San Francisco is one of just a few US territories blessed with much higher than average modal share for bicycles. We speak to Zack Stender of local bike boutique Huckleberry Bicycles who stresses the importance of community, engaged staff and Nintendos in keeping everyone happy…
Tell us the Huckleberry Bicycles story – who founded the business, when and why:
It all started with three bike nerds who thought they could make a better bike shop!
Huckleberry Bicycles was created by Jonas Jackel, Brian Smith, and me Zack Stender. We are three friends who thought that we could build a shop that was something special. Jonas and I were both long time bike shop guys having managed various other bike shops, and Brian was a practicing attorney. We had many grand ideas about what a great bike shop should be, and once we let our ideas steep a bit, we came to a concept we thought to be exceptional and possible and profitable (it’s gotta be profitable).
~A beautiful shop, that is welcoming and comfortable. A shop that people look forward to visiting and revisiting. ~
We were excited about it. We committed to making it happen. Once to that point we were unstoppable. We quit our jobs and put everything we were worth into this puppy. We managed to secure a small business loan, and then the learning curve began.
Is cycling alive and well in San Francisco? Who’s the typical customer and what are they buying?
Cycling is very strong here in San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is a huge force behind the urban cycling movement. The strongest local bike advocacy group in the country, they’re helping make this city a better place to bike. They are in no small part responsible for the urban biking explosion here. I’m proud to sit on their board of directors helping the cause on that end.
Some of the most epic road riding routes in the country thread their way out from the city in every direction but west (that would be the ocean). Club rides and the racing scene around here are in high attendance, and it doesn’t hurt that we have fantastic riding weather year around.
Where we are seeing some big growth is in the local Cyclocross scene. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a new cross team around here. The races are more fun, the team kits look cooler, and riders are better looking. Cross races are more of a spectator sport than any other race genre. Screaming, beer spraying everywhere, and loud music. What’s not to love?
The touring/gravel/bike-packing realm is also surging right now. I think when road bikes became quicker and lighter a couple of decades ago, along with the development of carbon frames, people forgot about the long slow miles. Similarly, mountain bikes rendered gravel and fire roads boring, and they were abandoned by cyclists. People are getting back into touring and camping by bike. People are rediscovering discovery. We have hundreds if not thousands of miles of these rough, loose gravel roads around us and most are winding through areas you can’t get to otherwise. It’s a beautiful thing.
Combine cross and bike packing and you get adventure races. Yes, please! The adventure race scene is bigger than ever.
San Francisco seems to have a higher than average modal share for cycling – why do you feel this is and what examples can it set for the rest of the US?
Yes, we do. All of the benefits of riding a bike for transportation align perfectly with the ideals and self-identity of this city. Eco-friendly, healthy, outdoorsy, creating a more pleasant public space. It all fits in with how people see themselves and this city. The tech kids love how hip riding is, the urban planning nerds love the impact riding a bike makes on that whole realm, the artists and architects love the bicycle design. The hippies love the tranquility, the elite can easily have the best there is, and the couriers wear their bikes like skateboards, a statement of independence. Bikes are fuckin’ cool and if you don’t think so than I sure as heck have never met you!
To compliment all these cool bikes Fat Bikes have crept into your stocks. How has this market developed in recent years and what sparked Huckelberry’s interest?
We don’t actually do much in fat bikes. Other areas of the country are dealing with a fat bike infestation, but San Francisco has yet to contract the disease. I say this jokingly, of course, but it is remarkable how quickly other cities like Minneapolis have been overrun.
Fat bikes gained traction (pun intended) in areas with a lot of snow. They are like a bike with snowshoes on it. Now they are proving to be excellent for trail riding. They truly are a confidence builder and a ton of fun.
You appear to be the only US store listed as a Boutique Wheels member – what is this and why are you a member?
Boutique Wheels is a collective of independent bike shops around the world. We are trying to create a directory of exceptional bike shops around the world for those who travel, or are simply interested in finding quality bike shops.
Within the industry we hope to eventually use our collective clout to minimize the advantage large chains have in areas like margin and purchasing options. It doesn’t really seem right that gigantic crappy retail chains get better deals and better support than some of the finer shops in the world.
Boutique Wheels is still in its early stages and we hope to grow the organization. Particularly here in the U.S.
What are the greatest challenges facing the US independent retailer at present and how are you evolving to cope?
Highest up on everyone’s list is probably internet retailers. This is not news. Certain producers are allowing, if not outright facilitating, internet retailers in selling staple items at prices that physical retail locations have no way of competing with.
Our saving grace is the complexity of bicycles. Bicycle components are the largest category we have to compete with. Fortunately, the average customer is going to have a difficult time figuring out which rear derailleur they need, or which bottom bracket. Still we have to decide how to approach a customer who is asking us for the specifics so that they can go home to their computer and order it for half the price that we can sell it to them for and they can often get it much more quickly. Then they need us to help them install and adjust it.
