Dim Sum, Flying Pigeons, and going Dutch in LA
Posted on 08 July 2009
Editors note: in 2009 we started a popular online magazine called Bespoke which was designed to help people understand the bikes we were importing, the values they represented, and how these values can become (literally) concrete in North America. While Dutch bikes were most often sold to the older "creative class" consumer the rise of "millennial consumers" post-2008 crash firmed up the market. That's when we started importing Linus bikes and gave up on Bespoke because we had nothing to prove anymore, bike culture was working! Here's an interview we had with Joseph from Flying Pigeon LA. Despite having the same vision as Curbside, Joseph started his store with the venerable "Flying Pigeon" bike from China. Distressed with its quality he moved to upscale European bikes and rode the wave of press that we also shared. Then, like us, he moved to brands like Linus only to discover what everyone has discovered post-Linus, that the market is in an awful race to the bottom - as if city bikes are just another form of fast-fashion. Perhaps it's not ironic that the bike industry in North America is based in LA, where taking the lower road is all too easy. Here's to you Joseph, and your quest for the middle road.
- February 2016
Flying Pigeon LA is that new breed of bike store that is getting regular folks onto lycra-free city bikes. Josef, the owner started off with the venerable Flying Pigeon brand from China, and soon realized that many customers wanted something higher quality, like Batavus bikes. Today Josef has customers from all over LA visiting his store to check out what has to be LA's most unique bike store. Here's the interview:
BESPOKE: Where is your shop located? What is the city/neighborhood like? How do you differ from other shops?
J: Flying Pigeon LA is located in the North East Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park on an old commercial thoroughfare called Figueroa Street. The area used to be considered a suburb of Los Angeles, but has since been absorbed into the city. Most of the housing and streets in Highland Park were laid out in boom years in the early 20th century, and the street cars and freight trains that used to ply the area have defined the shape of the public sphere - though hilly, it is an area ideally designed for a car-free life. The street cars are long gone, but a new light rail line, and several 24-hour bus lines, serve the area. The U.S.'s first "freeway", the Arroyo Parkway, slices through the neighborhood.
Highland Park is a working class Mexican-American and Latin American neighborhood in between two hillside communities that are richer and whiter. There is a burgeoning art gallery scene, with priced-out-of-Downtown artists and creative types renting long-vacant commercial store fronts. A local bike repair collective, started in my garage in 2005, rents a store front two doors away from the Flying Pigeon LA shop.
Our shop serves a couple of different markets.
Our working class neighbors do not have money to throw around, but a lot of them depend on bikes and mass transit to get to and from work or school. We have a full-service repair business with very low prices on service and low-end replacement parts. A line of well-built, low priced, beach cruisers get snapped up by this part of our clientele - a 3-speed cruiser with fenders and a basket goes for $249.
The majority of our bike sales are due to our design as a boutique bike shop - we cater to those looking for European style bikes and accessories. We started our business in August of 2008 (at the same time the Beijing Olympics took place) with two containers of China's famous "Flying Pigeon" brand of roadster bicycle. The upright riding position of Flying Pigeon bicycles, full compliment of "accessories" on our stock bikes (i.e. things you'd think would be standard on most bikes, like fenders, a chain guard, racks, etc.), and old-fashioned styling caught the attention of bloggers, journalists, fashionistas, and creative types. We got picked up in a trendy email newsletter called "Daily Candy" and blasted off from there.
Our shop hosts a very popular, and well-written about, "Get Sum Dim Sum Ride". Folks show up at our shop on a Sunday morning (3rd Sunday of the month) at 10 a.m. and we all go on a very slow ride to a restaurant serving dim sum. There are loads of local dim sum places in a 10 mile radius, and we make use of the light rail line located next to our shop to facilitate longer rides to and from the restaurants. I have also been hosting a monthly bicycle tour of art galleries in the neighborhood since April of 2006 called the Spoke(n) Art Ride. The ride now ends at the Bike Oven/Flying Pigeon complex, where we've been lucky enough to have a new show on our walls which stays up for a month and always brings in a good crowd. The Oven parties hard while Flying Pigeon LA sells blinky lights all night long.
