How The Wheelhouse Created an Audience for Their Bike Brand One Coffee at a Time

Tami and Chase Spenst imagine a future that covers Los Angeles in a web of bike lanes. The first step towards that dream? Create a space for like-minded people to realize it together. In LA’s burgeoning Arts District, The Wheelhouse welcomes cyclists of all skill levels, aiming to convert the most car-dependent population into an army of cyclists.

When the couple opened their retail shop and online store, it was a Field of Dreams. The audience didn’t technically exist in LA—a city not known for its bike-friendliness—but Tami and Chase believed. They took a bet, and are wooing the community over to two-wheeled life one coffee-fueled conversation at a time, proving that if you build it (the community), they will come (on bikes).

The LA Problem

On my first trip to LA in 2009, I visited as a tag-along while my one-time partner recorded his first album. Of all reasons to end up spontaneously in La La Land, following the music is the better of them. But it wasn’t the romanticized LA of my bohemian pseudo-roadie dreams. When I tired of wilting in a Silver Lake recording studio during an unusually hot July, I forged out on my own to explore the city.

Coming from Toronto, a city where driving is the least efficient way to cover terrain, a city where walking and cycling are preferred, I erroneously thought I could discover LA on foot. My pedestrian spirit was crushed within a few hours, when I passed no other walkers and certainly no bikes. The only glitter was supplied by automobile sales signs, "0% FINANCING".

I was doing it wrong. On the 3rd day of my trip, I caved and rented a car.

Unlike other cities best explored on foot or by bike—New York, Portland, Vancouver, Paris, Amsterdam—LA is a commuter’s paradise, where motorcycles weave between lanes of stop-and-go-and-stop-again traffic. There is something lost in discovery, when time passes in the driver’s seat and energy is spent on finding parking, rather than smelling smells, and seeing sights, and skipping over cracks in the sidewalk.

LA is a commuter’s paradise, where motorcycles weave between lanes of stop-and-go-and-stop-again traffic.

I missed something in the experience, lacked connection, and the LA is not a city that I remember wistfully.

The Aha Moment

A few years later, Tami would make the move to LA from Chicago—sans car—in pursuit of an acting career, and she would experience the same disappointment.

“In Chicago, I walked everywhere, and I loved it. I always felt very immersed in the city, very connected to my community. When I moved to LA, I moved to an area where you just had to drive. There was nothing around. You couldn't get anywhere, and I was devastated. I quickly found a neighborhood where I could do kind of most of my day to day work, errands, coffee, all that good stuff by foot, and I just never left." – Tami

When Tami met her now-husband Chase, his parking spot was two blocks away from his loft, and, with driving being too inconvenient, he opted to hop on a bike, discovering that navigating LA was actually possible outside of a vehicle. He turned Tami onto cycling, buying her a Craigslist steed and learning to fix it up under the tutelage of YouTube.

The couple started consuming the city by bike, unearthing things they missed from behind a windshield. They began frequenting farmers’ markets, and biking into nooks of the city they once avoided for their terrible parking options. Because the barrier was removed, Tami and Chase began meeting people, and developing a community.

What they found was that bike culture didn’t exist.

There were the “cyclists”—those performance-fabric clad purists pursuing speed and extreme-sport goals—but the community of the casual bike crowd, the from-a-to-z folks, just didn’t exist. Entering a bike shop in LA was, for the layman, a prohibitive experience, they realized—snobbish staff, bikes upwards of two grand, and an overwhelming number of options.

"We just started meeting a lot of people who would stop us and ask, ‘Where did you get these bikes? This is great. I've been wanting to do this,’ and they'd share their story which was always really similar to ours. They didn't know where to find bikes, or how to start, or what they needed, and bike shops unfortunately have a reputation for being intimidating.” – Tami

Bike shops unfortunately have a reputation for being intimidating.

In 2012 these conversations sparked an idea and began to take shape as a business, but they knew that building a store wouldn’t be enough—before they sold bikes, they’d need to sell the culture.

"We started with a blank slate, thinking not about a bike shop or a coffee shop or a website, or any specific thing, but the question: how do we get this lifestyle to develop in this very car centric city? The business kind of unfolded out of this idea—connecting to people, inspiring people, and then ultimately supporting them in their lifestyle transformation." – Chase

We started with a blank slate, thinking not about a bike shop or a coffee shop or a website, or any specific thing, but the question: how do we get this lifestyle to develop in this very car centric city?

The Wheelhouse is Born

The Wheelhouse is the triple-shot espresso of commerce: one part retail store (both brick and mortar and online), one park bike repair shop, and one part café.

Tami and Chase had no experience running a bike shop, but their past experiences play into their success. Tami’s interior design prowess (and a long-ago stint slinging coffee) and Chase’s finance and product development past came together in a really complementary way that not only helped them build the business, but kept their relationship healthy.

They’ve divided the roles and always defer to the opinion of the “expert” in each case, even when they disagree.