Some retailers give their customers the stink-eye, or charge more to install parts that they did not purchase in-store. We prefer to assist our customers with the same level of service in any scenario and hope they value this service enough to make the purchase through us. At the very least they are going to come back when they need something they cannot purchase online for less.
We also try to carry a compelling selection of apparel and accessories that are not readily available through online channels. Smaller manufacturers, local goods, shop branded apparel.
Many of the bike manufacturers, recognizing the value in brick and mortar shops, do not allow their bikes to be sold online. But this seems to be going to the way side as many smaller manufacturers feel they need to sell online to compete and to broaden their audience beyond the areas where they have a shop that represents their brand, and some of the biggest players in the game are starting online programs. We’ll see how this plays out. At times I personally have a hard time seeing the light. It seems inevitable that more and more manufacturers are going to offering their bikes online. And customers are growing more and more accustomed to purchasing from home with a click of a button.
For now, we seem to be selling plenty of bikes. Luckily for us, bikes need repairs and you can’t buy a tune-up online. . . yet.
What investments have you made in the business to modernise and stay ahead of the curve of consumer demands?
Well, we’ve only been open for 4.5 years. Back to online retail, to compete customers now need their brick and mortar experience to be just that, an experience. Our beautiful layout is impressive and comfortable at the same time. Lighting is a bigger deal than most shops realize. The environment as a whole has to pull people in and make them look forward to coming back. That excitement you get when heading to somewhere you love like a restaurant, or a river. We want people to feel that when they are headed to Huckleberry. It’s a tall order, but that’s the idea.
We invested in locally constructed hickory fixtures, restoring the original oak top-nail flooring from the theatre that originally occupied the building. Whether people focus on these details or not they can feel it.
There are no particle board, slat-wall, or vinyl banners in our store. These things look like sh%#. That’s an opinion call, but I’m making it.
Thoughtful details like our record player and music collection set us apart. Definitely an expense to think about and a time suck having to change records every 20-30 minutes, but it is a psuedo-calculated trade-off. Our original Nintendo, set up for people waiting on repairs and for uninterested significant others, gets us more props than we imagined. Instead of standing in a cold shop and looking pissed while they wait, people are stoked to hang out and play Tetris. The shop Tetris score record is 558,102 by our very own Keven Bricknell.
The brands that you carry seem to cater largely for the enthusiast. What’s your average sale price and do you feel the average customer is spending more per visit than the once were?
Our bike sales are close to half and half, enthusiasts and utilitarian cyclists. Average bike price is just over $1300. This is just a bit higher than previous years.
What’s the Huckleberry Ramble?
The Huckleberry Ramble (#huckleberryramble) is a monthly mixed-terrain ride led by the shop sponsored Vive La Tarte CX team. An awesome local team that has strong riders and big heart. The ride leaves from our shop down-town and usually heads through the city, over The Bridge, and into Marin where we have those miles of fire-roads and trails mentioned previously. It has become a solid event for us. Strong attendance and high-fives all around.
How do you differentiate Huckleberry from your competition – what’s unique about the store?
I have to hand a huge amount of the credit to our staff. We have a great group of people working with us. Really good people. Skilled, kind, helpful people. Any shop will tell you that they strive to have top-notch customer service, but in reality most shops have uninformed employees, or staff that give more than their share of attitude to the folks who walk through their door. There is a strange epidemic of arrogance among bike shop employees and owners. I don’t get it, but it’s a common problem.
The tough part about having this caliber of staff is keeping them. As the owner I really only have two tools in my box. Salary, and the staffs desire to work here. Since no one is getting rich in this industry, we have to get the people with the skills and personality we need to want to work for us. A big part of my job as I see it is to make sure my staff love working here. Sure we offer benefits and bonuses, but at the end of the day, truly great people can get these along with the pay we are able to give them from a number of other places. It really comes down to whether or not they want to work here. When my staff get up in the morning I like to think they look forward to coming in to the shop to work for the day.
Any plans for expansion in the future – be it stores, staff, perhaps importing brands or creating a label yourself as some have done?
We are currently in the process of opening a second location in Berkeley!
We daydream about creating a bike line of our own. That would be awesome, but fabrication is not our bailiwick and until we have some discretionary funding that allows us to be more risky, we are going to stick to what we know. With any model we’ve looked at the numbers don’t yet add up.
We’ve been intrigued by the idea of an all-together different industry. We could open a fishing tackle shop, a surf shop, a brewery, or maybe a cannabis dispensary. All genres we are familiar with. Maybe a crazy combination of all of these. I don’t know. All in all bicycles are our truest passion. If all goes well we will be doing this until we retire, and that is a long way out.
We’ve definitely proven to ourselves that we can do this. We can do small business. So long as we can follow our hearts and do what we love, that will be our direction.
Location: 1073 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
Weekdays 11am – 7pm
Weekends 12pm – 5pm