Michael Salvatore “fell into the bike world” in New York a while back, hanging out with neighbors who were making bikes in the basement. That endeavor eventually became Bowery Lane Bicycles, and with retail space being prohibitively expensive, they took to markets and street fairs, which gave Salvatore an idea: “People were relaxed, with a cup of coffee, eating something and enjoying themselves. The evolution of the Heritage concept came from that – how can we have this environment that people love to be in, in a storefront?” When the fifth-generation Chicagoan moved back to the Midwest, he and his wife Melissa were able to make that happen with the Heritage Bicycles General Store – a full-service bike and coffee shop they opened almost three years ago in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.
They’ve quickly built a following around the beautiful, retro-looking city bikes they design and fabricate as well as the airy, welcoming space where you can get your caffeine fix. There’s a room in back for repairs and another area stocked largely with American-made cycling accessories, along with slick helmets from Denmark and classic gear from the British company Brooks. When we spoke at his office, Salvatore showed me one of his favorite books, an out-of-print edition of The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles. “You look at this and it just oozes inspiration.” The trick has been figuring out how to turn that enthusiasm for craftsmanship into a practical business model. And how to stay relevant and real now that drinking pour-over coffee under an Edison bulb calls to mind Portlandia parodies. But the Salvatores’ instinctive approach – hiring good people, taking risks – is totally working. Last year they opened Heritage Littles just down the street, a milk-and-cookies bar for kids where parents can check out Heritage balance bikes and a selection of goods including too-cute childrens’ clothing from Chicago label Lilla Barn and recycled furniture from Minnesota-based Loll Designs. It’s also home to A Little Photo Studio, where Melissa, a photographer by training, runs her portraiture business. In mid to late November, they’ll open a coffee outpost a few miles to the north in Uptown and switch over from beloved Stumptown beans to their own in-house roast. Plans are also underway for a second general store in Nashville next year. Read on for more about how they got here and what’s on the horizon.
The MiA Project: The bikes and coffee concept of Heritage was a bit of a novelty but it also seems like such a no-brainer.
Michael Salvatore: Yeah, the Heritage concept came together naturally. Bikes and coffee are a good combination on many levels. Coffee people come in here and see our bikes and hopefully one day they’ll buy a bike or use us as their bike mechanics, but it also works out financially, with the ebb and flow of the seasons. You know, how do we keep people coming through the doors in the winter in Chicago? Coffee shop. That’s played a big part in the quality of our place. It’s not just a bike shop with a little coffee stand in it, it’s one of the best coffee shops in Chicago.
And this city takes its coffee seriously. With coffee and bikes, you’re at the nexus of two micro-cultures that can get pretty snobby.
Right. But also, people just want to ride bikes, people just want to drink coffee. And that’s cool. Hopefully we can get some respect from the more geeked-out people, but we’re just about riding bikes and drinking coffee.
Clearly, though, you’re paying close attention to the details, from the design and manufacturing of the bikes to the quality of the coffee.
Well, any business owner, I hope, would take pride in what they’re doing. Our coffee should be the best it can be, our bikes should be the best they can be because we take pride in what we’re doing. That’s the foundation. That’s where you start. There are no short cuts to creating a good product. We wouldn’t be where we are if we sold crap. We hold ourselves to a higher level.
While still, obviously, having a bottom-line.
If we wanted to build our dream bike, it’d be a five to six thousand dollar bike, but what kind of consumer do you have there? We want that style and craftsmanship but in a production format, to make something that’s more affordable. So we have four bike models -- the Goblin, the Jane, the Daisy, and the Chief. We have one slated to come out late this year, a tandem bike. We’ll probably add a bike to our business about a twice a year. We do production runs of each style and size, so we’ll have anywhere between 10 and 40 frames of each style. It’s semi-customizable. If a customer says, I like this bike, but I want to do this paint, these handlebars, this tire size and color, we can do that. Our speciality, though, is the frames. We weld them, cut the tubing, do the design all in-house, here in Chicago. The wheel builds we’re doing in-house. But it’s not as feasible to do that with certain parts or components, from a cost-standpoint, for our audience. So we get Wald racks and Wald fenders, which are made in the States. We try to be as thoughtful as possible in terms of the sourcing. We’re not gonna get cheap products overseas but we’re not gonna sacrifice quality either, if it’s a subpar product made locally.
