and hang out while office workers take a break and invest a buck or two in a quality pick-me-up. She hopes to soon find a street corner at which to park her bike during strategic times of day.
Scott Bricker, director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, hopes that as more bicycle-based businesses take root, more resources will develop. "In Portland, there are so many people who value biking and sustainability that they will choose these businesses consciously," he says. "They'll also appeal to people who just think they're cool." Bricker thinks the cost of gasoline, together with some food business' limited space needs, makes choosing bike transport an obvious win.
DeGrace says she never seriously considered using any form of transport other than bikes. "I really wanted to not deliver by car," she says. It was the right thing to do environmentally, she says, and adds, "Hello! I make cookies for a living! I need some exercise!"
She takes to the streets to deliver her goods after a morning spent baking in her Foster-Powell home kitchen, juggling deliveries with a flexible part-time job writing grants. Business has come slowly, and DeGrace is happy that she's only invested about $3,000 into her venture. She estimates that if she'd chosen to operate out of a storefront proper, her expenses would be at least three or four times higher. "I wanted to be sure that I didn't lose my shirt financially," she says. "Or my mind for that matter."
So, while bikes and food may be fresh bedfellows in this town, it feels like Portland's just about to find out whether it'll be a happy union. And we didn't even mention the frozen-fruit-bar bike vendors—Sol Pops. They'll be at farmers markets soon, too. Keep your eyes peeled—pretty soon Portland's food culture may literally be on a roll.
Visit cafe-velo.com and lulusconfections.blogspot.com for more info.