BESPOKE: What are the responses to European city bikes in your shop? What are the challenges? How informed are the customers? Who gets it, who doesn't?
J: A typical day in the shop regarding Batavus bikes:
"Jeez, these bikes are pricey", "You can ride it up hills?", "These bikes are CUTE!", "Oh my god, this thing is so/too heavy!"
People that are interested in buying one of our bikes:
"Do you have this bike in (insert one of several impossible or unavailable colors or configurations)?"
"I'm (insert height less than 5'6")"
"I came from (place far away with monied residents and a relatively flat terrain), if you don't sell me this bike, I will be offended. I want it, NOW! Aaaghh!"
"I freakin' love you guys! When did you start doing this?!"
"I am jealous that you have a shop that has these cool bikes."
People that buy our dutch bikes are almost 100% drawn to us by our blog or by direct calls and email to 4th Floor for a local source for dutch bikes. It is very common for someone to show up, ride all the available versions of city bikes we offer (three types of Batavus, one type of Gazelle, two types of stock Flying Pigeon, and two "special edition" Flying Pigeons), look at them longingly and then leave. This same person will mosey into the shop after one or two weeks more of research, and pining, and buy one after consulting their inner self for reasons to indulge in one of life's finer pleasures. We've had a few impulse-type buyers of our Dutch bikes, but that is the exception to the rule. Flying Pigeon bicycles, due to their lower price point and kitschy 3rd-world style (and back story) attract more casual buyers. It is also common for people who have either visited, or lived, in Holland, Denmark, or other pro-bike cities and towns to already be hip to what we're selling. I cannot emphasize this enough - perhaps setting up advertising with study abroad programs to these countries would increase my sales. When students, and others, return from Holland or Denmark, they are often beset with an anxiety to do whatever they can to get onto a real Dutch bike again.
BESPOKE: Has your city seen a growth in cyclists? How about infrastructure like bike lanes? It may be a chicken and egg question, but what creates more cyclists - bike lanes or bikes designed for city riding?
J: LA has perhaps the biggest social bike ride scene in the country right now. It is a normal thing for 300+ people to go on a "small" ride on a weeknight. See: Midnight Ridazz.
Our city government is one step away from taking away bike lanes in its current Bike Master Plan (wah?!). Our mayor is busy sleeping with news reporters, and the department tasked with road design and planning is also the department run by a heavy car-only management culture. There is next to zero support for the massive, and growing, bike culture in LA. Someone needs to call in reinforcements, and large donors who want to see environmental changes, to fund the activist movement in LA. I'm about 60 days away from forming a League of Bike Voters with some friends of mine.
BESPOKE: Have your consumer demographics changed since you started carrying European city bikes. If so, how? What are the challenges in reaching new demographics? How do you reach out?
J: People who buy Flying Pigeons (our bread-and-butter bike at this point) tend to be over 25, but under 40. Mostly female, educated, employed and more likely than not working in a creative field in a junior position.
People who buy our Dutch bikes are typically more wealthy and have travelled or are ex-pats.
We get customers to our shop buying bikes through the following: news coverage of our Dim Sum Rides; blog posts on our site and the attendant search rankings ("dutch bike los angeles" for example); guerilla flyer posting in "hip" parts of town that advertise Flying Pigeon bikes.
BESPOKE: How do you evaluate the political response to the increased interest in city biking? How do you evaluate the response of the North American bicycle industry?
J: The time is ripe in Los Angeles to kick some butt. There is one large fight that must take place for bicycles to win more road space and consideration: the U.S.'s roads are dominated by car-only measurements and performance standards. Without measuring bicycle use on local streets (and measuring its other positive side effects), it is impossible to convince the public and elected officials to support bike projects over increased car travel times and throughput.