Oh, for sure. I still don’t even know how to do coffee. I like coffee, but I wasn’t brewing my own at home and nerding out about it. That’s why I hire good people. We got lucky by having a really good staff when we opened up and continue to have a great staff now as we expand.
That’s key, being able to find the right people.
Whether it’s bikes or coffee, whatever it is, there’s always someone who knows more than you. We try to get involved and work with those people. One of my big things since we started has been reaching out to master frame makers and hiring them to do a one-off bike for Heritage. Those guys are artisans. Those guys are the pros. So every year we do a Signature Series bike with a master frame builder. Last year we did it with Humble Frameworks in Chicago. Before that we did one with Adam Eldridge of Stanridge Bikes in Ohio. This year we’re doing it with Aaron Stinner of Stinner Frameworks in California.
In the time since you guys have opened, “artisanal” and “hand-crafted” have become these buzzwords that people roll their eyes at, even as they seek that kind of thing out. How do you deal with that, when these virtues of your business maybe start to feel a little cliché?
I don’t know that we focus on that. That’s how we deal with it. We’re not going out there saying we’re artisanal. We don’t consider ourselves part of some movement of makers and crafters. We’re just doing our thing. But we do have bigger companies that are coming to us to give them some validity in that culture. And I’m okay with that. If they give us more exposure, that’s great. They want to use us for their social media – what we have is our reputation – but that’s a way we get another audience.
And that’s been mostly through word of mouth?
We don’t have a PR person. This isn’t something with a big team behind it. This is something my wife and I started and it happened to grow into something special. I think it’s just our willingness to be as transparent as possible. We are engaged with our customers. I think we tell a relevant story. It’s our story. And we’ve told our story online throughout the entire process.
Do you feel like a community has sprung up around the shop?
We have great neighbors, awesome customers that come in every day. I don’t know that I take credit for a community coming up around it. I think this audience had been looking for something. and we just fit that criteria in this little aspect of their lives. We were filling a gap. We have a really good vibe in here. And people are coming in from out of town, across the country, across the world.
The growth of your business seems, in large part, to be a natural extension of your lives. Like the way Heritage Littles came about. Can you tell me a little more about that?
We have a two-year-old boy and as soon as he was about one, we were looking at what bikes to get him and we just decided to do it ourselves. We already had the capabilities to do it. And if we made one for him, we might as well put out more and see what happens. The response was awesome. Then we found a perfect space so we decided to jump on it and take our chances. I expected [Littles] would maybe pay its own bills, and get traffic in the door for Melissa’s photography business. But it’s at the point where it’s actually making money. It’s one of those things that you don’t know what it involves until you do it. But right now, it’s like, this is working, so let’s just turn this faucet on a little bit more. Eventually we’ll get all the faucets cracked and it’ll start flowing.
What else is in the works?
We’re about to launch our in-house brand of coffee, on our own without Stumptown. This is a big move for us. It could be a huge mistake. We love Stumptown. But for our brand to grow, we’ve had to come up with this idea and take steps in that direction and see. We’re also talking about selling custom wheel builds. People want these wheels by wheel builders that are well known and that are crafted correctly with the right components. So we’re looking to take on that market as well.
Are you worried about putting the brakes on?
No, I think once you put the brakes on, you start losing. If there’s an opportunity for us to grow, we’ll take those opportunities and see what happens. Can you overextend yourself? You can. But once you stop taking chances and stop trying, you become irrelevant. I’d rather go into debt trying to do something awesome than just be okay. That’s not what I got into it for. I’d rather be creative. This is my creative outlet.
How did the Nashville plan come about?
Through a mutual friend. They contacted me about going there. We liked what we saw and saw a demand for what we wanted to do. We were looking at spaces in L.A. or bigger cities but going to Nashville fits our point of view, to be in these smaller markets and do things our way and not pay crazy expensive rents. Melissa and I have had many, many discussions about this. We’re yin and yang. I’m always like, don’t think about it, go, do it, do it, do it. She’s always like, what’s gonna happen? She makes me double think things. It’s a good combination. As soon as we left Nashville, she was like, all right, this will work. If I don’t have to convince her, it means something’s right. It just feels right there.
You’ve had real success going with your gut.
When we got this space, people were like, don’t go to Lincoln Avenue, no businesses ever thrive there, there’s not enough foot traffic. Go to Southport Avenue, or go to Wicker Park, Bucktown. But I liked the space, I thought the surrounding community would support it. We were lucky enough that it’s happened and it’s been better than we ever anticipated.