Iker Gil interviews Michael Salvatore, owner and CEO of Heritage Bicycles General Store.
Heritage Bicycles General Store | Founded in 2011 | 13 employees
Early this year, I was walking on Lincoln Avenue with my parents and we saw a place that we couldn’t quite figure out. Is it a coffee shop? A bike shop? What? Bicycles were in the window, but inside people seemed to be enjoying a relaxing afternoon drinking coffee. Intrigued, a few weeks later, my wife and I went to check it out. We discovered a beautiful place, reminiscent of the shops on old main streets in towns across the US, where bicycles are displayed and repaired while people hang out and drink coffee around a long communal table. In early November, we talked to owner Michael Salvatore about the inspiration behind Heritage, his process of making bicycles and how he produces the sense of community he wants to foster in his space. Photographs by David Sieren.
IG: How did you come up with the idea of combining a bicycle manufacturer and coffee shop?
MS: I lived in New York for five years and, while there, I helped start a company, around 2007-2008. We couldn’t afford retail space, so we went to the markets, went to the people and set up booths in different spots. Throughout the development of the company, I started to become more aware of how similar the cultures were between coffee and bikes. There is an aspect that bikes and coffee are two of the most common, accessible and tangible products in the world. You go to any Third World Country or any First World Country and they are going to have coffee and bikes. The poor is the poor and the rich is the rich so their caliber is different, but they still have coffee and bikes. It’s just an old world idea that I thought we could combine, along with the business aspect. In the wintertime, bike shops in Chicago nearly shut down. They lay off a quarter of the staff, if not half of the staff, to get by. I wanted a space were my employees and our business model live through that winter and the café was part of that plan.
IG: Why Chicago?
MS: When we had our child in New York, we were looking for a way out. I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan. I wanted to come back to my roots. For me, it was both personal and financial. You get a lot more bang for the buck here. Along with that, there is a rich culture of cycling and manufacturing in Chicago. Schwinn manufactured bikes here, you have the steel mills and now there is this new culture of cycling in Chicago. [Mayor] Rahm Emmanuel has stepped in and says he wants Chicago to be a better place for cycling. So all these things worked with decisions that were already in the works. One thing after another piled up and I said, “This is the right spot to be right.” But I don’t foresee this being the only spot. Chicago may have several spots and, in the future, I’d love to manufacture in different parts of the country. What is cool and exciting about what I have done here is that I have worked out a business plan that I can take to other spaces. The idealistic business approach for me would be to have many manufacturing plants and retail locations in different parts of the country. I’d love to go to Los Angeles, to be in New York again, I’d love to go to Arizona, Colorado… have hyper-local manufacturing, making bicycles specific to that region when the plan comes together aligned. That’s the end game.
IG: Would you first extend to other neighborhoods in Chicago and then expand to other cities?
MS: Not to manufacture them, but I’ve been in talks about opening up another location. It has to be the right spot and the right situation. I don’t want to go to places like Wicker Park, Bucktown, or Logan Square, it just seems too obvious. This is an established neighborhood, but there is not necessarily foot traffic here. I’d rather go to a space where I can hold my own brand. I’m looking forward to the opportunity where I can do that. At first, when I started my business plan, it wasn’t about another location. I was going to do one location per city but, as I see it grow, there is a possibility to manage another space in Chicago. Doing it cross-continentally might be more difficult because, if it gets to that point, you’ll have to do financing, investors and whatnot. Right now, it’s me and my wife, we bootstrapped it, we do it ourselves, the way we wanted to do it.
IG: Why this specific location?
MS: It just called to me. I was in from New York, looking at spaces on Southport, Addison, Bucktown, and Wicker Park. One day, I was staying at my friend’s, who lives on Lincoln Avenue, and I saw this big “For Rent” sign by the owner. I peeked in the window, saw the wood floor, saw the light coming in and it just really appealed to me. I told people where in the area it was and they told me, “No, don’t go there, it’s stupid. The rent is great but don’t go there, it’s not going to survive.” But something called me back here. It had this old-school look and, even though we built everything out, I knew there was a foundation for a really special place. I think the energy that comes from the bike room and the windows is just impossible to replicate. The location itself is just happenstance.
IG: Are you trying to fill a niche in Chicago by combining the different programs? There is a sense a community generated here, with all the activity in the space, and it’s not just what you sell.
MS: Yes. We don’t consider ourselves a bike manufacturing company and we don’t consider us a coffee shop. I consider Heritage to be a lifestyle brand. It was an important thing to have the community in the space. To have a communal table, to allow people come here, to have events here. That was one of the main points that my wife and I talked about before opening up. In New York, there’s the stoop, the places where you sit on the front stairs of a building and all the neighbors come down and hang out. We really enjoyed that time. And we thought it would be really hard to have a stoop again in Chicago, but we tried to make that happen. The whole idea of hanging out, talking to people, it is an extension of our living room. Literally, we live upstairs. We knew that we wanted this to be somewhere comfortable, somewhere where we would want to be and hang out. So the idea of community has always being a focal point in the construction of Heritage. We’ll add more components to the brand, hopefully clothing, a kids’ line that we are releasing soon. And all this fits with who we are at this point in our lives. We made this wood bike because our child is 18-months old and we want to put him on a bike. So let’s make him a balance bike. That’s kind of the way this whole shop is going.