“Tami took the vision and interpreted it in a visual sense—creating the space and how people interact with it—and I took it and interpreted it into a strategy and a business plan—the mechanics of how it all works behind the scenes. It was great. When there's a capital decision to make and we're discussing it, I take the lead on it. If it's a branding or visual thing, she takes the lead." – Chase

Even the shop’s concept is a collaboration of the couple’s interests.

“I had been obsessed with coffee since working in a second wave coffee shop in Chicago. When we met, Chase was drinking frappuccinos and anything that tasted as little like coffee as possible. We had actually gone to the Arts District where our shop now is, to try a new coffee—they called it 'The God Shot’. It sort of flipped how Chase felt about coffee. I think we went there by bikes the first time. Coffee was what I brought to the table, and bikes were the thing that he was excited about, and we married those.” – Tami

Though the idea sprung from the desire to get people on bikes, coffee is no afterthought. Caffeine is the conduit, the low-commitment introduction to bike culture. A $4 cappuccino today, a $400 bike next week. Tami and Chase are playing the long game.

“If we really wanted to build a community, we needed a physical presence to give people a place and the energy to prompt those conversations. Saying ‘Hey, Los Angeles, you should change how you do everything in your life.’ is a really big conversation to force upon someone, but "Hey, Los Angeles, why don't you have a cup of coffee with us?" is a very easy one.” –Chase

If we really wanted to build a community, we needed a physical presence to give people a place and the energy to prompt those conversations.

The café provides the space for people to gather, and The Wheelhouse is a jumping-off point for group rides, and bike-friendly events.

Building a Lifestyle Brand (and an Audience) from Scratch

Ultimately, creating a new audience, especially around a movement that was relatively non-existent in LA, your pitch needs to be compelling. Design, people, and the complementary products in the store help to tell the full story and make the brand more accessible.

“The Wheelhouse is a place for adventurers. We filled out our retail with a lot of lifestyle related things, things that you can use if you're riding your bike or going some place to ride a bike, but also things that if you never get on a bike, you could also use. It makes that experience way more approachable because people can kind of touch and feel and interact with items that aren't intimidating at all. There are cool blankets and there are bags that don't go on bikes. There are Stanley Flasks and things that people can relate to.” – Tami

Storytelling is extremely important to a brand that is, first and foremost selling a concept. To convey that concept, the story is woven into the retail displays, the website, and every touchpoint in the customer journey.

This is not a bike shop, the story goes, it’s a place to envision and kickstart your new life on that bike.

“Take the example of Crate and Barrel—it's so not a store that I would be interested in, but I can't help but get obsessed with things there. I see ice cube trays that are in fun shapes and I have to have them. Not because I need ice cube trays, but because I see a party and all my friends are over and I'm making cocktails, and they're in these cool square blocks. They tell a story versus selling you ice cube trays. In our space, you walk in and you see a life.” – Chase

Getting Scrappy

In reality, “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t actually exist for most new businesses. Tami and Chase took a chance on a growing neighbourhood, a decision that would pay off in the long run, but added additional complication for the new entrepreneurs.

“Early on, we had a bunch of extra challenges. This being such a high growth area, 60% of our neighbours are under construction right now, which kills foot traffic and kind of any type of traffic into the area. Right out of the gate, we found ourselves getting really creative about alternative forms of revenue.” – Chase

Right out of the gate, we found ourselves getting really creative about alternative forms of revenue.

The Wheelhouse survived its first year with the help of these additional revenue streams: everything from event hosting and space rentals to catering and mobile bike repair services. They owe a lot of their original growth to corporate sales, partnering with businesses buying fleets of bikes for staff and servicing them on demand.

The core of their business is at the human-to-human level, and as they grow, some of the scrappy ideas are getting phased out.

“We'll kind of put less priority on these ideas because they’re not things we want to grow and not core things that we want to scale, but it's been really helpful to us as far as staying very flexible and adaptable to the situation.” – Chase

Ecommerce has been a key component to the business from day one, and is a channel that the couple plans to grow alongside an online presence that puts their story and mission first.

"Bike shops are getting swallowed whole by the day, because they're refusing to acknowledge how retail and shopping is changing. From day one we knew we had to think differently about how to approach this, and a website was a big piece of it.” – Chase

Bike shops are getting swallowed whole by the day, because they're refusing to acknowledge how retail and shopping is changing.

They quickly realized the importance of the website, considering their gentle approach to the sale. Sometimes, customers would start with coffee, but require a second and third visit to work up to a conversation about bikes. They realized, Chase says, that many people wanted to do additional research on their own, before returning. The website also pushed the brand’s community focus through education.

“We realized we had to have something to connect them and guide them beyond our four walls. The website took shape as being this kind of virtual community and presence that did the same thing as our shop, which educates people on what it is we do. We saw how critical it was. It couldn't just be a website with our information. It couldn't be just an online store. It couldn't be just a blog. It had to be this very dynamic kind of place for people.” – Chase

It couldn't just be a website with our information. It couldn't be just an online store. It couldn't be just a blog. It had to be this very dynamic kind of place for people.

