Survival of the fittest – Omaha Bicycle Company

Survival of the fittest – Omaha Bicycle Company

After being unceremoniously fired from her long-term managerial position at a downtown Omaha, Nebraska, bicycle shop in June 2012, Sarah Johnson was faced with two choices: leave the city she loved, or utilise her extensive knowledge of bicycles – and coffee – and start afresh on her own.

But for Sarah, the choice was largely taken out of her hands. Shocked and stunned by her departure from her previous company, the local community quickly rallied around Sarah, supporting her in the creation of what is probably Omaha’s only coffee and bicycle shop – Omaha Bicycle Company.

“There wasn’t much time to wallow,” says Sarah. “Everything happened so quickly – everyone was so supportive of me and what had happened, and it snowballed from there.”

Sarah, along with long-term partner, Vince Asta – who is well-regarded as the best bicycle mechanic in the city – were dumbfounded with the encouragement and support of not just Omaha’s bike community, but the wider populous.

“I think the community felt wronged by what had happened to me,” says Sarah, who had worked at the previous bicycle shop since it opened in March, 2010, and had built up a loyal clientele.

Enthused by the countenance of her friends, family and the wider community, Sarah quickly got to work on raising enough cash to create her own coffee and bicycle business – two of her passions – using crowd-funding website Indiegogo.

A target of $15,000 was set – and just 40 days later, Sarah was surprised to see that they had exceeded the amount required to begin funding the shop.

“We just kept watching as the dollar amount kept growing – it was incredible. I still can’t believe we actually did it,”says Sarah.

Throughout the fundraising process, Sarah and Vince searched extensively for the perfect location to open the business, and finally settled on Benson, a bohemian district in north Omaha.

“There’s such a strong sense of community in Benson,” says Sarah. “Benson loves Benson – the businesses all support one another, and it attracts good people here.”

After viewing a few available locations in Benson, Sarah was eventually drawn to an under-utilised bra and maternity clothing shop on Maple Street, the main thoroughfare in Benson. Although closed, Sarah and Vince looked through the windows to see a decently-sized, 1500ft² space that was cluttered with clothes, bras, and other items around the peripheral space.

Again, another serendipitous moment came when Sarah felt compelled to call the owner, and ask if they would consider renting, or selling, the space to them.

“It was weird,” says Sarah. “The store was closed, but had a sign with a phone number for customers to call for bra fittings. I called and asked the lady if she had considered renting or selling the space, and she said her and her husband had been talking about selling it the night before.”

Negotiations began, and without the involvement of an estate agent, Sarah was able to acquire the property outright at a much lower price, with the financial assistance of her uncle.

By August 2012, just two months after being fired, Sarah’s vision for a community-driven coffee and bike shop was well under way.

Support continued to flow from unexpected sources in unexpected ways. Friends, family, even strangers, all donated their time, money and efforts into bringing Omaha Bicycle Company to fruition – and virtually the entire property is adorned with items given or produced by the community.

The main floor was a major concern for Sarah and Vince, who needed a solution that would be easy to maintain despite the heavy foot – and bicycle – traffic. The pair decided on a relatively cheap, but effective, solution – oriented strand board (OSB), lacquered in an espresso-hued epoxy.

This ties in with the OSB coffee counter, made by Sarah’s father, which features a slightly lighter, walnut stain, highlighting the deep, textural qualities of the plywood.

For the walls, Sarah and Vince, both fans of autumn, opted for warm, burnt orange and yellow paint. “We love the fall,” says Sarah. “We wanted it to be cosy, without being obnoxious colours – we tried out a few different shades, but settled on the burnt orange and leaf-turning yellow. We think it works well!”

With the design foundation firmly in place, Sarah and Vince continued to seek out inexpensive, but functional, furnishings for the space. Again, the community was especially forthcoming – bestowing the pair with a sofa, discounted chairs, shelving, cup racks – and even a steel frame that Vince would need as a stand on which he could fix bicycles.

Even the espresso machine and assorted coffee-making equipment – usually the most expensive components for a decent coffee shop – were sold to them by a previous local shop, run by a friend, at a super discounted rate.

“When I look around,” says Sarah, “pretty much everything has been donated, or given to us really cheaply. It’s pretty overwhelming that people would do that for us – but it makes me want to keep this as a space for the community. It will evolve as the community wants it to evolve.”

The generosity of others didn’t stop there – local artist Cait Irwin donated her time in creating a unique mural on the east exterior wall of the building, using scaffolding donated by a local resident – while ceramicist and local resident, Katie Schroeder, handcrafted the shop’s coffee cups.

By September, the shop was nearing completion. And again, the random acts of kindness by strangers continued, as Sarah explains: “A guy showed up asking if I was Sarah Johnson,” she says. “I hesitantly said yes – I mean, I had no idea who he was – and he said he would like to donate something to us.

“I told him we were pretty much all set, and that there wasn’t much we needed at that time. But he went out the back, and said “You need a deck out here”. I told him we couldn’t really afford it, and it wasn’t the most important thing on our list of to-dos … but he offered right then and there to build us a deck, for free. It was pretty overwhelming, but he was insistent – he said he had heard good things about me and my advocacy work for cycling in Omaha, and as long as I kept getting people on bikes, he’d like to build us a deck.”

For the shop’s branding, Sarah enlisted local illustrator, graphic designer and artist, Quentin Lueninghoener, to come up with designs. “At first, I wanted it to be super fancy, really creative … but then, working with Quentin, I realised it would be better classier being simplistic, with no pretenses,” says Sarah. “He came up with a nice, timeless italic design.”

Sarah, an advocate of being socially- and environmentally-responsible, stood by these axioms in selecting eco-friendly disposable coffee cups, and in-season coffee from Intelligentsia, a brand which directly trades, and develops its offering, by working alongside its growers.

“By riding our bikes to work every day year round, recycling all that we can, and incentivising others to ride here with discounts, we try to make a good environmental impact on our community,” says Sarah.

And, just four months after abruptly losing her job, Sarah and Vince were finally ready to open Omaha Bicycle Company on Halloween to a rapturous delegation of friends, family and other supporters. Today, the business is thriving, and is testament to the ardour of its gregarious owner, and her supporters.

“Sarah had job offers all over the country, but after the immediate community response – including same-day bar meet up – of ‘Where are you going? Because we are following you’, she decided Omaha needed her most to continue her advocacy of bikes,” says patron, Laura Krasneck.

“I think that’s an important part of the Omaha Bicycle Company story, and for everyone who feels a loyalty to her. She could easily be in Colorado, Washington State or California right now – but she is such a matriarch of our community, and she is invaluable to us all here. That’s why the community rallied around her – she is considerate, feisty and determined, but most of all, she is a genuinely liberal, supportive member of society, and we wanted to keep her!”

And now, with Vince’s workshop and stocked bicycles located to the back of the shop, the front is occupied with ample seating, a bookshelf, a small rack of cyclists’ clothing and other accessories. Coffee is served from 9am to 7pm, and the space is regularly utilised to continue supporting the community – whether it be hosting art exhibitions, musicians performing, or holding bicycle training and mechanic sessions.

“We call this the retail mullet – coffee up front and bicycles in the back. It’s going really well so far, and the fact that we love what we do makes the long hours all worth it,” Sarah concludes.