Wheelhouse Wants to Pedal Santa Barbara toward Greener Lifestyle

Originally published Sept. 29, 2010, in The Daily Sound.

From the moment you lay your eyes on it, Wheelhouse betrays itself as anything but a typical bike shop. There’s the inviting, open patio area, complete with tables and benches. There’s the artwork on the outer wall. There are the display windows, showing bikes against a backdrop of orange stripes that evoke Wheelhouse’s modern, bold logo. And then there are the several bicycles outside the shop that lend to a Willie Wonka-esque feeling — such as the “Frankensteined” super-tall bikes and the red, circular contraption that seats seven.

According to co-founder Erik Wright, it’s called a “ConferenceBike.”

“It’s a seven-seater bike with a pinion steering system, hydraulic front drum brakes, and hydraulic rear disc brakes,” he said. “Everyone pedals, one person steers.”

Outside spectacle aside, when you enter the shop it’s all business. A fun, outdoorsy–and, above all, approachable–business, but a business nonetheless, one with which two young entrepreneurs seek to help Santa Barbara take the next step into environment-friendly transportation.

“We want cycling to get to a point where it permeates every aspect of society,” said Wright, 24. Part of that approach is to not be intimidating to new riders, de-emphasizing the “cyclist versus non-cyclist” attitude, and helping to tailor an effective, alternative transportation approach in line with each customer’s needs.

Wright and partner Evan Minogue, also 24, had the idea for Wheelhouse towards the end of their education at Chapman University in Orange County. Wright had been working in bike shops since he was 14. Minogue was an avid cyclist and triathlete. While classmates were lining up jobs in finance, accounting, and other more-traditional career paths, Wright and Minogue tossed around ideas for the ultimate bike shop. As graduation grew closer, their hypothetical store took its first steps into becoming a reality.

“We figured that we could either dedicate our time to this, or pretend like we never really talked about it,” said Wright. They formed Wheelhouse LLC in 2008 and set about looking for a site. Originally, the pair wanted to open their dream bike shop in Carpinteria, where Minogue had spent summers in his youth. It would be a “destination shop,” theoretically drawing people from Santa Barbara and beyond to Carpinteria. But Carpinteria’s bike scene, according to Wright, was already well serviced.

“We said, ‘if we’re looking to have Santa Barbara dollars spent in our store, we may as well go to Santa Barbara,’” Wright recalls.

After a four-month search, the pair found and leased its current location at 528 Anacapa St., which locals may recall as the former site of Weber’s Bread/Day Old Bread Store. The 3,200-square-foot facility was a relative bargain for lease, one of the advantages in of undertaking an entrepreneurial venture in a down economy. They opened Wheelhouse in May 2009.

Almost a year and a half in, the business seems to be headed in the right direction. This year Wheelhouse, says Wright, has posted at least 10% gains each month (year over year), and June clocked in at a 60% increase from the same month in 2009.

“We’ve had a very warm welcome from the community,” said Minogue, which  he credits for the pair’s “great experience” in running Wheelhouse thus far.

But success hasn’t come without its challenges. Wright said the most important thing they’ve learned about the retail business is the difference the payment terms of a certain product can make. The difference between having to pay for products in 30, 60, or 90 days of receipt, for example, can be significant. Successfully turning inventory faster than the payment kicks in essentially means you are using “other people’s financing” to make your money, he explained.

Minogue added that spreading the word about the nature of the shop is a challenge.

“The number 1 struggle we’ve had is getting the point across that the bicycles we sell are meant not only for recreation but for a lifestyle,” said Minogue. “A lot of people don’t understand our bikes, simply thinking of them as expensive toys. Our bikes—and shop—are designed so that the average Joes can get out of the car ride anywhere they need to.”

Price points run the gamut, but the price of entry is relatively affordable at about $220. The cap is about $1,700-$1,800, but Wheelhouse also does special orders. The shop also carried a few models of cargo bikes, which are pricier. For the most part, according to Wright, most of what the shop carries is “sub-$750.”

“The goal is to provide our customer base with a variety of options that aren’t necessarily high-end mountain or high-end road bikes, but just practical, utility-style bicycles,” said Wright. “We’ve found that not only are more people gravitating towards such bikes, but more people would have liked to have that option with their previous bike purchase, because they’d ended up buying something and using it in a way that it wasn’t necessarily meant for.”

In addition to the retail shop, Wheelhouse also does bike repairs and has a rental fleet. But Wright and Minogue aren’t stopping there. The team is in the planning stages to convert some of the storage space in the back of the shop into more retail space—specifically to showcase a range of electric bicycles. Wright believes this is the next best step to attain the shop’s goal of becoming one of the main sources of alternative transportation in Central Coast.

“As we move down the road of climate change and eco-friendliness and becoming healthier—and realizing that single-occupancy vehicles aren’t the way to go—there are a number of people who will want to get out of their cars and will ride their bike every day. We applaud those people—we are those people—and we’ll continue to serve them,” said Wright. “But we also recognize that there’s a segment that isn’t willing to give up cars for a bicycle. The bridge is the electric bike.”

While Wheelhouse hasn’t yet made its final decision regarding a brand for the electric bikes, the philosophy of providing a range of price points and features to service individual needs remains. Of course, a bike with an electric motor component is inherently more costly. Wright says that the shop will likely carry three models, one around $1,000, one around $2,000-$2,500, and one northward of $3,000.

“If an ‘e-bike’ helps a person get on a bike that otherwise couldn’t, then more power to them,” said Minogue. “That’s one more person riding a bike . . . and out of a car.”

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