An Espresso Bike is Born

It’s still bizarre to see it out in the wild, a tangible object that we turned from a sketch into a working mobile espresso cart, towed behind a 1985 Japanese mountain bike.

Scavenger Coffee espresso bike parked in front of Westin Bayshore
Scavenger Coffee ready for coffee service at the Westin Bayshore.

In this blog series we’re going to go beyond the curt captions of Instagram to share more in-depth stories with you of how we built the cart, why we built it the way we did, what inspired us, and stories related to bike, coffee and DIY culture.

Scavenger Coffee Sketch
The original sketch that we submitted in our application to the city.

The Idea

The idea of a coffee bike business was dreamed up while we—Diana and Rory—were cycle-touring from Scotland to Greece in the summer of 2017. From the bracing winds of Scotland, to the sunny beaches of Crete, the two constants of the trip were our butts in the saddle, and at least two coffees a day.

So we slapped Fantastiko onto our hand-built bike trailer and off we went, right? Not quite..

Coffee and cycling have long been culturally connected, but now they’re becoming physically connected as well. We first realized it was possible to combine the two when we were living in Montréal and spotted our first bicycle cafe in the wild. We later found out this was Le Café Pista, with an espresso bike made by Velopresso—more to come one them in a later article.

Le Café Pista: espresso bike
Le Café Pista—a “vélo de café” in Montréal

We found that there were a handful of companies making espresso bikes, but none of them quite fit the job for Vancouver. Some were designed for only flat terrain, some didn’t have the aesthetic we wanted, and—most importantly—none of them would meet the local health requirements.

Why an Espresso Bike?

Actually, let’s backtrack. Why did we want to start a small business at all?

We had both quit our jobs to bike across Europe. After five months, with our return flight looming, the prospect of going back to an office wasn’t appealing to me. I liked my work—digital marketing—but the routine of going to the same desk at the same office week after week was wearing on me. It was the comfort of it that was the most worrying to me. I could easily see a future where, by playing it safe, in five years’ time I was still at the same desk, with the same good benefits, good pay, a healthy savings account, but lacking in stories.

Cycling through Normandy back roads
Cycle-touring through the backroads of Normandy

From Diana’s perspective, she had had an assortment of jobs since university. She had worked as an illustrator, a bike courier, a print maker, a leather-worker and a barista, but she was ready to put her energy and effort into something of her own.

I knew it was possible to make money for myself, thanks to a friend in university convincing me to start a summer window-cleaning business with him. Over one-pot camping meals, Diana and I talked about the type of business we wanted to start. Bikes came up a lot—Diana had worked for a great company in Vancouver called Shift Delivery that used e-cargo trikes to deliver packages in the downtown core. We respected that they built their business around the bicycle—it wasn’t just a token gesture, i.e. greenwashing— and we wanted to do the same with our business.

Shift Delivery trike making downtown deliveries.

From the economic side, it had to be something with low startup costs, and we also wanted low overhead to stay flexible—Vancouver storefront rents are ludicrous thanks to something called triple-net leases (meaning you’re on the hook for property tax, insurance and maintenance on top of your rent!) and the last thing we wanted were huge fixed costs looming over our heads.

Since 2008, food trucks have been allowed in Vancouver, but they were mostly just…trucks. We thought that if a food truck was a restaurant with less overhead, then a bike cart must be an even smaller version of that. For the most part that’s true, but as we found out, doing anything outside of the norm will make your life harder.

The Build

Since both of us can’t help but say, “I could make that”, we decided to hand-build the entire cart, right down to the trailer chassis, wheel dropouts, door handles and all.

hand-hammered brass door handles
Hand-hammered brass door handles

We’ll be diving deep into the details of the build in future articles, but it has an aluminum skeleton, cedar body, steel components, brass and copper accents, and the whole thing is pulled by a 1985 Kuwahara Shasta mountain bike.

Diana pedalling the Scavenger Coffee cart
On our way back from our first ever market, before we had our logo finished.

Fantastiko—The Magic Box

The one piece of equipment we trusted to a professional was the espresso machine. We knew we didn’t want a modern, automatic, plastic machine and we were incredibly fortunate to find an espresso artist—a very rare breed these days—living in Nelson, BC. He had just the machine for us, a 1970s La Pavoni lever espresso machine. He brought it back to life as a steampunk piece of art called Fantastiko—The Magic Box!

Steampunk espress machine
Fantastiko—The Magic Box!

So we slapped Fantastiko onto our hand-built bike trailer and off we went, right?

Not exactly,; we were quickly brought down to earth by the local health authorities. Before we could start putting together the trailer frame we spent six months mired in bureaucratic molasses. In our next article we’re going to explain how we chose our design, show you some early sketches, and talk about the struggle of matching our design with the local health regulations.

Hopefully by documenting this process we can help some of you who might be interested in starting your own bike cart, bike-based business, or even just your own bike trailer for hauling around heavy loads as you move towards a car-lite life.

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