When San Franciscans who’ve been around for a while think about delivery by bicycle, the first thing that comes to mind might be Kozmo.com. Sometimes cited as the epitome of dot-com boom excess, the company promised one-hour delivery of a variety of goods, free of any delivery charges. That model proved flawed, along with many other dot-com dreams that nevertheless attracted generous venture capital funding.
Today, in the depths of a recession, bicycle delivery in San Francisco is beginning to rise again, this time with an emphasis on sustainability – both environmental and financial.
"We’re not really interested in doing things that aren’t sustainable in our lives," said Brad Butler of Bicycle Coffee Company, which delivers coffee throughout the city and the East Bay by bicycle. "I think bicycling is the most effective and efficient vehicle and the most earth-healthy vehicle that I know of in the city."
Sustainability starts early in the process for Bicycle Coffee Company, which is based in San Francisco and is mostly comprised of brothers, cousins, and close friends. The entire concept started with a trip to Costa Rica: the plan was to start an eco lodge.
"This was our idea of our next endeavor," said Butler. "To go down there and build a project that would consist of land, we would grow all of our own food, and we’d basically be self-sustainable and invite people down from the States, Europe, basically anybody who’d like to come and live this life, a prehistoric type of life."
But the recession intervened, and the eco lodge plan was postponed.
"We just liked these communities and the farms there, and we all liked coffee, and drink coffee, and liked being in this area," explains Matthew McKee, Butler’s cousin. "So we were thinking, well, shoot, what can we do with coffee and with the connections we have in San Francisco, and how can we find a way for us still to all have a business and work together, but go back to San Francisco and take back with us something we’ve learned in our adventures in Panama."
"We made connections with these farmers, and found out that we could have the coffee shipped to a warehouse in Oakland. We … built a coffee roaster in [family friend Mike Kirkman’s] backyard, in Albany … and started roasting coffee and using one of our nightclubs as a café during the daytime to kind of experiment with our roasting coffee and using it as our office to get this other idea, which is delivering bags of beans to offices and to people’s homes by bicycle."
Other than the short trip from the Port of Oakland to Kirkman’s backyard in Albany, the coffee is never transported by automobile. Everyone in the group rides a bicycle and does deliveries. Hills are not a concern.
"I’ll take it tough," said Butler, "and I’ll go east, and then I’ll come back to 7th and Market or wherever our hub is, I’ll load up another 25 pounds and I’ll go west."
Though sustainability is a core tenet of the company’s philosophy, delivering by bike has had economic benefits as well. "We’re also on a tight budget," said McKee. Delivering by bicycle means you don’t have to purchase a delivery truck, Butler points out.
For Jason Benford of De La Paz Coffee Company, based in the Mission, sustainability is great, and the price is right, but the real value of delivering by bicycle is the branding.
"I just wanted to do something different in the city," said Benford. "No one was really delivering coffee, definitely, by bike, and I just wanted to find a way to put us in a different view to the rest of the public eye and to customers for sure."
Like Bicycle Coffee Company, De La Paz delivers throughout the city by bike. They also have customers throughout the Bay Area, and they employ a truck for longer deliveries.
Delivering by bike shows a commitment to the city and its neighborhoods, said Benford. "I think it’s just another way of branding your business, and showing that you’re kind of focusing on the small community, local aspect of it."
Benford also notes that, for deliveries downtown, the bicycle has a huge advantage, versus "having to go down there" by car, "find a parking spot, pay for parking, and so forth."
Benford said he was already a "bike nerd" when he started the company, which takes its name from his wife’s name, Maria de la Paz Garcia Cortes. His background is also in environmental policy, so the sustainability benefits are hardly negligible to him.
For other businesses, ease of delivery is the main reason to deliver by bike. Similar to most Chinese restaurants in Manhattan, Green Garden Restaurant in North Beach makes most of its deliveries by bicycle. An employee said "ease" and "parking" were the primary reasons.
Like Green Garden Restaurant, Pedal Express in Berkeley has been doing bike delivery for a while – since 1994. Only, instead of small food deliveries, they can handle up to 500 pounds by bike.
"Especially given a really short distance, a bike can actually be faster than a car, just given the way that you can kind maneuver around an urban environment, even if you’re carrying something pretty heavy," said Logan Harris, who delivers for Pedal Express.
Though bikes have proven potent for short-range delivery, Pedal Express’ choice of transportation was ultimately an ethical one. "It was really founded philosophically, it wasn’t like, ‘oh, we want to start a delivery company, bicycling will be fast,’" said Harris. "It was kind of like, ‘bicycling is a really ethically-responsible way of getting around,’ and actually a lot of stuff can be carried on bicycle."
In a city where food delivery is oddly scarce, and where most short-run deliveries are made by car, there may be room for a lot more delivery by bicycle. With the Internet and the economic recession slowly eating away at the bicycle courier industry, there is certainly a workforce ready to do the job.
If the recommendations of the city’s Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force are taken to heart, bicycle delivery could also soon be a matter of public policy. The report recommends that the city "explore package delivery by bicycle or other alternative vehicles."
The Bicycle Coffee Company’s Butler said he’s already working on promoting that. "We kind of want to make an impression on persons that you can live your lives without having to use motorized vehicles," he said. Hopefully more restaurants will start getting the message. In the meantime, residents will just have to bike over and pickup food themselves.