Atlantic Cities

In Chicago, A Store for Bike Snobs (and Coffee Lovers)

In Chicago, A Store for Bike Snobs (and Coffee Lovers)
Courtesy: Melissa Salvatore

A bit of advanced manufacturing, a dash of locally-sourced sustainability, and a heaping spoonful of come-in-and-stay-a-while: that's what Michael Salvatore's aiming for with his new bike shop cafe in Chicago's up-and-coming Lakeview neighborhood.

Salvatore, who helped found online retailer Bowery Lane Bicycles in New York City in 2008, decided last August to bring the idea of hand-made, locally built bicycles to Chicago, where he was born and raised. "I just had my first kid and I thought this was the perfect opportunity to come back and start something here," says the 30-year-old Salvatore, who has a background in marketing and branding.

"At Bowery Lane we have an online presence but we don't have a physical retail space. I thought it would be awesome to have a bike shop with a cafe so people can come in, relax with a coffee, check everything out and see people making the bikes out in the open.”

The Heritage General Store is set to open to the public on Saturday, January 28th – becoming the first of its kind in Chicago. The shop will sell Stumptown coffee and fresh-baked pastries along with a selection of locally-made gear and clothes, like bags and aprons from Winter Session.

Bike shop cafes have sprung up in Minneapolis, Portland, and other bike-mad cities in recent years (Portland even has a bike that is a cafe). But few, if any, do triple duty as bike manufacturing facilities.

Heritage will sell Bowery Lane's line of Breukelyn and Broncks bikes along with its own line of Heritage bikes, both for $695. The initial stages of production for Heritage bikes will be performed by a fabricator in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood (welding cannot be done near the cafe because of the fumes). Everything else, from assembly to sales and repair, will be done at the shop.

Salvatore has brought in two experienced Chicago mechanics to manage the service center and train young apprentices from West Town Bikes, a biking outreach and education center. Heritage has a staff of 10, but Salvatore expects that number to jump to 15 in the busier summer months. His sales expectations are modest for the first year: 50 bikes and $100,000.

But those totals should double and triple in the years to come, as Heritage is just a small part of Chicago's wider embrace of biking. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is hoping to create the country's most bike-friendly city, by adding a 300-station bike-share program to launch this summer and 100 miles of protected bike lanes by 2015, among other projects. Commuter ridership has more than doubled here over the past decade, and New York engineering firm Sam Schwartz is helping the city design a possible 250-mile bike lane network.

Innovative bike shops and designs are popping up all over the city. Garry Alderman's stunning steel-framed bikes have been exhibited in art galleries.

The Copenhagen Cyclery curates a selection of European-designed bikes. And one Chicago furniture designer has built a prototype for a wooden bike  – that has been featured in German Vogue and has design fans drooling.

Salvatore has had some media attention as well, in part because he had initially hoped to open in November. Overcoming the hurdles of Chicago's byzantine permit process took a bit longer than he expected. But after passing the health inspection last week, the shop is ready for business.

Housed in a former florist shop, the space has a welcoming black-and-white color scheme. Exposed light bulbs hanging from the ceiling recall a factory space, while a long communal table made from reclaimed wood offers cozy seating.

That inherent contradiction - industrial yet warm and welcoming - is at the heart of Salvatore's concept. The Heritage General Store is partially an innovative, next economy-type facility, with the advanced manufacturing economists and analysts expect to boost sagging cities and regions.

At the same time, Salvatore sees his shop as a throwback neighborhood hub, a hang-out spot for bikers, coffee drinkers, and all variety of locals. Several design touches harken back to a more idyllic era: banquettes are upholstered with coffee sacks; stereo speakers are hidden in gramophones bolted on the walls; and a refashioned White Star stove serves as the condiment counter.

"If we can bring bike snobs and coffee snobs together," says Salvatore, "we've really got something." The owner, his photographer wife Melissa and their son Bennett and dog Koozie plan to spend more time at the shop than many of their workers. "This will be their second home,” says the Heritage website, “as they host you to feel like a welcomed guest."

All photos courtesy of Melissa Salvatore.

Keywords: Chicago, Bicycles

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

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