Steven E.F. Brown
May 7, 2014
San Francisco Business Times

Bicycle Coffee Co. started with coffee beans roasted in a wok, stirred with a wooden spoon, then moved on to a stove top popcorn popper. Today it’s a thriving Oakland business that delivers all its products by bicycle, on foot, or on public transit.

Brothers Cameron and Matthew McKeestarted the company in January 2009 with their cousin, Brad Butler, after a trip to Central America, where they hoped to build a sustainable village project. Instead, they met a Panama coffee farmer, learned about his business, and brought some green beans back to San Francisco with them.

The farmer, “Señor Ruiz,” roasted his own beans in a wok, stirring them with a wooden spoon, so the trio tried this first, roasting their beans in a friend’s kitchen in the Inner Sunset.

Later they upgraded to a “Whirley Pop” stove top popcorn popper that cost about $20. But that was messy, said Butler, who’d left a lucrative but unsatisfying four-year stint at a residential mortgage bank in San Francisco. “It makes a big ass mess,” he said, though they kept roasting that way for three months, dumping the roasted beans into a collander to clean away the chaff.

The change from banking to bicycle coffee business was financially messy too, and Butler said that for several years he was “too poor to ride BART.”

After moving to another space in Albany, the trio built their own four-pound capacity roaster from a barbecue drum. They were still using that tiny machine when they got a deal to sell their beans in Whole Foods Markets in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco.

Hurriedly finishing a bigger roaster with a 20 pound capacity, Butler and the McKees began delivering their beans all over the Bay Area, always by bicycle or public transit. Matthew McKee rides about 60 miles on Wednesdays, towing beans in a trailer he welded together himself.

Along the way, the cousins had to figure out what permits and licenses they needed to operate — one of the hardest challenges Butler faced. He expected various government departments to be eager to help him out, but found that wasn’t always so. “It took a lot of time — you need a business counselor,” he said.

“Building a business is hard,” he said, “especially when you have no capital. There’s a quote that says it: ‘You have to row the boat while you build the motor.'”

Once that motor was running, the McKees and Butler had to decide how to grow, and if they even wanted to grow. Their neighbor Blue Bottle Coffee Co., just over a block away, went a different route, seeking and getting venture capital.

“We made the decision to grow, not by shipping coffee, but by chapters,” Butler said.

By chapters he means businesses started in other cities by friends who’ve trained at the Oakland roastery, learned the business from the ground up. A chapter has opened in Tokyo and another is opening in three weeks in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.

Though Butler and the McKees are the owners and make the top decisions, local chapters are pretty autonomous. They sell some products back and forth with the home business in Oakland, and each chapter agrees to a set of rules promised to use only sustainable products and to deliver their roasted coffee only by bicycle, on foot, or via public transit (an important way of getting around sprawling Tokyo, for example).

Bicycle Coffee Co. hired local attorneys in Japan to carefully trademark its name, and someone from Oakland visits the Tokyo business every few months, or vice versa. The Tokyo group buys their green beans from Bicycle Coffee in Oakland, and they periodically send back samples of what they themselves make for quality control checks.

Now with 10 employees in Oakland, Bicycle Coffee delivers “a few thousand pounds” of coffee per week by bicycle around Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Couriers in San Francisco pick up their products at a shipping container in the Mission.

Though he makes far less money now than he did in his banking days (“Oh, I was rich.”), Butler said his standard of living is higher now than then. “I’m happy and I’m proud.”

The business will stay focused, Butler said, on its core values of sustainability rather than any reckless growth. That will mean figuring out exactly how to expand at each new stage. And it will mean resisting temptation.

“People ask, ‘When are you going to start shipping it?'” Butler said. “We aren’t.”

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