It sounds like a scene straight out of Portlandia: fleets of bicycles, tricked out with trunks, coolers, and even beer kegs, pedaling furiously around metropolitan areas and distributing foods like tacos and pizza and beverages like cider and coffee to the hungry and thirsty inhabitants of cities such as Sacramento, Oakland, Nashville, and, of course, Portland, Oregon.
As NPR's The Salt blog outlined in a post last week, food bikes are taking their place alongside food trucks in cities across the country and even in Europe, using the idea of mobile vending popularized by the food truck trend but downsizing it to two (ok, sometimes three) wheels.
When the food truck trend started to really take off about five or six years ago, the advantage of owning and operating the vehicles was clear: Less money spent. For would-be chefs and restaurateurs, tricking out a truck, even with pricy kitchen equipment, was a lot more affordable than putting down a payment on a brick-and-mortar space, paying the monthly utilities, and hiring all the staff that would be needed to cook and serve the food.
Now, a range of food and drink companies are finding that investing their resources into food bikes is an even cheaper and simpler endeavor than running a truck. While operating a food truck can cost around anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000, according to the website Food Truck Empire, starting up a bike-based food business can cost just a few thousand dollars, according to the NPR article. And with bike businesses based in hippied-out cities such as Oakland and Portland, it comes as no surprise that a major motivating factor behind food biking is their carbon footprint-free status.
Cayla Mackey is the owner and sole operator of Nashville-based Taco Bike, which vends organic breakfast tacos. Her first business venture, the local culture magazine Native, was founded in part to "further the social mission of organic food," Mackey told MUNCHIES by phone. Taco Bike, which she launched last fall, was a "totally mobile-based" way to do the same thing, she said.
Bikes, of course, figure prominently on Portlandia, and one of the most ridiculous episodes features Fred and Carrie playing two "smooth movers" who move the entire contents of a house over the course of, well, an entire day. This sketch was essentially documentary, as bike moving in Portland is an actual thing. And while hauling stuff by bike is definitely awesome for the environment—much more awesome than the cumulative effects of a bunch of diesel-belching food trucks—it's no piece of cake for the bikers.
"I hadn't really been aware of the hilliness of Nashville," Mackey said. "The physical strain of pulling the bike and trailer every day, in the wee hours of the morning, definitely took its toll on me."
What's more, Mackey said, food bikers are much more at the mercy of the environment than are food truckers: now that it's winter in Nashville, it's too cold for her to operate her bike, so she's had to shut down her business for the season. Starting a food bike might be cheap, but for a small business owner, closing up "shop" for several months out of the year has a definite impact on the bottom line.
But for a food bike operator with the luck of being based in a warmer, more level location, it seems like the job can be pretty damn fun.
"Sacramento's pretty flat," Vincent Sterne, the owner of Two Rivers Cider Co. in Sacramento, said. Sterne has been bike-delivering his cidery's product to local bars, restaurants, and breweries for almost 20 years, and has honed his methods to make his business as efficient as possible. He has two bikes: a delivery bike that he can load with up to 200 pounds' worth of kegs and boxes, as well as his "bar bike," a cargo bike rigged with cider kegs that he taps once he arrives fundraisers and other special events ("I can't ride with them untapped," he said, "'cause that would violate open container laws.").
Sterne said his mobile bar attracts a lot of attention, not just from customers and passersby but also from the law.
"I was racing a yellow light, and I lost," Sterne said of the time when he was pulled over by a police officer for running a red light. But the officer was so impressed with his bicycle, and so curious about his business, Sterne said, that he was let off with a warning.
"I made a new customer, and a new friend," he said.