Q&A with Bicycle Coffee Co.'s Brad Butler and Brandon McKee
In June 2009, Bicycle Coffee Co. began delivering freshly roasted organic, fair trade, single-origin Arabica beans to stores and cafes via bicycle. Bicycle Coffee sets up at the Grand Lake farmers' market on Saturday mornings, and the beans can be found on the shelves of many Bay Area Whole Foods stores, as well as Real Food, Bi-Rite, Rainbow, and others.
Alex Hochman Cousins on bikes: Bicycle Coffee's Brad Butler, left, and Brandon McKee.
Cousins Brad Butler and Brandon McKee, both from Puyallup, Wash., are among the five founders (along with McKee's two brothers and a friend). Butler used to be in the real estate finance business. McKee was an owner of Element Lounge, the recently shuttered Polk Gulch nightclub. Butler and McKee roast in Oakland, using a 20-pound drum roaster they built themselves. Currently, they offer three roasts: a medium from the highlands of Peru, a dark from Ethiopia, and a mountain-water-processed decaf, also from Peru. SFoodie sat down with Butler and McKee recently to discuss bikes, beans, and Bicycle Coffee Co.'s plans for expansion.
Butler: We were killing it, but the more money we made, the more unhappy we were. We filled emotional gaps with property and money. That didn't work. I was becoming more and more disenfranchised with the financial system. It's not sustainable or residual: At the end of each month, your structure broke down and then was destroyed and you tried to build it back up again. It doesn't mimic nature's habitat.
McKee: I was clubbed out. Ten years, weekend after weekend ― it's enough. We wanted to get out of the system, move to the jungle, and create a sanctuary, a community of tree houses.
Butler: We were inspired, as a family, to create a sustainable bed and breakfast in Central America. When we went touring down there to look at real estate, we met coffee farmers who were living the lifestyle that we wanted to build but had been doing it for hundreds of years. We realized that we didn't need to reinvent the wheel and started putting together Bicycle Coffee.
So how do you differentiate yourselves in such a crowded field?
Butler: We realized that businesses wanting coffee beans delivered had a small selection of companies to choose from. There were four vendors, none truly local, and two types of coffee. We matched prices with Starbucks and Peet's. Our original name was Milk Men coffee because we envisioned companies putting out an empty jar that we would fill. We wanted to prove that there is a financially feasible alternative in working locally with local customers. We have friendships with our clients ― when you call the phone number on our bag, you will talk with one of the owners.
How about the bikes? Are you ever accused of being gimmicky?
Butler: We don't own cars. Brandon delivered a 500-pound order to Whole Foods on his bike. We regularly deliver 60-pound orders and customers don't believe us that we do it on a bicycle.
McKee: When I roll into a store on my bike with a delivery, everyone's happy to see me.
Butler: The bikes create personal relationships with customers that big companies can't replicate.
Where do you see Bicycle Coffee in five years?
Butler: We want to build this one time, really well, and then transplant it to higher density cities and compete with the big guys all over the world. London and New York are next.
McKee: Also, we're beginning to make our own drip cones that we'll sell. We have a ceramics studio being hooked up to produce more. More farmers' market appearances are in the future, too.
If you had to name one local business you admire, what would it be?
Butler: Arizmendi Bakery. They have maybe the best bread I've ever tasted. Everything is high quality and because they're employee-owned, there's a high level of accountability.
McKee: Social Kitchen and Brewery is right down the street from where we live. They took a risk on a tough location and are serving amazing beers with food to match. Of course, I also like that I can literally stumble home.
What's been the biggest pain about operating Bicycle Coffee so far?
Butler: The commodities market is flooded with speculators and people who have nothing to do with it are cannibalizing our business. Prices keep going up. Anyone can open an E*Trade account and trade coffee futures.
McKee: A flat tire is a bummer.