IG: The community that comes here is probably slightly different from the one that goes to more hardcore or traditional bike shops, or even other coffee shops.
MS: Definitely. No matter what shop you are, we are going to be as friendly if not more friendly. It’s important for us, it’s in our DNA. I grew up in an environment where my parents always hosted families from all over the world in our house. We always try to recreate that in this space. It’s welcoming, it’s enjoyable. Another aspect is that we don’t know it all and we don’t expect our guests or clients to know it all. It’s all about learning, the process, understanding it and walking them through that. There are people who come here for coffee and know way more than us and that is cool, they teach us. There have been bike guys who are much more skilled and diverse in building bikes and that’s awesome, too, teach us. There is a gap between reality and expertise. And the reality is that 99% of the people who are here are not experts in these fields. So let’s welcome them in and we’ll teach each other.
IG: Let’s talk a little bit about the actual production of the bikes. Can you walk us through your process of manufacturing?
MS: It starts out with an idea. I came up with a design board, where I take bikes that I really enjoy and I toss them up on it. That becomes my inspiration for the next bike. Take parts of different bikes, combine them, and come up with a catalog of parts that would look good together. The overall idea forms in my head and then I sit down with my engineer to go over the design in CAD drawings. We do that back and forth for about 1 or 2 months. Once we got the CAD drawings solid, we break down the components and go to my welder. We weld up a few bikes and we test them out. We all test out the geometry, the bridges, the edges for a few months. After that, we go into production. We do a jig matt and we start estimating cost and figuring out how it is going to work best. Process is not about one bike at a time. In order to make it all work, we need at least a batch of 40 and that will keep us busy for a while. We cut the tubing, we laser cut the dropouts, in order to have all the different components. Once we have all those parts, we bring them together and the team welds it. And with every iteration of the bike, it gets better. That’s just the process of growing. For example, our first design was just straight tubes for the bridge, but we later changed it to plates and now we have plates in the back, which is aesthetically pleasing and much easier to weld. So it serves two purposes: it cuts about half an hour and it adds a beautiful design for the back of plate. So all these things play a part in how the bike evolves to the next step. We are never stopping. Everything that we learn from the last batch of bikes we apply to the next. So right now, although we have a couple of jigs, we are looking for better jigs so we can produce tighter specs and also faster. There are always things that have to be done.
IG: How many styles of bikes to you have in the market?
MS: Right now we have two styles, two frame types, in three different sizes. But we are coming out with a tandem bike, another style for spring, and right now we are also working on reverse engineering a cargo bike. One of those front-loaded cargo bikes from Amsterdam. I’d love to make them local. Again, that’s part again of the organic growth of who we are as a family. I want to be able to ride the kid around in front of me in a basket, maybe also if I have two kids! So this whole idea of creating things for our lifestyle runs through every aspect of our business.
IG: Basically you are the client for everything.
MS: Yes. [Laughs]
IG: The design of your bicycles, the design of the space, you are extending your lifestyle and sharing it with others.
MS: I think so.
IG: In a way, you do it for yourself but in return, because you care and are passionate about it, you do it well and people appreciate it.
MS: Yeah, and I don’t think I push anything on anyone. I’m always open to suggestions. I think now that I have a solid staff between my welders, my engineers, my bike mechanics and the rest of the staff, everyone has input, and everyone has a say. As I evolve my perspective on things, I always consider that before the final process. This whole thing is an extension of my wife and I. It sounds selfish, but that’s what we believe in.
IG: Is there any stylistic reference for your bikes? You mentioned Amsterdam for your cargo bike.
MS: There is no one reference. There is always a clean vintage look. We always like to utilize dark wood, I don’t think that ever goes out of style. To marry the contemporary cleanliness of a design with old-fashioned hardwood and industrial turn-of-the-century stuff, that’s appealing to me. I don’t know what it is, but it’s kind of handsome. As far as lifestyle goes, I really enjoy the approach and lifestyle in Amsterdam, where a bike is a bike and that’s all it is. It’s part of their life, it’s not something that they have to show off, or outperform anybody else. You get on a bike to utilize it, to go across the city to meet your friends. That’s what it is for. Here, we got away from that. In our culture, in America, it’s too competitive, it’s too much emphasis on what kind of bike it is instead of why you are using it. The lifestyle approach is definitely important to us.
IG: In terms of the coffee area, you carry Stumptown from Portland. How did you connect with them?
