Organic Coffee Now in the Bike Lane

19 Feb, 2014

By Dave Soref

As I enter the Bicycle Coffee Co. in the waterfront district of Oakland, California, there is a buzz in the air, and it’s not just from the cups of high-grade organic coffee being poured at the cart in front of the shop. There is a palpable sense of purpose at this warehouse, largely emanating from the company’s thirty-something co-founder Brad Butler.

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Butler shows me around, bringing me first to a mini coffee-bean roaster no bigger than a toaster. “This is where it begins,” he says. “We get six-ounce samples of beans from around the world and cook them up, looking for a particular roast profile. We want our coffees to taste similar throughout the year and obviously to follow consistent quality standards, which means organic and sustainably farmed, not only in terms of the land, but also with the workers being paid a livable wage so they can continue farming in the same way, supporting themselves without having to use synthetic products.”

The well-being of the growers is not just an abstract concept for Butler. It was a visit to the beautiful cloud forests of Boquete, Panama, and meeting the multigenerational coffee-farming families living there that inspired Butler and his three cousins, Matt, Brandon and Cameron McKee, to start Bicycle Coffee in the first place.

“Originally we were doing something completely different with our lives,” Butler explains. “I was working in finance. My cousin Brandon was actually the youngest bar owner in San Francisco history. Working hard and making money but not really feeling fulfilled got us wanting to do something that was closer to the earth, where we could live in a healthier environment.”

Their plan was to start over in Central America and build a treehouse lodge. But seeing how the coffee farmers of Boquete were already living there sustainably and multigenerationally gave the brothers the idea to “bring the lifestyle of the farmers back to our home in California,” Butler says.

And with that, in January 2009, Bicycle Coffee Co. was born.

Beans on Bikes

“Our first bag of beans, sustainably farmed and harvested, came from Boquete,” Butler recalls. “We took those beans and started roasting them, with a wok and a wooden spoon, here in the kitchen—here being a house in Albany, California, right outside Berkeley.”

When it came time to invest in an industrial-sized roaster, Butler and the McKees did what came naturally to them: they built their own. “We didn’t have $30,000, and we were pretty handy,” Butler says matter-of-factly. “We did some research on how roasters really function, found a local workshop, and designed and built out a machine that could roast about 20 pounds at a time. After some test runs, we started roasting coffee ourselves.

“That roaster,” Butler concludes, “actually got a rating of 89 or 90 (out of 100) from Coffee Review, which is the most popular coffee guide in the US.”

The decision to rely exclusively on bicycles for delivery came out of a similar synthesis of ideology and practicality. “We wanted to do something sustainable and also cheap,” Butler relates. “Nothing is more inexpensive than riding a bicycle around, and we already had a passion for bikes. So once we got the roasting process down, we decided to put the beans into bags and glass jars and deliver them door to door around Berkeley.”

Today, Bicycle Coffee employs ten bike couriers out of two locations, the roasting warehouse in Oakland and a hub in San Francisco’s Mission District, where the cyclists pick up the coffee and deliver it throughout the city. Coffee couriers provide their own bikes and are given quarterly allowances specifically for bicycle maintenance, as well being covered by workers’ compensation in case of injury.

“Do you ever use a motorized vehicle?” I ask.

“To deliver our coffee to customers—no,” Butler says. “That’s all done on bikes. But twice a week we do take a Zipvan from the warehouse in Oakland over to our San Francisco hub. We were using BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit, the regional subway system], but it got to a point where we couldn’t take 500 pounds of coffee on there. BART doesn’t like it, and it just doesn’t work. So, until they build a bike path across the Bay, we’ll use a Zipvan twice a week. We don’t own cars.”

Bike Delivery Revolution

On my next visit to the Bicycle Coffee roastery, co-founder Cameron McKee is manning the cart out front. “We’re not here to greenwash our business,” McKee tells me. “We do this because we like to ride bikes and we think that bicycle delivery makes cities nicer places to be in.”

McKee, who seems to be the global trekker of the family, says, “In India there’s a lot of bike delivery because the cities are so condensed that many streets are impossible to get a truck through. Tokyo, too. In Tokyo, it’s not a big deal to see somebody delivering fresh fish by bicycle, or Burger King. Even the fax machine repairman works off a bike.

“So we’re looking forward to the day when it’s not a novelty in the US. The main problem right now is there just aren’t enough bicycle trailers here yet.”

Bicycle Coffee Co. is doing its part to change that, both by designing better trailers for hauling cargo and actually outfitting some trailers as mobile cafés.

On my initial visit, Butler surprised me by mentioning that the coffee cart where my cup had been poured was really a trailer that could be hitched up to a bicycle and transported anywhere. “That trailer,” he added, “just passed inspection with the County of Alameda Department of Environmental Health. That means we can take it onto the public right of way and serve coffee from it. And we’re working on the San Francisco inspection, which we’ll pass as well.

“When we got our paperwork, they didn’t even have a category for bike trailers, so our permit is classified under ‘miscellaneous.’ It literally didn’t exist until we built it,” Butler said with a smile.

“Standard food and coffee trucks have hand-washing sinks and other required accessories,” he continued. “So we had to take all that and put it into something you’re going to pull on a bicycle. It’s a challenging task; but once completed, instead of costing $25,000–$30,000, one of those trailers will cost a few hundred dollars to make.”

Bicycle Coffee plans to expand their way, which means no outside financing and a unique sales policy. “We get requests every day for our coffee to be shipped via mail, but we’ve never shipped coffee, and we’re not going to start,” Butler states. Instead, the company trains people in the Oakland warehouse and sends them off with a roaster to start new chapters. Currently, they are in Tokyo and are making arrangements to be roasting and delivering their coffee by bicycle in Los Angeles in the near future.

Loss and the Ride Forward

The ride for Bicycle Coffee has not been entirely smooth; the partners suffered a huge loss when one of their teammates died. “About a year and a half ago, my cousin Brandon had a seizure and died in his sleep. He was twenty-nine,” says Butler. “Brandon was my roommate, best friend, business partner, and the reason I moved to San Francisco. He was a fantastic musician, a wonderful person, and a huge part of our business. So when he died, there was incredible turmoil, and the challenges it created for us were immense. But we didn’t miss a delivery. I think he would be proud of that.”

For the young family business, the road forward looks good. Theirs is a distinctive business model, one that emphasizes sustainability over profit; but delivery by bike seems like an idea whose time has come in this era of higher fuel prices and increased attention to urban renewal. For Butler and his cousins, this is only the beginning. “We’re still extremely passionate and excited about the next steps,” Butler tells me. It’s a journey that Bicycle Coffee will keep on doing their way.

For more information, visit Bicycle Coffee Co.

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