As more and more Canadian cities hop onto the protected bike lane bandwagon, new economic opportunities are being presented to merchants who chose to cater to customers arriving by foot or bicycle. While they may purchase less per visit, study after study has discovered that – over the course of an entire month – people arriving by those two modes of transportation regularly outspend drivers at locally owned businesses such as cafés, bars, restaurants, and convenience stores.
Here in Vancouver, forward-thinking entrepreneurs have taken full advantage of the growth in cycling, and strategically located their storefronts along the bustling bikeways. Case studies such as Bomber Brewing, Tandem Cafe, and Cycle City Tours demonstrate that bike lanes really do mean business, and people on bicycles are far more likely to stop and make an impromptu purchase than those racing by in a car.
Let’s not also forget the fact that Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association President and CEO Charles Gauthier has become one of the most vocal proponents of bicycle infrastructure in the city, reversing his organization’s position on the protected bike lanes, supporting walking and cycling improvements to the Burrard Bridge, and championing the imminent arrival of bike share this summer.
But perhaps less understood and less studied is how bike infrastructure can enable budding capitalists to take their products directly to consumers on the street. The suddenly ubiquitous food bikes that can be spotted on Vancouver’s cycle tracks and seawall are a perfect example of this phenomenon. Countless cargo bike-based food service businesses have popped up in recent years, (quite literally) peddling their wares such as ice cream, popsicles, cream puffs, fresh produce, pastries, and cold brew coffee.
When food trucks were first piloted in Vancouver in 2012, they were touted as a trendier, cheaper, adaptable alternative to a static, brick-and-mortar restaurant. However, with business licenses reportedly trading hands for as much as $100,000, and the vehicle itself requiring a significant amount of capital, the cargo bike has emerged as an alternative to the alternative. And low overhead means one can enter the market and start making money immediately — a new business owner’s dream.
“A very valuable stepping stone for us”
When friends Erica Bernardi and Ben Ernst decided to start an ice cream business in early 2012, which they named Earnest Ice Cream, they knew they wanted to start off small. As a result, they secured food preparation and storage space at a commissary on Commercial Drive, and – rather than risk a pricey retail shop front – opted to invest in a custom tricycle from New York-based manufacturer Worksman Cycles.
“That first year, we took the bike to Farmers’ Markets, street festivals like Italian Day and Car-Free Day, and other private events,” recalls Bernardi. “It allowed us to build up recognition, try out new recipes, and generate a social media following.”
“It was a very valuable stepping stone for us,” explains Ernst. “The trike was much less expensive than a food truck, but gave us the exposure we needed to get started.”
Within a year, it was clear they were onto something, so Bernardi and Ernst decided to take the inevitable next step: a flagship retail store on Fraser Street, which opened its doors in fall 2013. And then, with a lineup regularly stretching out the door to taste their signature flavours (such as Salted Caramel and London Fog), and kitchen space somewhat limited, it was only a matter of time before they expanded to a second, much larger location, mere steps from the seawall on Quebec Street.
In addition to two wildly successful brick-and-mortar locations, Earnest Ice Cream now boasts 20 different distributors across the Lower Mainland, and 63 full- and part-time staff.
The cargo bike permanently sits above the entrance to their Quebec Street location, having been fully retired from rolling around the bikeways of Vancouver, and serving as a visible reminder of Earnest Ice Cream’s modest origins.
“A low-cost, low-risk way to expand our business”
Since opening their doors on Hasting Street’s newly-restored Paris Block in April 2010, Acme Cafe owners Alan and Peggy Hoffman have enjoyed a steady flow of customers, serving home made comfort food, espresso, and desserts to a regular mix of locals and tourists. “Over the years, we’ve been asked by friends and family ‘Will you open a second location?’” explains Alan, to which he emphatically replies “No!”
“Running one restaurant is hard enough work,” says Hoffman. “Over the years, we’ve discussed opening a ‘pie truck’, but the investment needed was just too high.”
A pedal-powered enterprise was another option the Hoffmans considered, who – coincidentally – spent many hours browsing the Worksman website. So when they stumbled across a Worksman tricycle listed on Craigslist in Port Coquitlam last year, the time to hesitate was through. They purchased and refurbished the bike, finishing it off with a cabinet built by Peggy’s father. With that, ‘The Pastry Trike’ was born.
For Alan and Peggy, The Pastry Trike addresses a significant problem with running an enclosed, patio-less restaurant in the Pacific Northwest. “People often assume we get busier when the weather is nice, but the exact opposite is true,” admits Hoffman.
Indeed, anyone who has spent time in our temperate rainforest understands that – when the sun is shining – everyone feels obliged to get outside. The city’s myriad parks, beaches, and seawall are teeming with potential customers, whom Alan and Peggy are more than happy to serve using staff who would otherwise be sent home.
Offering up pastries and coffee prepared in the kitchen that morning (as well as the occasional dog treat) also fills a glaring gap in the city’s retail amenities: the 30-kilometre seawall route. One can sometimes walk or roll for many kilometres along the waterfront without passing a single place to stop for something to eat or drink.
One thing’s for certain, the Hoffmans are incredibly pleased with the first few months of their retail experiment: “The trike has provided us with a low-cost, low-risk way to expand our business, and it’s great advertising for the cafe too!” suggests Alan.
Bike infrastructure as a business incubator
If these two complementary anecdotes prove anything, it’s that bike infrastructure can act as an incubator for certain businesses, while offering a platform upon which other, more established ones can grow. That is, of course, if the public sector can minimize the red tape and bureaucracy that is undoubtedly mitigating these economic prospects. In a competitive, vibrant, 21st century city, the private sector must be given a fair and equal opportunity to experiment and innovate. And yes, even sometimes fail.
And as Vancouver’s well-documented affordability crisis worsens, access to retail space is becoming increasingly limited. That is, to anyone without deep pockets.
One of the chief reasons why Earnest Ice Cream’s trike remains on the shelf is the onerous (and often inconsistent) list of requirements placed on a mobile food service business license by Vancouver Coastal Health. These were impractical obligations – likely written at a different time for a different business model – such as a dedicated hand-washing station, a portable shelter to protect food from the elements, and individually wrapping each serving in plastic to avoid contamination.
While we were relieved to hear some of these restrictions were relaxed in the four years between Earnest and Acme’s encounters, we’d hate to think outdated and uncompromising rules are actively discouraging more entrepreneurs to shift to two (or sometimes three) wheels. Much like they did with parklets, car sharing, and food trucks, city officials need to work directly with industry, not just to legitimize these more sustainable and resilient business models, but to incentivize them. Then, most importantly, government will ensure they are driving change, and not reacting to it.