Since beginning Build-Outs of Summer in 2012, we’ve profiled dozens of unique coffee bars, training spaces, roastworks, and service concepts of all stripes. Today we’re featuring a bicycle–yes, a bicycle–but not just any bike: this one’s been outfitted with multiple grinders, an Astoria Gloria propane retrofit espresso machine, a fridge for cold brew & milk, and Clever coffee drippers, all powered by solar panels. Coffee Cycle founder Chris O’Brien is bringing pedal-powered coffee to San Diego in a big way, one hill at a time. Here’s to a Build-Out that happens in a bike shop!
As told by Chris O’Brien.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your company, and how it all got started?
I got into bicycling in 2009. I’ve always been car-free. I never got my license—never took the time, liked walking everywhere, and when I got older, developed some strong opinions about our dependence on the personal automobile and on the oil industry. When I discoved cycling, I also discovered this whole culture of people that seemed to spend a lot of time embracing the coffee culture I already loved. I worked in a cafe when I was sixteen, learned to love drinking coffee with my dad, and eventually ended up working for Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland. Carl Jones was taking coffee to a level I had never realized was possible before.
His employees, my coworkers, were passionate about what they were serving—they cared about the customer experience. And the coffee tasted so much better than the best cup I had ever had before. Fast forward a few years to working at Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in San Diego, and it was like rediscovering that all over again. My closest friends down here are small business owners in other fields, and one of them asked me about running my own shop at the right moment, in the right way, when the wheels had already been turning in my head in that direction for awhile. I went home and couldn’t stop sketching shop layouts, researching every little detail about what I knew needed to go into it for me to be satisfied, and I came up with a plan that I liked.
Then I planned a pop-up with some innovative space usage ideas I had come up with (trying to scale back the initial investment). Those are both plans I’d like to see realized one day. And then, over a few beers with some other friends that I knew through bicycling, it was jokingly suggested that I try this idea of putting a full cafe behind my bike. I laughed, but the next day I started checking the possibilities. The existing coffee service pedal-powered vehicles are all great, but there was a lot of untapped potential (especially in the area of coffee quality!) that a prefabricated vehicle wasn’t going to be able to handle.
So it’s all happening on a bike? Can you tell us more?
Coffee Cycle is capable of producing a full line of espresso and coffee drinks, of the highest quality. It has a range of 30+miles roundtrip on San Diego’s fairly hilly coastline due to a powerful, yet street-legal pedal assist electric motor. The refrigerator and grinders are powered by a lithium battery that recieves a constant trickle charge from an array of solar panels on the shade canopy. After a few design and planning sessions with my friend in fabrication, we cut down and modified a pedicab frame to be narrower and longer, and support a very large weight on top. The vehicle is narrow enough to fit inside a bike lane easily, yet carries gallons of water and milk, has full hot and cold running purified water, and sports a propane-heated boiler lever-operated espresso machine.
What’s your approach to serving coffee?
For me, its all about the customer experience. I want customers to always have a reason to come back–lots of reasons! I want the customer to taste a great beverage that makes them happy. I want the opportunity to show some customers new drinks and flavors in coffee that they’ve never tasted before. I want customers to be curious about why their drink is always SO good. I want the coffee I serve to be the right tool to elicit those responses, which is why I’ll be continuing to work closely with Bird Rock Coffee Roasters as my main supply of beans. I like the power of coffee: the power to make someone’s day start out great, and then stay great.
So this is clearly a very different sort of new shop. What’s the gear behind it?
Hot and iced coffee and tea via Clever drippers, Astoria Gloria AL1 espresso machine with propane retrofit, Mazzer Mini + Rancilio Rocky grinders. DC-powered Norcold 788 RV/marine refrigerator capable of carrying 8 gallons milk powered by lithium battery receiving a constant trickle charge from a canopy covered with solar panels. All this on the back of a bespoke modified pedicab frame equipped with an electric-assist motor.
What’s your hopeful target opening month?
Are you working with craftsmen/women, architects, and/or creatives that you’d like to mention?
Stu Clott, owner at Anywhere Bicycle Repair has been a great design partner and has been doing a huge share of the build-out (as well as storing the vehicle, for now!). He has such a great practical approach to ideas–he and Taylor Gill, the fabricator doing most of the steel work on the vehicle, have done incredible things with the ideas and quandaries I’ve brought to them. I couldn’t be luckier in a team to construct this.
Where will the bike be rolling up?
We’ll be doing our first set-ups at local bike shops and local events, but we’re calling on all the coffee drinkers in the coastal San Diego area to submit ideas for places to serve some great beverages. San Diego asks that mobile food vendors work with other local businesses that can supply bathroom facilities and space to park and get serving–so send us some contact info for commercial buildings in good spots that want the Coffee Cycle!