MS: It’s a New York friendship. I met them through the Ace Hotel in New York. When Heritage was being conceived, I was out there and somehow we met and it started a conversation. They had been in Chicago, but they did not have any accounts here. They were looking for accounts in Chicago, but they were turning people away for a long time because their biggest thing was quality control. They wanted to make sure that their product was served the best possible away. And that’s something that I really thought was admirable of the company. They could sell in Chicago, and they wanted to, but they said they wouldn’t because, in order to make that happen, they wanted to be there. That was a goal of mine as a brand. When we started working together, they were there 100% of the way helping me go through with the café. I was there with my bike company and the café was part of a lifestyle, but I didn’t know technically anything about it. So when they chose us, it was a mutual agreement that our brands would work well together. Their brand is very classic, has grown organically, and they maximize themselves in creating a product that is excellent. They know all the farms are direct trade and they hold hands with their businesses, which is amazing. When we first set up, they flew three of their staff from Stumptown to Chicago to train our staff of eight people, for three days of intense training. I don’t know any company that would do that, mostly for someone that was staring like us and, in a way, we did not know what we would be.
IG: But I think Heritage communicates that idea that you are looking for a certain quality, whether with the bikes, the coffee or any other thing you sell here, like chocolate by the Mast Brothers. They are all looking for excellence.
MS: Those things are appreciated. They are not appreciated by a lot of people but, when they are appreciated, you’ll know why. It’s because there is a quality there that is superior to anything else. I don’t think our bikes are for everybody, I don’t think the coffee is for everybody, but I know the quality that I want to represent and that’s where we are at. If you like this, you might like that. I don’t know what the right formula is, but for me, the quality is the most important thing. When we started to work with Stumptown, what they did was an amazing reflection of who they want to be and what they are.
IG: To talk more about the community aspect, you are organizing events at Heritage that somehow are unrelated to the coffee or the bicycles. Tonight, for example, you are having a CD release by the band Gaudete Brass. How important is that?
MS: It’s extremely important. It serves two purposes. Again, it’s an extension of who we are. We have a small kid so we can’t go out and enjoy these things. So why not invite them into our living room and play for us? That’s as selfish as it gets, but it also gets people in the door. We get to know our customers really well, we get to know our musicians or just people who want to sit here. That’s the fun part, building relationships. Because once you build them, that is better than any ad, better than any bikes, or better than any coffee. You build a relationship with people who know who you are. I am very transparent with who I am, and so is my entire family, our entire staff and that shows in the culture of the space. We have events because we want to have events, because we enjoy them, we get to meet people, and it exposes us to things that we haven’t been exposed to before. I’d like to have more events! I can walk downstairs and listen to a brass band play in my shop? I can’t say no, it’s just amazing. We really like our community. That’s why we built a park out there, and we got the city to build this park in front. It’s all about creating a space where people feel confortable and want to come in. It’s amazing to see that people really enjoy our work and enjoy working here.
IG: Creating a place where people feel welcomed and somehow be able to influence other business in the way they think.
MS: I don’t know if I would go that far.
IG: I mean it in the sense of not telling people what they should be doing but leading by example, by showing that other business models can work.
MS: Here is the thing. I don’t ever look at other businesses and say I want to do that. Once I start doing that, I’ll become crazy and I’ll be miserable. I turn to my employees to figure out what we should do next. It’s really important to listen to them and I let them tell me what they want to do. So they all have their own things that they’re really talented at and I will go to the ends of the earth to make sure that they’re doing what they want to do in the situation where we are in. If someone wants to build a bike, if someone wants to weld, I am always there to utilize what his or her passions are. At the end of the day, I want people who want to do something greater than what I can possibly give them. I do what I do and it comes from within, and I let my customers and my employees dictate how it grows. A lot of businesses come here and think I am crazy. They think I don’t know what I am doing, or why I am building a park that is taking my parking space in front of the business. People don’t get it, but maybe I don’t get it! They have been in business for a long time. I can’t worry about other people. Do your thing, you worry about you, and I‘ll worry about me.
IG: I think also having a naïve approach to it makes you not have preconceived ideas. Maybe the experts have a way of doing things that don’t let them see new ways of approaching it.
MS: I think that’s true. An example that confirms that is this coffee machine. We put that in right when we opened up. I love iced coffee and we have extra space in the basement, so I said, “Why can’t we put a keg in and run a line. It will be much easier, everybody will drink it.” And people said, “Nobody has done that, that’s stupid. How are you going to do that?” I kept researching and saying, “Why can’t you do that? What’s the problem?” In the end, we just built the line, we just did it, and we had this iced coffee tap line. And all of the sudden, six coffee shops did it in within three months, which is great. And they actually wanted to hire me to put a line in their space. I am just more worried about me, what is next. Iced coffee on tap is not like rocket science. Just go ahead and do it. That’s kind of my philosophy: if you want to do something, just do it. Take a shot and try it.
IG: It’s a good way to go.
MS: It’s expensive, but in the long run I think it will work out.
Michael Salvatore is the owner and CEO of Heritage Bicycles, a Chicago-based company that builds American-made bicycles, provides fashionable biking accessories and serves one of the best coffees in the city.
www.heritagebicycles.com | @HeritageBicycle | @mikeysal1
Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is the editor in chief of MAS Context. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club.
www.mas-studio.com | @MASContext
David Sieren works all the time and is never home, much to the dismay of his [Post] Family brethren. It wasn’t until relatively late in life that he decided to pursue a career in design in lieu of life as a photographer—however coming from a lineage of designers and artists, the foundation was always there.
www.davidsieren.com | www.thepostfamily.com | @postfamily | @davidsieren