For almost a decade, home was less a physical place than a state of mind for Jeff Campagna and Tania LaCaria. As wanderlusting creatives in journalism and interior design, they took their work on the road, including stops in Indonesia and Argentina, pursuing business opportunities with little more than a laptop and a Wi-Fi signal. “We fell into a bit of an entrepreneurship rhythm,” says Jeff.
When they returned to their hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, Jeff and Tania cemented themselves in the tight-knit community, applying lessons from their global travels to help them build hyper-local retail motorcycle shop and café Steeltown Garage Co. Named for the city’s rich steel-working history, it’s a business rooted both physically and conceptually in the city of Hamilton.
Back in 2006, Jeff and Tania decided to skip yet another Canadian winter and live for a year in Panama. What followed was unplanned—they would spend 10 years traveling, bouncing from city to city, mainly in Latin America and Southeast Asia. They funded their lifestyle by tapping into their creative strengths—Jeff built online publications, selling them to media companies, while Tania worked in interior design.
In Panama, Jeff bought his first motorcycle. It was the original catalyst for Steeltown Garage, but Jeff didn’t know that at the time. It was simply a recreational purchase, satisfying a lifelong curiosity in bikes. He then taught himself the mechanics and soon began restoring and selling vintage bikes, then still as a side gig.
Eventually, homesickness took hold, and they made their way back to Ontario in 2016. They knew, Jeff says, that returning to a 9-to-5 corporate gig was out of the question. They had spent more than a decade successfully working for themselves, after all. “We wanted to build something, pave our own way,” he says.
Jeff and Tania were exposed to motorcycle culture as it was undergoing a renaissance. In many parts of the world, the bike community was starting to look more like it did in the 1960s and ’70s. “It’s less about what kind of bike you’re on and more about community loyalty, about making connections with real people,” Jeff says. A new generation of motorcyclists who were interested in the art of fixing up old bikes—part of what Jeff calls “craftsman culture”—was bubbling up.
When the couple returned home, they realized that this growing trend was lacking in Hamilton. A commitment to maintaining their autonomous working style combined with interests cultivated abroad became the seeds of an idea: bring the spirit of vintage motorcycle culture to their hometown.
Jeff and Tania opened Steeltown Garage Co. in July 2017 after a year of planning, saving and replanting roots in the area. The retail shop’s offerings include Steeltown-branded locally produced merchandise like apparel and mugs, alongside vintage-style motorcycle gear. “We really do try and keep our supply chain as local as possible,” Jeff says. As a service business, the “garage” won’t fix your bike, but they will fix you a cup of Steeltown’s own coffee.
And the coffee was no afterthought. In fact, historically, coffee and motorcycle cultures go hand in hand. Modern café racer bikes borrow their names from 1960s London, where a subculture of disenfranchised youth on stripped-down bikes would “race” from café to café.
In North America in the 1980s, perceptions began to shift and motorcycling became associated with alcohol and big, loud bikes. That era, says Jeff, robbed the culture of its inclusivity, and people began to think of motorcyclists at outlaws. “It’s a perspective that we want to actively dissuade,” he says. And he’s doing that one espresso at a time, reintroducing his customers to motorcycle culture’s more welcoming heyday.
The café also serves as a connection to the couple’s global experiences. They developed an appreciation for coffee by traveling to many of its traditional areas of cultivation. “Indonesia, Guatemala, Morocco—these are coffee epicenters,” Jeff says. While it was important for them to bring their worldly love of coffee to the community, it was equally important for them to support the local economy. Their own Steeltown coffee—a custom blend of five beans—is sourced from an Ontario roastery.
As partners in both life and business, they make it work, thanks again to lessons learned from the road.
Steeltown has exceeded its sales goals, and the duo hired an experienced barista in 2018 to help with the busy summer season, when the café’s garage doors open and motorcycles emerge from winter storage. They owe their success to casting a wide net. As Hamilton, with a population just over 500,000, is not a major metropolis, they opted not to focus on a niche audience. That might have worked, Jeff says, in a city like Toronto or New York. Instead, the space is designed to attract everyone from the casual Sunday café crowd to the serious motorcyclist.
Though their team is expanding, every aspect of the business is still touched by Jeff and Tania. With Steeltown still in its infancy, they’re committed to being the faces of the business and the hands making the coffee, from open to close, seven days a week. As partners in both life and business, they make it work thanks again to lessons learned from the road.
“Small business ownership is a lot like [exploring] rural Cambodia: It’s uncharted territory, it’s high stress, high stakes, and you really have to be able to trust and rely on your partner at every junction,” Jeff says.
Learn more: How to Sell Coffee Online: Start Your Own Café.
Photographs by Jose Silva (top and bottom) and Devin Paisley