The bike industry response to this dilemma has been to sell more fixies (as that is what the kids love), and to come out with stupid imitations of a functioning Dutch bicycle.
BESPOKE: What do you think urbanites in your region want from their city bikes? What is your favorite city bike? Why?
J: I think most urbanites want something psychologically satisfying from their bikes at the point of purchase, but once they understand what a bicycle ride every morning feels like they quickly change their tune. My shop sells an idea of cycling as a cultured, beautiful, activity that civilized people engage in. There are no helmets for sale in the shop. The interior work is not yet completed, but it is supposed to evoke an architects office or gallery for bicycles (even though I make a big chunk of money from repairs, I've pushed that business to the back of the shop).
Whatever the layout of my shop, I think that there are easily two classes of urban dweller I am concerned with: one that wants a beautiful bike but is clueless about what makes a good city bike; and, one that knows exactly what makes a good city bike and only wants to know if I carry it (and how much it will cost).
My favorite city bike? Hmm, that is a hard one. I ride my Azor-made bakfiets 7 days a week, and I can't imagine life without it. For me, the ideal is the bakfiets! For others, I think, perhaps an old mountain bike with fenders, a rack, lights, and integrated lock, swept back handlebars, and platform pedals, and ... wait a minute - this is starting to sound like a Dutch bike! I think that a Batavus Personal Bike Deluxe is a great multi-function city bike for a single person that still needs to take the train or bus in LA. Like many things, though, it really depends what you'll be using the bike for. My mind is in "haul the baby and groceries" mode right now, so it's hard to look at aesthetics too closely.
BESPOKE: Are more people moving downtown in your city or is there still a mass exodus to the suburbs? Is your clientele for city bikes more urban or suburban? What are the demands of each for their city bikes?
J: The 'burbs are dying (for the most part). Moneyed, educated, upper-class folks are moving back to the urban core - kicking the underclasses out to the periphery of the reach of law enforcement and civil society. LA is a crazy place, but it is getting more moneyed and white at its core.
BESPOKE: What is your opinion on bike-share programs, like Paris' Velib? Should governments provide bikes or should bikes be a matter of private ownership?
J: Give us a protected bikeway network, and the bike-share RFP will write itself (RFP = Request For Proposals; an acronym used by our local governments to ask for private sector proposals for a politicians ideas).
BESPOKE: Cars. Are you totally against them or do they have a place? If so, what is their place? How do you feel about initiatives such as Zipcar?
J: Cars obviously have their place: hauling stuff; increasing diabetes rates; killing poor minority children; ruining air quality; and diverting what remains of our wealth into the blackhole of highway repairs car dealers and cement worker unions (do these exist?) demand are necessary for the health of our state.
Zipcar in LA is dead except around universities. It is a reasonable idea, but the cost of car ownership is deeply subsidized, and it is hard for a rental program like Zipcar to make sense in light of the tax breaks and other benefits car owners receive.
BESPOKE: Have you travelled to any cities with a strong bike culture? What was the best memory? How can we bring the romance of different cycling cities to North America?
J: LA has a strong bike culture. My first Santa Monica Critical Mass gave me the same feelings I've had surfing - real euphoria. An open social networking site based around meeting up for bike rides is the point at which LA's scene really took off in its move toward the mainstream. Prior to that, it was 1990's style xerocracy and word of mouth that spread bike culture, especially after a very successful BikeSummer 2005 in LA. To spread this around, I'd spend some time/money designing an LA-ist style blog network for a Midnightridazz.com/bikeboom.com-style social calendar and networking site that has low paid administrators/bloggers in target cities.
BESPOKE: Anything we missed? Get up on the soapbox and preach!
J: Dutch bikes, FTW! They're the ultimate step-down from a Prius, and they're durable goods when the economy turns sour. Oh, and 4th Floor Distribution has been one of the best, friendliest, bike companies I've dealt with. If this is the future of cycling in N. America, it looks very bright indeed.