They take inspiration from religious organizations, and how, throughout history, they have connected “believers” to create a movement.

Investing in People

People are some of the company’s best assets, Chase tells me, and hiring friendly and outgoing staff has been the key to propelling the brand’s message.

“Everyone that you're talking to, from the person who makes your drink to the person that works on your bike, to the retail person, they all live and breathe that mission.” – Chase

Tami used her own experiences to build out the store’s customer service strategy.

"It was actually really helpful having me as a test case, because I was exactly that person who would've been interested in riding a bike, but who would never would have gotten into a bike shop because I would've felt so intimidated and so lost. I wouldn't know how to describe what I was looking for, and I’d be worried they'd make fun of me. Our people are very easy to talk to and they have a very nice manner about them that makes people feel comfortable, and feel like they can ask questions.” –Tami

The Customer Experience

Around the shop, the motto goes something like this: "The bike you love is the bike you'll ride." Because The Wheelhouse caters to a lot of first-time riders, the customer service experience is designed to be simple. The technical capabilities of a bike are less important at this stage, says Chase, and the shop is stocked with a limited fleet of multi-purpose bikes that can be adapted to suit the lifestyle of the customer.

Here’s where the storytelling goes both ways. Sales staff at The Wheelhouse need to be good listeners.

"The brands and the models are very few so that we can get them in front of a bike as quickly as possible. Ultimately we want to get you in front of it, and then you tell us your story, and we'll outfit it and customize it. That's where people feel a real personal attachment to it—not in finding the right bike for them, but making that bike look more like them. We found that to be very effective from getting someone in that wide-eyed, ‘What am I doing here?’ place to bike that they're drawn to, and then helping them visualize it in their own style and for their own purposes. So if you leave without it, you're not leaving a bike behind, you're saying ‘no’ to this life that is completely romantic and exciting. Fortunately, a lot of times they come back.” – Chase

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Converting Community to Customers

Luckily (and perhaps partly because of their efforts), the attitudes around biking are beginning to change in the car-centric city of LA. The city has elected, back to back, two pro-cycling mayors, and city councillors are pushing for the completion of the Los Angeles River Trail. The infrastructure is slowly improving with public pressure.

At a grassroots level, organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition have begun popping up to propel the conversations. CicLAvia, a non-profit organization, works to close stretches of road along Venice Blvd. at specific time intervals, restricting motor traffic and welcoming bikes. And LA now has a bike share program.

The city still has a long way to come, though, and the infrastructure that was never built with bikes in mind can be intimidating terrain for newbie cyclists. Community-building events, like The Wheelhouse’s Thursday Happy Hour Rides, help to guide new riders through new scenic routes, before stopping at a bar to grab drinks.

The events, they hope, will help grow the confidence of the participants and help Tami and Chase build relationships with them as customers of the shop.

"With most rides being geared more towards people who are doing races or competitive things, we wanted to throw into the mix a ride that featured different neighbourhoods, or places where people were actually living their lives, so they could do it with a group.” – Tami

The business branches out into other community-building activities, hosting a Women of The Wheelhouse: Mentor Mondays series, aimed at connecting women business owners to share advice and struggles.

Knowing Your Niche (and Sticking to it)

Though at first glance, The Wheelhouse may seem like it’s trying to be a lot of things at once, every piece is integral in the life cycle of the customer—a customer who might need extra time, personal attention, and maybe a double-shot espresso to arrive at a purchase.

As for growth, Tami and Chase say they are simply adding more options to their current line-up of novice-friendly bikes, rather than expanding into more niche styles. The strategy keeps the intimidation factor low while offering more options for customers.

“We have a very narrow strategy, so we won't be going into road bikes or mountain bikes or anything. We’ll stick with this very specific thing, but add a little bit more depth to that offering, and roll out additional functionality and storytelling within the space.” – Chase

As always, community is at the forefront of their business decisions. The shop will continue to focus on the bike virgins, while the city and its communities slowly catch up to rebuild LA as the cycle-friendly city of their imaginations.

"This isn't something that will change because there's one store downtown. It's changing because there are a lot of brands and places across the city and you can see the connectivity of the lifestyle. We’re testing out new neighbourhoods, and partnering with other brands and organizations to start working with more communities. We’re trying to expand our reach, and connect more to this thing.” – Chase

Managing The Wheelhouse, with all of its moving parts, means that like many small business owners, Tami and Chase’s personal life has become one and the same with work life. As the business is still in its infancy—they just celebrated the shop’s 1st anniversary—they still have a lot of work ahead.

“It’s OK, though,” says Tami, “A lot of the time it doesn't feel like we're at work. We're just waking up every day with this purpose and trying to push it forward.”

We're just waking up every day with this purpose and trying to push it forward.